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Stacy, 2015

“Stacy, finish your food!” her dad exclaims in Cantonese, the dominant tongue in this North Side Chicago household of Asian diaspora elders and first-generation American offspring.

Stacy’s story begins far from Chicago, with a scared, bedraggled 16-year-old boy huddled on a fishing boat filled with refugees fleeing the Vietnam War. Staying with his family meant certain conscription into the military, so he determined to escape and later send for his relatives. As a teen with no resources or means, he pretended he belonged to another family on the boat, escaping notice for his inability to pay the smugglers’ exorbitant fee.

Photo by Anastasia Palagutina on Unsplash

For a week, he subsisted in terribly cramped quarters on meager rations – a single water bottle and a small roll of crackers. On the day the seaborne journey concluded, someone from the receiving party distributed 24 packs of ramen to the boat filled with refugees. One individual promptly and greedily consumed ten of the packs – raw – by himself. This sudden influx of calories and sodium shocked his digestive system, accustomed to starvation and dehydration, into a violent response. He “didn’t make it,” in the matter-of-fact parlance of this young boy’s memories.

But the 16 year-old did. And he took a lifetime of insights and trauma from that miserable, fear-filled week at sea.

After a year or so in a Taiwanese refugee camp, some U.S. soldiers sponsored his immigration to America, and he made his way to Glenbrook South High School, in Chicago’s northern suburbs. In the 60’s, Glenbrook (along with most U.S. Schools) lacked anything resembling an ESL (“English as a second-language”) program or services, so he was thrown right into a standard schedule, although he knew little to no English.

Working nights at IHOP and living in a cramped basement apartment with other displaced immigrants, he eked out a meager existence and somehow managed to finish high school. Ultimately, his drive pushed him to acquire sufficient English language mastery to provide decent employment options.

Now, that 16-year-old boy is a middle-aged man who’s been employed by United Airlines for over 30 years. Married to a woman he met through mutual friends early on in his time with United, through mutual friends while on vacation in China. His two children were both born and raised in Chicago, and now attend highly-selective higher education institutions in the Eastern U.S., paid for largely through their each earning prestigious, Posse Foundation scholarships to their respective colleges. To Stacy, 2015 alumna of Von Steuben H.S. and GLP, and a rising senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he’s simply “Dad.”

Until tasked with exploring her family’s immigrant history by a school assignment, Stacy knew simply that her father, always a man of few words, expected her to finish the food provided for her. The word provided carries weight in Stacy’s experience, because the cost of this provision is so readily evident. Long before taking time to share lengthy backstories and experiences, Stacy’s parents instilled values of responsibility, self-sacrifice, and education in her and her younger sister, Diana.

Their mother forewent her own educational ambitions when she came to the States and had her two daughters. Stacy’s mother spent these early years of parenting trying desperately to comprehend a land and a language that were completely unknown to her. Without any family or connections in the U.S., she turned from her plans to attend Truman College for English as a Second Language (ESL) coursework. Alone with two young children in a tiny apartment just off Argyle street, she got through the 90’s the way much of Chicago did – by becoming a huge Bulls fan. Her hopes and confidence soared along with Michael Jordan, but she still to this day experiences the ramifications of having limited education and speaking accent-laden English.

As Stacy watched her parents’ sacrifices so that she and Diana could look forward to greater opportunities, she developed her own deeply held sense of responsibility. Never a confident test-taker, Stacy imagines that an upbringing in China’s educational system with its intense, high-stakes testing would have severely limited her own options. Instead, she thrived with opportunities to explore, grow, and develop her own interests in problem-solving, building, and applying scientific principles.

Von Steuben Metro Science Center High School was the place that Stacy’s knack for STEM – and engineering in particular – became undeniably evident. Science Fair projects saw Stacy exploring the energy potential of various forms of biodiesel production, integrating her passions for environmental sustainability, chemical processes, and engineering design. One trusted educator greeted Stacy regularly at 6 a.m. to open the school’s doors, providing time for Stacy to delve deeper into whatever project she was exploring at the moment, and sharing his own expertise when she had questions.

Joining the Global Leaders Program before her junior year provided a key supplement to Stacy’s positive high school experience. Projects within GLP further solidified the connection between real-world issues and STEM skills. She credits one particular project on water filtration and equitable access to resources   for expanding her understanding of what types of problems she could address through application of scientific principles and processes.

Throughout her undergraduate studies at Trinity, Stacy has continued to seek out experiential learning opportunities within the sciences, and also in extracurricular pursuits. Wrestling with uncertainty about whether she was “Asian enough” to feel truly welcomed in the college’s Asian Student Association pushed her to better understand different elements of her own identity. Forays with her Trinity classmates into Hartford’s investment-starved urban core left her peers a bit “shook.,” which contrasted markedly with how much the environment reminded Stacy of familiar settings back home in Chicago. Studying abroad in Trinidad and experiencing a culture that prioritized rest and social connection forced her to examine the role stress has played in her own experiences and education. Entering senior year of college, Stacy has resolved to spend much less time and energy “stressed and pressed,” as her younger sister often teasingly accuses her of looking. All throughout, she’s continued designing innovative solutions and devices to address needs in our world today. Her rootedness in STEM’s applicability to the problems that matter most to her has been crucial to her persistence in classrooms and other contexts where she finds her own background and experiences – as a young woman, as a first generation college student, as a first generation American, and more – drastically underrepresented.

Now, as she prepares to embark on her final year of undergrad, Stacy understands better than ever who she is and what ways she’s uniquely equipped to solve problems that she observes. She also knows why it matters so much to her father that she finish her food at the dinner table, and she appreciates how communicating regularly with her parents and continuing to push herself academically helps honor their own sacrifices. Stacy talks often of being the oldest in her family, and how important it is that she saves her parents from having to worry about her in any way. As she walks across the stage in spring 2019 as the first college graduate in her family, they’ll all be thinking how far they are indeed from a certain little fishing boat puttering away with its stern turned to the Vietnam War.


Story Listening

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The Bronx taught me how to get to know people and learn their stories. Hot-button issues gained faces and names. My student, Jamie, showed me the vital importance of DACA and the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform. An immigrant from Honduras who entered the United States when she was less than 5 years old, Jackie applied herself in every way throughout her schooling. Born into poverty, she’d done precisely what she thought would lead to her own American Dream. But, near the start of her senior year, Jamie came to me with deflated aspirations and barely-contained tears after learning how her immigration status could limit her college options. DACA was not quite two years old at the time, and the DREAM.US scholarship was newly created. The intimate, life-changing impact of this national policy and supporting initiatives became crystal clear, and galvanized me to advocate for immigrant rights.

Stories make strategies and policies personal. The experiences and circumstances of real people serve to humanize contentious political discourse and give weight to larger trends. Such personalized distillation captures readers and listeners’ imaginations and connects with them at a level deeper than ideology or talking points. I’m passionate about crafting similar narratives and learning experiences, sharing these opportunities for growth and understanding, and contributing to lasting change in our world. Throughout my career, I’ve sought out opportunities to equip people to understand and develop their own talents and identities. Transitioning to work focused on storytelling and narrative development allows me to celebrate accounts of such empowerment at scale.

I’ve gotten to build upon my experience as a teacher and college counselor in my time with the Illinois Tech Global Leaders Program (“GLP”). My greatest joy in guiding students through the college admissions process is helping them see their unique path, passions, and experiences, and figure out how to authentically communicate that narrative to resonate with their audience. GLP empowers high school students to lead and serve their communities, and our programming focuses on developing agency, identity, and problem-solving capabilities.

Interwoven with my time in education is complimentary experience and increasing responsibility in digital and written communications. I’ve managed social media accounts for a public figure and written for online outlets about social media analytics, strategy, and Millennial-focused commentary on current events. Throughout my tenure with GLP, I directed the program’s communications’ efforts, including email marketing, blog, print materials, social media accounts, and running the application and recruitment process for prospective students. I also guided GLP through a complete rebrand and developed a structured roll-out strategy. We refined our communications strategy to align more directly with our mission to support and empower students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM. A key part of that was to better engaging and amplifying our Scholars’ own voices through creating Recruitment Ambassador and Communications Fellows initiatives, directly equipping and involving our current students in the process of sharing their perspectives and experiences.

Growing up in a homogeneous, suburban community in west Little Rock, AR, I remember noticing a stark dissonance between the experiences of my peers and myself and the world I read about or saw portrayed on the news and in films. As I learned about globalization and the diversification of society, my overwhelmingly white, evangelical, middle-class, patriarchal community began to look more and more surreal — and detrimentally disconnected from the world-at-large. I wanted out.

As I left — first for school out-of-state, then to teach in NYC — I encountered lots of well-intentioned individuals with backgrounds and yearnings parallel to my own. I also saw many of these people expecting — and often receiving — roles of leadership and influence. With the best of motives, the people speaking loudest about issues of racism, poverty, education access, criminal justice reform, etc., remained the people personally least affected by them.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Nothing in my experience in public education led me to believe I had all the right answers or had found some previously-unknown panacea. Far from it. I internalized that the wisest approach was to ask questions, posture myself as a learner, and listen to people discuss their own communities, backgrounds, and experiences. Listening forces me to hear and process uncomfortable truths about myself and my privileged position in society, and challenges me to develop a much more nuanced picture of this “America” that I know and love and call home. Embracing such dissonance is painful, messy, and incredibly beneficial. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve learned, and how they’ve given me appreciation for the communities they represent.

As I’ve focused on learning from students’ stories and individual backgrounds, I’ve become firmly convinced in the importance of empowering people to create meaningful change in their communities. Local and national news expend breathless hours on violence in Chicago and decry amorphous evils like mass incarceration, unfunded mental health resources, and homelessness. But Hannah isn’t faceless; she’s sitting in the chair directly across from me, interviewing for admittance to the program that I administer. When I ask her about the inspiration for her essay — proposing solutions to gun violence in Chicago — she says she lost a sibling in a shooting recently. And a cousin the year before that. And two friends in middle school. And a neighbor before that. I fight back tears and grasp for a follow-up question, but Hannah is unphased. For Hannah, this is normal. This is her childhood.

Before meeting Jamie, Hannah, and hundreds of other young people with stories like theirs, I cared about issues like discrimination, immigration, and violence in a theoretical or hypothetical sense. I hear and read the myopic, exclusionary stereotyping spouted by loved ones and friends I grew up with, and always wish they knew the faces and stories that I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Encountering people with perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences disparate from my own continually increases my capacity to empathize. Through time teaching high school special education, college counseling, running an out-of-school college access program, and live in diverse urban areas, my students and others have taught me so much. I approach storytelling with a similar emphasis on listening, posturing myself so I can learn from diverse communities and constituencies to better share their unique wisdom and narratives.

Questions exhort; they give others the encouragement to speak. Questions involve students in the acquisition of knowledge and construction of meaning, instead of lectures that mistakenly elevate overly-homogenous ‘experts’. Listening is empowering, because it humbly affirms the worth and weight of a speaker’s words. I’ll only be truly successful as a storyteller if I’m first and foremost a story-listener. My voice is an amplifier; I look forward to handing others the mic.

Students’ names were changed to respect their privacy.



To My Red State Family and Friends

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Growing up in Arkansas and attending university in Oklahoma, I benefitted from many privileges. Most of these privileges only became fully evident to me after moving elsewhere, after meeting many people from backgrounds vastly different than my own. This weekend, I became aware of another privilege I once had, but now must ask you to exercise on my behalf.

The first week with Trump in the White House included lots of actions I personally disagree with, but his Friday edict banning refugees and restricting Muslim immigration is heinous beyond political leanings or personal convictions. It violates truths we all hold to be self-evident, and endangers rights we all hold dear. Don’t relax, just because your (or my) particular brand of religious expression or country of origin wasn’t deemed a threat by this executive order.

I don’t know what the news where you live or the articles in your Newsfeed might tell you, but you are no safer than you were on Thursday, or a week ago. Trump is using fear as fuel for directives that have one ultimate, ill-concealed goal: to increase and solidify his power, and the power of those in his camp. Right now, your representatives are intoxicated — intoxicated by power and political relevance they’ve only dreamt of for 8+ years. Perhaps feelings of unease are rumbling in some of their stomachs, but power’s inebriation is an even better mask for pain than it is a mood enhancer.

Like me, many of you are white, middle class, and profess faith in Christ. You may have voted as I did, or you may have voted differently. I didn’t send you any impassioned pleas to vote like me, and I have no interest in discussing your vote now. But, regardless of your vote, you have a voice and a privilege that I now lack––because you, almost certainly, have a Republican congressperson. At least one national representative from your district is feeling the effects of newfound legislative power, and their stupor has them forgetting the Constitution they so recently used as a rallying cry. Instead, they’re affirming security and safety––not for all, but for those whom powerful people have deemed most deserving of protection. I understand the emotional and practical appeal of these promises (especially if you and your family are among those whose protection is prioritized), but I would argue they’re not Constitutional––and they’re absolutely not Christian.

Right now, your congresspersons and their staffs think they’re representing your beliefs. Their silence speaks volumes––they remain silent, because they think this is what you want from them. They think they’re protecting you and affirming your beliefs. They think their voting base is secure, and that you’re either happy with or indifferent to the decisions of the new administration.

Many of you are the ones who taught me about Jesus, who helped reveal portions of His character to me. I’ve prayed with you that God would bring His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, that He’d set captives free. You taught me the value of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I learned from you that Jesus chose to lay down His power (and His life) for others––for all of us, all those too weak and flawed to save themselves. I’ve grown up with you, and you’ve played a role in making me who I am today. You are part of the reason I abhor Trump’s edicts. Your influence caused me to love Muslims and immigrants and refugees and prisoners and everyone else. I don’t consider anyone in the preceding list my enemy, but you taught me I’m supposed to love and pray for them as well. You led me to believe that “if God is for us, then who can stand against us?” But yet, our nation is gripped by fear, and our leaders are legislating and ordering based on it. And many, many of these leaders derive their power and conviction from the support––both real and perceived––of Christians like you.

So please, use your voice. Protesters fill the streets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. This weekend, they inundated airports in these cities, and other major international entry points to the United States. But their voice and impact isn’t sufficient. Our newly-inaugurated President and his current political party believe their power and opinions are secure. New Yorkers’ outrage won’t change this. Me calling my Democratic representatives in Congress won’t change this. But you––you can change this. If the base starts to crumble, the structure––however formidable––cannot stand.


Cantina 1838 | Harlem, NYC

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Cantina 1838, new taqueria in the heart of Harlem, boasts a killer happy hour.

New York City is a rather expensive place to live—often brutally so. Usually, when it comes to matters of time and money, you feel squarely at odds with the City, locked in a losing battle. Almost invariably, the City ‘wins’. Opportunities to not get screwed are rare; times you get the best of the City, even more so.

Striding down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard a few nights ago, my wife and I, along with a close friend, had the uncommon experience of scoring a point against the City. We entered the recently-opened Cantina restaurant minutes before seven that evening—just before the end of Happy Hour.

Happy hour itself is a wonderful invention, especially if you’ve worked as a teacher and have been trained to drink before sundown. But it’s even better to happen upon one just before it ends. You get to eat at something resembling dinnertime, and your first drink or appetizer is magically cheaper.

Cantina’s happy hour stands up to any in the City. Tacos are $2 – choose from fish, beef, chicken and seared tuna – and their house margaritas cost only $4. Indeed, we would like a couple of each.

The chef comes from the original Dos Toros (think craft Chipotle – better, and cheaper). Each additional location after the Union Square birthplace has given the team a little more space to play with. The new WV outpost is practically palatial compared to the original spot, which comfortably seats one family of six or four strapping NYU freshmen – but not both. Cantina provides the chef with far more room to play with.  

Alongside the margaritas quickly came complimentary chips and salsa and a platter of the fish tacos we’d ordered (the seared tuna taco was unavailable the night we visited).  At $2 per, we expected a few small bites hidden inside a softened tortilla chip, so we were ecstatic to find we’d been served legitimate eats instead. Hearty portions of lightly-fried fish hid under a pile of guacamole, veggies, and a savory sauce (a little heavy on the sauce for my wife’s liking). On a return visit, we confirmed the guacamole pile was just as good on its own, as an appetizer alongside the salsa.

Our other favorite happy hour spot, Mermaid Inn Uptown, serves a tasty yet infinitesimal fish taco. Usually I end up taking at least a small bite out of my thumb as well. Covered in their Old Bay tartar sauce and delicate baby cilantro sprigs, even I taste halfway decent. All that to say – Cantina puts the portions to shame and packs a similarly flavorful punch. Mermaid Inn still wins on food variety and a more refined ambiance, but drinks and a delicious meal for $16? And right at home in Harlem? Shoot.

We were having such a good time (and for less than the cost of delivery), that we decided to stay post-happy hour specials and try some shrimp tacos as well. Quite good too, but the fish wins in that comparison. The dinner menu has more options, but manages to restrict sampling more than happy hour.

Different types of tacos cannot be ordered individually, but come in twos (“appetizer”) or threes (“entrée”, includes sides). Prices run from $8-13 for two, with your basic tacos on the low end and lobster providing the higher price-point. Entrée orders start at $12 and include staple side options like refried beans and cilantro rice. There is a “platter” for $28, which features eight tacos chosen from the regular menu. Going to a taco-first establishment is a great excuse to try a wealth of different flavors at relatively low cost, so bring some friends and sample away.




Review: Sylvia’s (Harlem, NYC)

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New Yorkers love a good line. If a dozen New Yorkers will queue up, slowing their frenetic pace long enough to wait for something, then it must be worth waiting for. And the more people in line, the better. Or so the popular wisdom goes.


We stand in line to enter grocery stores and clothing sales, to spend exorbitant amounts on music event tickets, and again to use those same tickets. Last weekend, I pre-bought a ticket online, which afforded me the privilege of waiting in line for a ferry to Governor’s Island, only to meet another line to enter my event (the Jazz Age Lawn Party).


Once inside, I stood in a line to turn my cash into tickets for event vendors, then waited in four separate lines to finally get two lunches, a drink and a popcorn. All that behind us, we left the enclosure and sat nearby. Line – and cost – free.


Think this constitutes ridiculous behavior? Take a number: complaints line is forming over there…


As the nearest line-waiting expert, I’d like to recommend one line in NYC for your avoidance. Sylvia’s Soul Food is a Harlem institution, short on pretense and long on stellar comfort food. The only time you’ll see a long line snaking from the door is for Sunday brunch. Brunch and Sylvia’s sounds like a quintessential New York experience. Maybe it once was. But the chartered buses and up-sold midday menu should clue you in: tourist trap.


Nothing will scatter a line of New Yorkers faster than those words. At best, we’ll be sheepishly glued to our smartphones, pretending to look for a cab, or apologizing: “yeah, I have friends in town. Their 1st time – doing all the ‘touristy’ things.”


Should you write the place off entirely? Tour bus destinations usually become instant, permanent anathema to the local crowd, but Sylvia’s manages to toe the line between site-to-be-seen and cultural transcendence. The food actually does warrant a wait. However, visit on a weekday morning, leave the lines behind, and enjoy the same brunch fare (at a lower cost) for your effort. Most brunch offerings do not continue beyond the weekend, but Sylvia’s serves up the same down home goodness, seven days a week.


As a pescetarian, I heartily recommend the fried catfish & eggs with cheese grits. Or you can get the more popular chicken. Technically, you can order these items grilled instead of fried, but we won’t hold that against Sylvia (rest her soul). Get a waffle too – it’s the second half of that killer Harlem soul food combo with the fried chicken. If Miles Davis ordered it, it’s good enough for you as well. You’re not here to diet, after all.


If you’re worried about packing on pounds, work it off shopping at Marshall’s afterwards or go see a show at the Apollo. Either way, you’ll get more than enough exertion. Standing in line, obviously.



Standards Deviation

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Yesterday, a class of my students repeating Earth Science took the January Regents in our subject. The Regents are summative state tests, and high school graduation in NY state is contingent upon passage of at least five of these exams (1 math, 1 english, 1 science, and Global and US Histories). If past performance gives any indication, then at least 2-3 of my students will score between 62-64 on this January regents. A scaled-score of 65 indicates passing and attains Regents credit. Anything between a 0 and 64 is effectively (except in a few select circumstances for students with disabilities) the same.

Upon entering this test, with one exception, none of my students had yet passed a science Regents. Each of those students are missing the one science exam credit they need to obtain a NYS Regents diploma (the statewide designation for high school graduation). They’re also 2 science exam credits away from an Advanced Regents diploma, a distinction earned for passing more exams, that helps them demonstrate ‘college-readiness’ to CUNY and SUNY system universities.

When my students’ tests arrive today at another school, they will join thousands of other identical exams for assembly line-style grading. Completely divorced from the locality and individuals where they originated, the tests will have to speak entirely for themselves. The teachers grading my students’ Regents have never heard them speak, deciphered their handwriting, worked with them after school or discussed science concepts with them. They’ve never seen these students work their hardest, or persevere through difficulties. They don’t know what something sounds like when my students put it in their own words. All they have to work from are a stack of inanimate tests. Some pass, others fail. And this is fair, because personal knowledge will not sully their grading or mar interpretative integrity. Heaven forbid a teacher looks twice through a 6th-year senior’s exam, just to check if maybe, just maybe, amidst the blur of hundreds or thousands of identically-structure testing forms, s/he made a mistake in grading. To see if maybe, just maybe s/he missed one point that the student had earned, making the difference between a 64 and a 65. Between credit and failure. Graduation and retention (or dropping out). Or maybe, just maybe, that junior applying early-admission to a competitive college should have had an 85 instead of an 84 (the magical distinction between “mastery” and simply getting by). But the teachers grading can only work from what appears on the test in front of them.

Before working as a teacher, I would have wholeheartedly subscribed to this outsourcing system, believing that it offered validity and fairness. Now I see the lacking wisdom and potential destructiveness of such an approach. Without personal investment and some measure of interpretive freedom, a 64 is a 64, an 84 an 84; and that’s that. What essential bit of knowledge does a 65 demonstrate that the student scoring a 64 must be lacking?

If I hadn’t worked with her for an entire semester, how would I know how much Gio had grown? Or how well Isaiah understood Earth Science and applied it to the world around him? Or how Shea, taking the class for the 4th time, helped communicate his knowledge to others during activities? What’s more meaningful, the number on a test booklet at the end of Rating Day, or the understanding a teacher has of his or her students, combined with the data of a summative exam? Which determinant seems more relevant, more fair? A more holistic, less standardized mode of assessment certainly offers less efficiency, but this does not equate to injustice or unfairness.

Surely, not every student I sent to take the Earth Science Regents deserve to pass. Some have shown little to no understanding of science concepts or behaviors befitting a student. Here I speak about those who will leave that test no closer to graduation, simply by merit of a point or two. Granted, I see where you could argue alternatively that students should be prepared to get 70s or 80s, and then the arbitrary line-in-the-sand has its power revoked. I echo the rigorous sentiment behind that stance and view it aspirationally. But, if that’s your argument, I invite you to join me in reforming the entirety of America’s educational system, ensuring educational equity across-the-board, and tutoring students after or before school 4 times a week. Your assistance is welcome. While we’re at it, let’s eradicate poverty too. How’s Tuesday for you?  

It’s ludicrous, really, what we have done to education in the name of reform to focus systemic efforts on “accountability”. Teachers will be held accountable, therefore teachers will teach better, therefore students will learn better. This supposedly “students-first” agenda really only reaches students as a third-order end. Certainly, unscrupulous educators, schools and departments exist (case-in-point, Atlanta, circa 2011). But current policies effectively elevate accountability–and the identification of the aforementioned bad apples–above the interests of the students themselves. Schools do not exist to be held accountable. They are held accountable to something–to the preparation and education of students. If we aim for accountability and trust that students will reap trickle-down benefits, we guarantee that we will fail to effectively educate our children. At best, we will reach students in spite of our concentration on district, school and teacher accountability– not because of it.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Would you give this article a 64 or a 65? Did I pass? Comment or Tweet @jlukechitwood.