New Canaan High School senior Rajon Mitchell recalls his freshman-year self as a “much quieter, shyer version” of the young man he is today.
An ABC House of New Canaan student from a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y., Mitchell had distinguished himself as a student in the city by leaning into his instincts as an introvert, keeping to himself and going his own way.
“While that’s nice and that brought me success before, in my time prior to coming to New Canaan, having the ability and having the skills to connect with others, make relationships, it’s just so much better,” a smiling Mitchell said on a recent afternoon standing outside Town Hall, where he’s interning during his final month as an NCHS student in the Inland Wetlands Department. “And being able to have a team to go further and quicker.”
They’re life lessons that Mitchell—an organizer for an ABC fundraising car wash to be held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at Saxe Middle School—will take to Northeastern University in Boston this fall.
Bright, authentic, naturally curious and engaging, Mitchell in four years as a New Canaan student not only has come into his own as a person, according to those who have tracked his progress here, but also intellectually, feeding a genuine thirst for new ideas and experiences.
He was “very quiet, painfully so” as an underclassman, according to Arri Weeks, an English teacher at the high school who serves as an academic advisor to ABC House.
“But you could see that he was really devoted to his academics. That was his focus. He lived and breathed it, just wanted to do the work. But I think what is unique about Rajon is along the way he found that he is an intellectual, a thinker and so it became less about getting work done and more about thinking. He wanted to talk about ideas. When he talks to you, he really wants to talk to you. He has something to say and he’s interested in what you have to say. He is unique as a young man in that way.”
And in his ambitions, too.
Mitchell said he wants to be a “social entrepreneur.”
“What I want to do is to go back to my home community in the Bronx and revitalize that community, bring it up, teach it, give it a sense of realizing how important it is to create a sense of unity in a community among the people in there,” he told NewCanaanite.com.
“Because what I have noticed in New Canaan is that when the residents of the town want to get something done, they organize and they get to action and things get done, and that’s very endearing. Whenever the moms want something done in terms of something for their children’s sports practices, it gets done because they organize. Whenever people want to see some type of movement in terms of how parking is or the way how some type of political action is, for example with Grace Farms, things get talked about and things get discussed because they organize, and you don’t really get to see that in inner cities, urban communities or all these communities that have fallen by the wayside.”
Asked specifically what he sees as a pressing need in his home neighborhood—near the Bronx Zoo and Pelham Parkway—Mitchell said, “definitely the education system.”
“The one thing is that there is a huge sense of great inflation in the public school system in New York,” he said. “I came from my middle school for example, but while it was on the upturn during my 7th– and 8th-grade years, it ended up having the government involve itself in terms of improving the school, which in the way that the government saw fit to improve it wasn’t the best move, because they put another school within the school. That is their way of saying, ‘Alright, you need to get your things done,’ which ultimately, it ends up with the new school having better resources than the original school. And that just leads to tension and conflict between the students in each school and the parents of the students in each school, and all this could have been avoided because there was a meeting to decide whether or not this new school would be placed in the old school. However, not enough parents showed up, and once the move was made by the government and it was too late, parents started complaining—and you can’t really complain once the decision has been made.”
Those are decidedly adult observations that speak to a facility for big-picture thinking and an instinct for taking deep responsibility—qualities that some of those who know Mitchell well may trace to the teen’s background in the Bronx.
Michael Curran, a former president of the ABC program who recalls when Mitchell first arrived in New Canaan, said that in many ways the teen has grown and developed in these four years as any other adolescent might.
“Over the course of four years, their personalities develop they physically change a lot and their interests change, so in some respects I think Rajon is like any other student who came in as a freshman and now is about to graduate,” Curran said. “But there is more to him than that.”
An only child for many years, Mitchell found himself a big brother to two young siblings just as he entered his teenage years, and took on responsibilities at home as his parents, and perhaps especially his mother, relied on him to help raise the younger kids, Curran said.
ABC students live in a group house on Locust Avenue through the academic year, staying with a “host family” on weekends, and go back to their families and homes on long weekends and summers.
For Mitchell, Curran said, that involved responsibilities that likely go beyond what many teens in New Canaan take on.
“There are a lot of things in his life that are different from a typical kid in New Canaan that caused or forced him to grow up quicker than he would have otherwise,” Curran said. “I think thing most notable thing to me about Rajon is not necessarily the shift in terms of his shyness—though I think that’s noticeable—but I think it’s the curiosity.”
Curran said that he was both surprised and impressed by Mitchell when ABC was recruiting students for his class.
“He said that he didn’t go out much in his neighborhood because many times, the streets are not safe,” Curran recalled.
In New Canaan, ABC students are required to participate in electives and extra-curricular activities as part of the program, and Curran said he watched Mitchell try various sports and activities—finally locking onto track and wrestling, though one of the only sports he had really known coming out of the Bronx was basketball.
“This year, he’s one of the co-captains” of the wrestling team, Curran said—a testament to Mitchell’s ability to commit.
“He has really taken to the idea that you have to think about your future and plan for things, and you really can make things happen if you do that,” Curran said.
That connection took hold for Mitchell here in town.
Asked what his first impressions of New Canaan were, Mitchells aid: “I came here and I saw this place as being very open.”
“The place was beautiful, it was basically how it is right now: Flowers in bloom, nice warm weather,” he said. “And I thought ‘wow, open environment,’ the high schoolers were just excited thinking ‘Oh wow, new ABC boy, welcome to our community.’ Everyone in the ABC house, so welcoming and just warm-hearted. And I come to New Canaan and my initial hunches, my initial impressions of New Canaan were accurate. And those initial impressions, since I go off my gut impressions—and usually my gut impressions are 90 to 95 percent correct, and I would like to say that New Canaan has fallen into that 95 percent because that whole sense of openness and being able to explore and find your true passions and just understanding what you want for yourself, it’s here, it’s present.”
He added: “And people are willing to help you, you see it through, once they know that you’re passionate and you’re willing to work with them and be polite, and just be a decent human being, which is where I developed my whole sense and whole knowledge of being better with connections and being better with being a people person and connecting with people.”
He tried his hand at football and with the SLOBs, though Mitchell said he truly found a good fit for him through the Youth Group program at Congregational Church.
“I interacted with the other students there because the whole point of the Youth Group at the Congregational Church is to have the students at the high school, that they would never think would be able to interact with each other just because of grades, or friend groups, or cliques, be able to interact with each other because they’re at this informal session,” he said. “It’s 90 minutes, it’s each Sunday night, and you just get to interact with each other and enjoy each other’s presence. And you’ll see true friendships, lifelong friendships, and it’s just a beautiful thing to watch.”
Mitchell’s own blossoming as an ABC student in New Canaan has been equally beautiful for many.
Curran recalled that it was difficult in the summer immediately following Mitchell’s freshman year to set him on what may have been a positive track in line with his development as an ABC student—for example, on an Outward Bound or similar summer program—because he was needed back home to help with his family.
“Last summer he went to Morocco as part of an international program,” Curran recalled. “He won a full scholarship to do this. So here is a kid where his mom [was concerned about letting] him go away for one or two weeks in the summer for a college academic program, and eventually he got a month in Morocco. I think that really changed a lot of his thinking in who he was and what he wanted to do. One thing he liked in Morocco was the different architecture and different ways of living. He did a home stay and lived in a city there and saw a bunch of the country and styles of things, and he I think that really turned him on. That may have fed his interest in architecture or urban planning.”
Living at a distance from his native Bronx has given Mitchell a new perspective on it, he said.
“With most people, living in inner cities, at times, they may believe that their issues are the result of people not giving in more to support them when in reality, it’s a whole scheme of things,” he said.
“It’s an entire circle of things that may have gone wrong in the past. The reason why they’re wrong is that, New York City itself is having the issues that it’s having at the moment, is because they had huge issues in terms of fiscal budgets and socioeconomic issues back in the ‘70s with the crises that were going on following the civil rights movement and following the death of Martin Luther King and all those other prominent figures in the Civil Rights movement, and so as a result of that, crime went up, and with crime going up, property values went down, and with that happening, New York faced a fiscal crisis, and a lot of things, socioeconomically, were on a downturn in New York during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and as a result of that, things are going South. However, things have been on the upturn, and I want to facilitate things being on that upturn because knowing what our history is, the history of that area, and other areas in that sense that face such a downturn in those decades, will help us be able to avoid facing such downturns in such areas, and other areas in our nation.”