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Rising Fawn resident Tyler Blackmon returns to Yale this year as a sophomore. He chose it over Harvard because he liked the campus better.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

When Tyler Blackmon was a little boy, he wanted to be the first astronaut on Mars. Instead, he’s landed somewhere many Dade County residents would find just as exotic: Yale.

 “Yale is the opposite end of the spectrum from Dade County,” said Blackmon. “Yale just has so much diversity, people from all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all countries of the world – it’s just such a different world from living in Dade County, where people are pretty homogenous.”

Homogenous? The Sentinel pointed out, with dignity, that in Dade we have both Methodists and Baptists.  Blackmon smiled with as much toleration for Old Person humor as could be expected of his 19 years, and bit contemplatively into his chicken sandwich.

Blackmon, down from Yale for the summer, and up for the weekend from his Atlanta internship, was speaking between bites at a lunch interview the Sentinel had meant to arrange for a year. The rising sophomore, son of Todd and Jill Blackmon of Rising Fawn, had graduated from high school last spring amid, shall we say, a certain éclat. 

Chosen for the prestigious and highly competitive Presidential Scholars program, young Blackmon spent a week in Washington D.C. after his 2012 graduation before winning a further round of scholastic competition to go on and study abroad. 

For Presidential Scholars, the first level of consideration is based purely on test results, Blackmon explained, and his SAT score – 1600, for Pete’s sake – had put him comfortably in the running. Then students vie with others in their home states through essays and other competitions. “They get one boy and one girl from every state, and then a few dozen at large from around the country,” said Blackmon. “So I was the boy from Georgia.”

A total of 146 seriously smart students from all over the United States converged on the capital after graduation last summer. Those then competed to go on to the next phase: China. Blackmon was among the 12 frighteningly brainy kids selected to go all the way. 

What followed was two weeks and three cities of total immersion in Chinese culture and Chinese language. Blackmon studied all things Chinese during the day and at night stayed with Chinese host families.

Then it was home again home again, where a guy had to make up his mind which hallowed institution of higher learning to grace with his attendance. “It was sort of down to Harvard or Yale at the end, and I just liked the people at Yale better, liked the programs better,” said Blackmon. 

Besides, he added, he’d fallen in love with the campus when he’d popped up there for an advanced placement American government place during high school.

Not bad for a boy from Rising Fawn, huh? 

Blackmon grew up in Dade and started his scholastic career in county schools, but his abilities soon drew educators’ attention. “When I was in fourth grade, my teachers kind of pushed my parents for me to apply to go to private school in Chattanooga,” he said. “So in fifth grade, with the help of some teachers in Dade, I was able to get a scholarship to Baylor.”

Thus, even as many 2013 graduates venture out from Dade this fall to explore the wider world for the first time, Blackmon has been doing it in easy stages since he was 11, beginning with Chattanooga and going steadily further afield from there. The summer of 2011, for example, he spent in Australia. “I was constantly finding all these differences between the United States and Australia,” he said. “But then I went to China.”

Blackmon found China a land of contradictions. “They’re just growing so rapidly that you have extreme poverty right up against extreme wealth, which is ironic because they claim to be a communist country and they’re always pushing for equality,” he said.

Another growth problem in China is environmental, said Blackmon: The industrial boom makes for such horrific pollution that he didn’t see the sun the whole time he was there. 

But the abiding problem of the Chinese, he said, is that there are too many of them, an overriding reality that makes for everything from neurotically competitive high school students vying for limited university places to mass carnage during natural disasters. “You hear about these tsunamis that come into China and hundreds of people die,” he said. “It’s because they’re only able to fit people into these huge high-rises, just hundreds and hundreds of apartment blocks in these high rises because that’s the only place they can fit people.”

Blackmon explained that the China program was sponsored by the National Committee on U.S./China Relations in the hope of building friendships between future leaders of the two countries. “I think there’s this constant fear that the United States and China are eventually going to wind up like the United States and Russia were during the Cold War,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to wind up as two of the biggest rivals in world history or we’re going to wind up two of the biggest allies in world history.”

Blackmon is still studying Chinese at Yale but, though he changes his mind every week or so, he’s pretty sure diplomacy is not where he’s headed. “My passion lies more in domestic policy,” he said.

As in – you’ve probably guessed it by now; the kid is what we call in Dade eat up with opinions – politics. “I’m doing political science and economics in college,” said Blackmon. “I’m going to law school. If that leads to elective politics, then great; if not, I’m leaving my options open – but absolutely I will be involved in politics for the rest of my life.”

Why would such a bright young man throw away a perfectly good shot at MIT, NASA and possibly Mars to plunge into an arena that makes prizefighting look as peaceful and prim as knitting? It happened in 2008, says Blackmon, when he was watching television coverage of the presidential primaries and heard Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debating about health care reform.

“Light bulbs went off that changing policy about health care can save lives,” said Blackmon. “As much as someone inventing a cure for polio can save lives, changing the way our system is run can save people’s lives.”

Tyler Blackmon had known from early boyhood he wanted to use his powers to do good in the world. Now he had discovered how, and from that moment forward his life has been politics. At Baylor he ran the school newspaper, giving the administration seven kinds of hell on everything from anti-bullying policy to expulsion; in New Haven he’s eyeball-deep in a heated mayoral race; and readers may have noticed his signature on letters in this newspaper as, even from afar, he leaps into Dade’s doings from time to time because this is, after all, home. “I’ve never seen any fight that’s too small,” he said.

Nor, of course, any too large. Blackmon’s internship is at Georgia Equality, where he works toward making state law fairer – “Right now, the state can fire somebody for being gay” – he may next work for Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign for the Senate, and his long-term goal is to build up the progressive movement in Georgia.

“Republicans have done such a good job of fear-mongering that they’ve managed to convince Southerners that their values are in line with the Republican Party,” said Blackmon. “I don’t think they are. I don’t think Southerners are bedfellows with big business and big banks.”

Bringing a metaphorical patch of blue back to a state as red as Georgia may seem a big job, but don’t expect young Blackmon to give up any time soon. He’s one brainy kid and as for determination? Remember, plan A was Mars.

 


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