WASHINGTON — To see the official White House photograph is to see an American success story: Romario Accime, an 18-year-old student from Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, posing with Michelle Obama, poised and confident, a precocious young man not only on the way up, but already there.
But there’s another story here you can’t see. This one is about poverty and chance, about the ease with which accomplished young people on an upward trajectory can be derailed by life’s circumstances. It’s also about how a sense of family and stability can be found in the most unlikely places — in Accime’s case, in a public school that wouldn’t let him sink, and a rarefied museum.
Accime is a member of the Teen Arts Council at the Institute of Contemporary Arts/Boston, and he went to Washington last month to represent the ICA, which received a national honor for teen programming. He attended a ceremony in the White House East Room, along with ICA director Jill Medvedow, and was congratulated and hugged by Obama.
From first handshake on, Accime is cheerful and soft-spoken, with a natural charisma, fashionable glasses, and braces on his teeth. Also, an impressive resume: He is student senate president at Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park, where he’s a senior. He has a paid position on the ICA’s Teen Arts Council, where he helps develop programs that connect teens to contemporary art.
He attended Harvard’s Crimson Summer Academy, a three-year precollege program for about 30 low-income, high-achieving students. He has plans to be a fashion designer and has this to say about himself on the ICA’s Teen Arts Council Web page:
“I am all about FASHION! I live for fashion and one day wish to be the most respected person in the fashion industry. Remember my name, you will see it all over the world!’’
After the White House visit, he became something of a local hero. The photo of him with Michelle Obama was projected onto a screen during his school’s community meeting. He was honored at an ICA celebration. Meeting her was “the greatest experience of my life,’’ he said. He thanked the ICA for being a “pivotal force’’ in his life, helping him overcome his “life’s difficulties.’’
Accime lives with his mother, Simone Medilien — he barely knows his father — and has an older brother, Daneley. If there’s one thing Accime knows a lot about, it’s moving. He calculates that he’s moved eight times since he started school, living with relatives or strangers in spare rooms or basements in New Jersey, Dorchester, Dedham, Randolph, Braintree, and Hyde Park. “All I do know is my mom would yell [at] me ‘We are moving,’’ and we moved.’’
When Accime was in fourth grade, they moved to Boston, where Medilien, a stout, energetic woman with a wide smile, has found work as a baby-sitter and home health care aide. She’s also a Pentecostal missionary, returning to Haiti, her native land, twice a year to minister to poor children.
Accime first went to a private Catholic school in Dorchester. But it was too expensive, so his mother said she prayed for a new school where she didn’t have to pay tuition and where students wore uniforms so she wouldn’t have to buy clothes.
One day when she was shopping at a Mattapan grocery store, a woman approached her. She told Medilien about a new public charter school called Boston Prep with a mission to prepare all students for success in college.
Admitted by lottery, Accime started at Boston Prep in the sixth grade. The school emphasizes ethics and academics; to Medilien “this was like a gift sent from heaven,’’ said Accime, during an interview at school where he was wearing the uniform — yellow button-down shirt, khaki pants.
Teachers describe him as a strong student, sensitive, and friendly and a “real Boston prep zealot,’’ said Scott McCue, founder and former head of the school.
“Romario is a huge part of the reason I came to Boston Prep,’’ said Twink Williams Burns, the school’s director of college counseling. “Driven, talented, magnetic. He has the ability to reach out to every kind of person and meet them where they’re at.’’
Accime said this is no accident. “In each home [we live in], families always have different personalities. My job was to learn how to adapt to them, to know what I can and cannot say. I was always being cautious for my mother. . . . Worrying about me being a nuisance was something I definitely didn’t want her to have to do.’’
She had plenty to worry about already, like trying to find them a stable home. (Medilien said she earns $1,200 a month, and has been on waiting lists for public housing in Boston, Milton, and Concord.) At one point, Accime moved back to New Jersey to live with an aunt while his mother stayed in Boston; for nine months, she slept on a church floor in Mattapan.
She wrote to senators Ted Kennedy and Scott Brown for help getting off the public housing waiting lists and was directed back to the various housing authorities: “They told me in order for me to get a home, I had to be living in a shelter,’’ she said. “I don’t want a shelter for my son.’’
She has even contacted the White House, now that her son has been there. “I believe my son was [blessed to] receive an award at the White House,’’ Medilien wrote in a letter to the president, enclosing a copy of the photograph of Accime with Michelle Obama. “It’s an opportunity for me to let you know our living situation.’’
For Accime, art is a refuge. He sketches constantly, especially women’s clothing — evening gowns, faux fur coats, blouses. “Through my clothes I want women to be proud,’’ he said. The women he envisions are “strong, determined women’’ like his mother, he said.
His mother admits she is frustrated by his pursuit. “In my country,’’ she says, “men don’t do that thing [fashion design]. I don’t like it.’’
Accime, however, remains focused. “Once I get rich, I’ll buy her a house. I always incorporate her into my success.’’
Things started to turn for Accime during his sophomore year, starting with his acceptance into the Harvard summer academy. He lived on campus, went on field trips, received mentoring, got a free laptop and a stipend.
“They paid us to learn,’’ he said, still marveling. “I was with a bunch of kids eager to expand their knowledge. We got to walk around campus with a bunch of college students. I thought I was on top of the world.’’
Meanwhile, a Boston Prep alum encouraged him to apply to the ICA’s Teen Arts Council.
“I look at the ICA as being a place where you are not judged or looked at as if you do not belong,’’ he said. “There have been times where I walk alone through the galleries and take in everything, and there would be times where I am stopped in my tracks and all I can do is stare.’’
But all the moves and unsettled life took its toll. His mother found a place in Randolph, but without a car he had no way to get to school. He moved to Braintree to live with his brother, but the commute to school took two subways and two buses. His grades tanked and he had to withdraw from the Harvard academy.
“It’s rare and painful to not be able to invite a student to continue for all three years,’’ said program director Maxine Rodburg, who described Accime as “warm and lovely and funny and smart, with the kind of wisdom that comes from intelligence and hard knocks. . . . We were as unhappy as Romario was.’’
Accime didn’t know where to turn. “I’d see my mother disappointed, see how hurt she was. She’d say ‘What’s going on? These grades aren’t going to help us get out of this.’ ’’
Boston Prep rescued him again. He got help, he stayed late to do extra work, and his grades crept up. He took a course at the School of Fashion Design on Newbury Street.
“He is creative, talented, a visionary,’’ said Elaina Barisano who taught the class. “He was amazingly mature for his age.’’
Accime is beginning the college application process. On his list are top fashion schools such as Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology.
“I’ll work my butt off and make sure I’m the next great designer,’’ he says.
He knows it’s a reach. He can’t sew well, and feels unschooled in “the language of the fashion industry — terms like “tote bag and camisole — what is that?’’ he said. He’d love to take another fashion prep course, but the one he wants costs $150.
Time is running out, and he doesn’t want to compromise by applying to a less prestigious school. “I don’t look for steps in between. I look at Parsons. I aim that high. It would just prolong everything if I had to wait.’’
Plus, there is a certain woman he’d like to design for who lives at the White House. “In my eyes,’’ he said, “she is an icon.’’