Considering College, Ohio City Teen Asks Mom, 'Why Bother?'
As Caillou Allen entered his junior year in high school, a serious thought crept into his mind:
I don't want to go to college.
The reason was simple: He didn't see the point. At his school, John Hay Cleveland Early College High School in University Circle, he was having some success as an entrepreneur, selling snacks to his classmates at school and his self-published novel at local art fairs and to friends. What did he need with college, he thought, when he could make money on his own?
That's when his mother stepped in.
Silk Allen, a stylist and fashion blogger, graduated from Central State University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio. She'd always spoken of the experience as transformational: four years that had shown her a path not only to a career, but to a newfound self-confidence. Caillou's first memory is of attending her commencement ceremony in 2007, when he was four years old.
The two of them spent much of his junior year of high school debating the pros and cons of higher education. Here, they tell the story of their tussle over academics — and explain where they've ended up today.
Mother & Son
Silk Allen: I attended Central State University. I wasn’t even aware that Ohio had HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities. I learned so much about myself from going to a place where people looked like me but were different from me.
I had to really step outside of my shell in college, like "Okay, you gonna sit in this room for the next four years or are you gonna just have to you know shake it all off and go up to people and talk?"
By the time I was done, I was the editor of the school paper. I had numerous internships with record labels. I did everything that I wanted to do, and I could see where I wanted to go and what I wanted to pursue. I finally got my degree in ‘07.
Silk Allen's college graduation photograph. [Courtesy Silk Allen]
Caillou Allen: In 2007, I was four. I remember going to my mother's graduation. It was my first memory. It was in a big old stadium. And I saw my mom down on that football field. My mother was down there. She waved up. And I saw that.
My first time delving into business, I published a book.
The book is called The Adventures of Frosty the Dragon. The price is $15. I published it in March of 2018.
We walked on and on until we got to a huge bridge. It had light blue spires on top of its towers with icy patterns and some dragons were crossing it from other paths.
-from The Adventures of Frosty the Dragon
Caillou Allen self-published his book, The Adventures of Frosty the Dragon, in 2018. [Courtesy Silk Allen]
Getting money is like a dopamine hit. That feeling was, "I've done this myself. I can do it. What else can I do."
And so my junior year, I was seeing what I could sell. I was selling stuff like snacks, cookies and crackers. And right now I’m thinking about selling soap. That could be a niche.
I care what I'm selling. I want to make sure whatever I'm selling ain't detrimental. But it's more about the business side. I just like to sell stuff.
And then I started getting this idea that maybe I could start some business instead of going to college.
Silk: Here's the situation, though. I've always said, like, "You don't have to go to school. You don't have to do that." But [you] have to have a plan in place. Like, you’re not just gonna graduate from high school and then what? Just gonna get a job? Like, that’s fine but what else will you do? You have to have a plan.
Caillou: It was like the outline of a plan.
Silk: He was gonna sell soap.
Caillou: Oh, mom!
Silk: He was about to make a living selling soap and chips in 2019 and I'm telling him, like "— No. It's not — no."
Caillou: Plus I had a book. I had assets, Ma. Come on, now. You think I just —
Silk: Yes, you had a book but you didn’t have a plan to sell your book. He just sees "Oh, I have this, come buy it." And I had to tell him, "That's not how that works."
Caillou: 'Cause I was reading that the college degree is so watered down that everybody got it now. "Oh we got 50 applicants here, they all have a B.A. in whatever. And we can only hire four of these people." And that was what was getting to me. Especially for business. Because why would I go to school for business if I can just go into business for myself now?
Silk: You’re worried about other people getting hired... We’re not worried about nobody else. We’re worried about you getting into school and you getting whatever knowledge you need to do what you want to do. You know, there’s a lot of talk about reparations right now being given to black people. And I’m like, "We cannot sit around and wait for that. This is how you get that, by taking advantage of all the things you’re eligible for, which you will be eligible for a lot because you’re young, smart and black. Take yours."
"We're not worried about anyone else. We're worried about you getting what you need to do what you want to do." [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
The Turning Point
Silk: But I know my son, too, and my son has to have a lot of information. And he has to feel it. So what happened was, over the summer he got selected to be a part of this group [where they took] 50 kids from different schools in Cleveland on a retreat to Baldwin Wallace University. And they basically just ran everything down to them. And so when he came back he had so much more information and he was ready to go.
Caillou: Now I’m interested in law as well. I think the law is very interesting because it's just like this set rules and you can learn them all, you know, like numbers. You know, you got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. And so I researched and I was interested. It's something I'm interested in that makes a lot of money and so I said, "Yeah." And then I discovered I had to go to college.
Silk: And that’s what I figured. I figured okay, if he goes — just trying to get him on these college trips and visit these campuses — he’ll be able to figure it out for himself while he’s there.
One of the duo's favorite pasttimes is picking out movies together at their local library in Ohio City. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
Caillou: So, I'll see what college is about. I wonder what it's like to live alone. I wonder what it's like to be able to deal with myself, just living. And then I’ll be, like, 17. So I’ll be, like, I'm young still I'm still living but I'm living by myself.
Silk: I, for one, I am so glad that we are here. And when I say here, not physically. Like, just here having this conversation. I am just very proud of my son. I'm just really really excited for his future. And you know, whatever he wants to do, I am in full confidence that he'll be successful.
Caillou: Well, yeah, I feel like what you've done is set me up for success. You know you might think, "Oh, he copping." But no, no I'm being serious.
Silk: No, I feel you, man.
Caillou: 'Cause it be hard to listen to you sometimes. You’ll be saying stuff…
They both laugh.
Silk: But it starts to make sense as you get older doesn’t it? And it's still gonna take some trial error because we're not done. We're not done. Just because you go off to college, just because you turn 18, just because you turn 21, I'm telling you, you'll be 76 and I'll still be calling you, "Did you wash your hands? And did you do this and did you do that?" Because a mother's job is never ever done.
Caillou: Even when I’m old? Come on now.
Silk: Even when you’re old, 'cause we forget.
As this story airs in September 2019, Caillou Allen is a senior in high school and heading out on a four-day college tour with some classmates. He plans to apply to a several schools, including Howard University, this fall.
This story is part of ideastream's ongoing collaboration with the Cleveland Public Library to present a "snapshot" of Cleveland and Clevelanders in 2019.
Special thanks to Michael Webster at CPL's Carnegie West Branch for conducting the initial interview for this story.