Arshay Cooper Presents on Crew’s Potential for Uniting People

Arshay Cooper, author of “A Most Beautiful Thing”—the novel that inspired the award-winning documentary adaptation—visited campus on Friday, April 29. After visiting Andover’s crew and baseball practices, Cooper delivered an hour-long presentation on his book and his experiences being on the nation’s first all-Black high school rowing team.

According to “A Most Beautiful Thing,” Cooper invited local police officers from his neighborhood to row with him and his friends. While his friends were at first hesitant to the idea, they tried it out after Cooper persuaded them, and he told them it would be a good teaching opportunity.

“As a teacher, you will always forget some of your students; as a student, you never forget your teacher. And we have an opportunity to be a teacher. I want to bring them out to the same water, where we didn’t get along at first. I want to make sure it was cops that work in our neighborhood, on our blocks… and then we took them to the water… and I started talking about the lessons that I shared with some of you guys about what I’ve learned from rowing,” said Cooper.

When the police officers agreed to join him in rowing, Cooper took the opportunity to share his experiences with the law enforcement system. He explained that, despite always abiding by rules set in place for him, he still has been persecuted by officers.

“I knew that it required uncomfortable and courageous conversations to get the results that we want to see. And I was really honest when we [talked]. I said, you know, I’ve never been suspended from school, never even broken a plate, never got in trouble—never even talked back to my mom. And I still had my face pressed down on a police car numerous times,” said Cooper.

As they rowed, Cooper and his friends also listened to the stories from the police officers. From those conversations, alleged Cooper, came a greater understanding of all sides surrounding law enforcement in America.

“[One of the cops] said that when George Floyd was murdered, he had a bunch of bricks thrown at me, during protests. [He said,] ‘and I realized that day, I can take my uniform off, but they can’t take their Black skin off.’ And that was powerful. It was all about this simple invitation… but we got together, and we had those conversations. We made it work,” said Cooper.

Aleisha Roberts ’22, one of four Andover crew captains, introduced Cooper with a brief statement on her experience in crew as a Black woman. Later, in an interview with The Phillipian, she explained why crew is unique in the way that it can unite people and how division and discomfort can be noticeable when rowing.

“I know I always tell the girls in my boat, like, even if you can’t pull your hardest, just make sure you’re pulling together. Because at the end of the day, it is so much faster with eight people who maybe aren’t as strong rowing together, then it would be with really strong people who aren’t rowing together. Any sort of tension or unhappiness in the boat shows, so it’s really important that the team is connected with each other and caring,” said Roberts.

Varsity Crew member Eleanor Tong ’24 felt that Cooper’s presentation was very insightful. Tong found the presentation important, especially in conversations surrounding access to resources.

“I thought it was really interesting how [Cooper] talk[ed] about the racism and classism within crew as a sport, and how to get it to be more diverse. I think it’s also important about how he talks about equity and expecting teams with so much less to perform at the same level as higher income areas, and how that really speaks on classism in America,” said Tong.

Nahila Hutchinson ’24, another member of crew, added that Cooper’s presentation encouraged them to see coaches as instructors not only in a physical sense, but also in terms of morality. As someone is new to the sport, Hutchinson felt that those are the biggest lessons they can gain.

“Arshay’s speech helped me realize that sports are about so much more than skill or technique. Rather, the biggest lessons we learn are about discipline, togetherness, trust, and love. Even as someone that enjoys my sport only recreationally, I often find myself applying these lessons from my coaches and teammates to my everyday life,” said Hutchinson.