Crossing the Line

by Kareem Rosser, 2021

Excellent book! Learned about it from the Library’s monthly Biographies email. As I was reading their description of the book, about a young black man who learned to play polo in inner-city Philadelphia, and came to CSU for college, I realized I had read his scholarship application! I made sure he got a scholarship. I was so excited to read his book!

Kareem Rosser grew up on Viola Street in the Bottom, a terrible slum in west Philadelphia. His mother and grandmother were ‘users.’ His mother had her first child at age 14. Kareem is one of six. One day his older brothers (David, age 12; and Bee, age 10) were riding bikes, exploring Fairmount Park, and they discovered the barn and the horses of the Work to Ride stables. Lezlie Hiner introduced them to horses and polo, and they brought Kareem along. Soon Kareem was learning to ride and care for the horses. It saved his life, literally. They had to maintain a C average in order to work and ride every day after school and all day on weekends. His older brothers were not able to escape the pull of the Bottom and abandoned the program, became dealers and wound up in prison. But with Lezlie’s care, Kareem grew up and got out. He ended up winning the National Polo Championship in High School, and then came to Colorado State University and won the National Collegiate Polo Championship.

The book details all of his hopes and fears (lots of fears) and tragedies and how he overcame them. He dedicates the book to victims of gun violence, including his older brother David, and his best friend, Mecca Harris. He graduated from CSU with a degree in Economics. He is now living in Philadelphia and working as a financial analyst and helping the fundraising arm of Work to Ride. Wonderful book! This needs to be a movie!

Here are some quotes from the book:

Parents in our neighborhood had two choices when it came to raising their kids. They could try to make them safe by keeping them locked up, by taking them by the hand and walking them to school, and doing their best to steer them away from the drugs and sex and guns and violence that were right out there on street for anyone to see. They could whisk them home at the end of the day and lock their doors and pull their curtains and not even talk about what was out there. Or they could do what our mother did, which was to take us everywhere and let us see everything up close. We saw the drug dealers and the prostitutes and the guns and the makeshift altars of wooden crosses and scattered flowers on the street that meant someone had been killed there. We saw the knock-down, drag-out fights and people smoking crack and men drinking in the empty lots. We saw women selling themselves for drug money and men hustling on he corners. From the time we were babies, our mom would throw open our door and we’d come out trailing after her into the streets like ducklings in a row, and she’d introduce us to it all, letting us talk to these people and watch it all up close and hoping that by making us see how she dealt with it–showing us the danger–we would turn hard enough and smart enough to know what to do when we inevitably had to face all that stuff alone. …

She had other ways to escape. She was a functional addict, coke and weed and booze, for as long as I could remember. She’d bring strangers and friends into the house at night and we’d wake up to the thick skunky smell of last night’s weed in the air, empty crack vials strewn on the kitchen table, tipped-over beer bottles dripping their last dregs onto the floor.

She didn’t use all the time, but I hated it when she did. I could always tell when she’d been partying because even if she was physically there, she was absent in almost every other way, sitting on the couch, her eyes dull and her face slack. …

Viola Street wasn’t all bad. There was a sense of everyone being in it together. …Most doors were open and everyone knew each other’s business and when something went wrong, they helped when they could, because we were all in the same barely floating boat, and if we didn’t have each other, we didn’t have anyone. …

Even in a place as full of need and violence as our neighborhood was, even with our mom getting beat up, even with her and my grandmother using, our fathers nothing more than drunk strangers we passed on the street every once in a while, we were still children, and there was still joy.

But we never forgot that we were in a dangerous place. We saw people get beaten up by the cops, buying and selling on the street corners, shot down where they were standing. We lost people, over and over, uncles and cousins and friends. Dying young was just the way things were.

…that next to NASCAR, polo has the highest fatality rate of any sport. …

Before Work to Ride, I didn’t know all that, either. In fact, I didn’t even know that polo existed.

As far as I was concerned, polo was basically invented when I found the barn. I didn’t know about all the trappings and ceremony and reputation around it. I had no idea that, in the U.S., polo was a sport pretty much reserved for very wealthy, very privileged white people. The first time I saw polo, it wasn’t from the bleachers of an exclusive club, it was being played by a bunch of scrawny-ass Black kids galloping some secondhand horses around a soccer field, mallets in hand, chasing a dirty ball. …

…We’d never had the chance to learn to swim, so Bee and I would plant ourselves in the shallow end, splashing and yelling and making a ruckus, hoping to distract from the fact that we didn’t dare go in above our belly buttons. …

It felt like a tragedy, but it didn’t happen in a particularly dramatic way. It happened slowly. Over the course of a year. First it was all three of us–me, Bee, and Kareema, playing hooky from school together. We’d go out the door with our mom in the morning and then peel off when she turned the corner for work, and double back to the house. That quickly became a bad habit. There was one month that winter when we skipped twenty-four days, total. Eventually Lezlie got wind of this and brought down the hammer. She took away the horses and the games. We couldn’t play, we couldn’t ride, we were banned from anything fun. For Kareema and me, those kinds of consequences were still enough to set us back on track, but for Bee, it just made him stubborn and resentful. Just like David, Bee didn’t want to be told what to do or be punished when he did wrong.

Then he started skipping at the barn. He’d miss practice, he’d miss games, and suddenly we were losers again. …

After that, it was a quick slide into the streets. Bee started hanging out with friends who weren’t from the barn, he was hustling and making some money, he came back home less and less, he was pulled in by the cops a couple of times, and one day–a day I can’t even remember, it was so ordinary–he walked out of the barn for the last time and never came back again.

There is no doubt that Bee broke Lezlie’s heart. She loved him like she loved all of us–probably even more–and it must have been horrible to see a kid with such talent and promise slip back into the streets. But Lezlie never thought of herself as a savior. She knew that for every kid like Bee — a kid so talented she could pull strings to get him sent to live on a fancy polo farm, a kid who got invited into mansions and exclusive clubs–there were hundreds more who just needed the barn for someplace warm and safe to go after school and on the weekends. … Lezlie had studied psychology and had been around horses her whole life. She inherently understood that horses could ease trauma, and that pretty much every kid from our neighborhood had been traumatized. …

I wanted to talk to Bee, to ask him why he had done it, to beg him to come back and follow the barn rules, but it wasn’t like when he left for Texas. We were older now, for one thing, and Bee was just doing what almost all the boys in our neighborhood grew up to do. He was learning a new game. He was following a different set of rules. He was taking the place on the street that had always been there waiting for him.

…After Bee left, my panic attacks ramped up worse than ever. I began spending my nights not only imagining how I would die, but also how Bee would go, too. If Bee wasn’t home, and he wasn’t at the barn, that meant that I needed to worry about him. That meant that he wasn’t safe.

The only time I could push my feelings away was when I was playing. … I got better at polo as I got worse at surviving, and I think Lezlie saw that. …

There were times when I wondered if I was doomed to follow David and Bee into the streets. I didn’t want to. The family had always joked about me being too scared for the life, and they weren’t wrong. But when I thought about Bee, who’d had so much more talent, potential, and opportunity than me and still couldn’t resist the pull, I didn’t really see how I was supposed to be the one who finally stood firm.

My father had been sitting in an empty lot, drinking his days away, for as long as I could remember. I passed him nearly every day, and he never looked up from his bottle, never bothered to say a word to me. I imagine he must have wanted more than that at some point. I imagine that he must have had dreams or plans But when you live where we lived, it was just easier to give in. We were given a path, a road, a map to follow; but it didn’t lead us out of The Bottom, it led us to the street corner or to the empty lot or to prison or an early grave. We were surrounded by death and violence, pumped full of despair until we turned numb, taught we were expendable. It was no wonder that David was in prison, that Mecca was killed, that Bee got swallowed back into the streets. …

[at Valley Forge Military School] I was miserable and homesick and exhausted and freaked out, but, as I finally drifted off to sleep, I realized something: maybe I was crying, maybe I was angry and upset and deeply regretful of the choices I had made, maybe I was physically exhausted–but I wasn’t really scared. Despite the darkness, there was no panic attack. This school sucked. I hated it. I hated every single thing about it…I knew what the worst was–I had lived among the worst possible things every single day of my life…

…I was not a good student. I was the kind of kid who someone might ask what my favorite subject was and I’d answer, “Recess,” and not even really mean that because even recess sucked at my school as far as I was concerned.

The schools in my neighborhood were overcrowded, run down, understaffed, and dangerous.

…Practically all the students had access to guns, and the older we got, the more likely it became that a schoolyard grudge could turn into something much more serious. School shootings were common, but they were not the kind of school shooting that got national attention. The media never felt the need to breathlessly talk about every little Black kid who was killed. I can’t count how many times I watched kids duck out at the end of the day and flat-out run home because they knew there was every chance that one of their schoolmates was going to meet them on the playground with a .45….

…By the time I got to Valley Forge and started the eighth grade, I was at maybe a fourth-or fifth-grade level academically…

…That first year, it was all about getting through. In Philly, we have a saying: “Stayin’ out the way.” You say it when someone asks how you’re doing. It’s more honest than saying, “I’m good,” or, “I’m fine.” It means, you’ve got your head down and you’re making it through whatever is currently being thrown at you. You’re not causing a fuss. That’s what I tried to do at VF. Stay out the way. Things were better after I graduated out of being a plebe, but I was still picked on and bullied constantly. Mrs. Greene tutored me and that helped a lot, but I was still always behind in all my subjects. …

There were some legacy kids who were at Valley Forge because it was a family tradition, and there were some kids who were real smart or talented and were there on academic or sport scholarships like me, but the remaining population of the campus was rich fuckups and near juvenile delinquents.

…Word got around fast about the fight, and things started to change for me after that. I never had another kid bully me again, and for years after, whenever Heinz would start to lose his shit at anyone else, his friends would laugh and say, “You better chill out before we go get Rosseer, Man!”

I also started doing better academically because if I was in class studying with Mrs. Greene, that meant I wasn’t outside in the snow marching with a fifty-pound rifle; it was the first time in my life that I actively chose to be in a classroom. …

It’s not that they broke me, it’s more like I just realized that I didn’t need to make everything so damned hard. My habit of standing back and watching started to pay off. I learned to code-switch. I became a chameleon. I could get along with anyone. I charmed the staff. I made a point of hanging around with the ranked cadets. I shined my shoes and kept my uniform pressed and said, “No, sir!” and “Yes, sir!” with the right amount of respect. What I’d learned in those Hamptons mansions came back to me; appearances mattered, the little niceties set you apart, fitting in made people want to help you succeed. …

Every trainer has scars to show off, stories to tell. It was always a little bit amazing to me that I could be fearful of so many things in my life, but riding horses and playing polo, both extremely dangerous pastimes, were things I couldn’t live without. I enjoyed training almost as much as I loved playing. They scratched the same emotional spot for me–having command over a massive, thousand pound animal when very few other things in my life were in my control.

…I honestly don’t know if I helped any of them while they lived with me, but at least I was never tempted to enable or partake. I had seen what drugs did to a person and had no interest in testing that out on myself.

It did sometimes make me feel uneasy, though. I’d watch my roommates when I knew they were high, seeing the same slack face and empty eyes that my mom and grandma used to get when they were using. It brought back some things I didn’t really want to think about. It made me wonder how things were going back home.

…Even though my grandma was an addict like my mother (although unlike my mother, she didn’t ever really try to get clean) she’d been taking care of us and providing backup for my mom for years. …She couldn’t afford a car, so if she decided she needed to score drugs, she’d dress us in any random way–socks for gloves, too-small shirt with too-big pants, a scarf wrapped around our heads instead of a hat–and we’d go out walking. Sometimes for blocks and blocks. And when we got to where we were going, she’d line us up on the sidewalk and tell us to stay put while she did what she had to do.

Still, even with her addiction, she knew how to survive and she made sure we were surviving, too. Maybe we looked funny, but those mismatched clothes kept us warm. She never let us go hungry; she could make a meal out of nothing when she needed to. And even if she was stoned or high, if we were in her care, she never let us out of her sight.

Stephen Bannerman paid his tuition at Valley Forge after the polo program was cut. He would take Kareem out for lunch and tell him to go to West Point once he graduated. Kareem was not interested in that and would politely tell him he wanted to go somewhere he could play polo, that polo saved his life. This Stephen Bannerman could care less – never wanted to see him play. A real jerk. In the Acknowledgements, Kareem thanked someone named Dan Crawford: “Thank you, Mr. Dan Crawford, for all your support. You are one of many people who put me in a position to succeed.” I don’t recall him talking about him in the book, though. I remember his scholarship application talked about a gentleman who helped him immensely, so I was surprised that the person who got him riding and who cared for him and helped him the most was Lezlie Hiner. I wish I could read his scholarship application again.

But like recognized like; I understood that when Drea was fighting, it wasn’t because he was a bad or violent person, it was because he was desperate to shake the dread and anxiety that lived curled up in his belly day in and day out.

Horses and polo were the bulwark against my own fears. It had become very clear to me that I couldn’t do without them. …

We were weak because even now, The Bottom called us back. Brandon was still living on Viola Street, and he faced all the daily danger that came with our neighborhood. Gerb and I still had our family there; David and Bee and Kareema, in and out of jail, Mom and Washika alone in their house, trying to get by. Drea was out there somewhere, and my memories of Mecca. They all had a pull on us. It was easy to imagine any one of the three of us just slipping back in. The Bottom was in our blood and bones. …

Sometimes when you’re the first of your kind to do something, it can feel like the loneliest thing. When you are the first to walk through a door where people like you have not been welcome before, it can be very hard not to feel like you’ll always be alone in that room.

But of course, I wasn’t alone. I had Brandon and Gerb and Lezlie–we broke that boundary together–but I also had David and Bee and Kareema and Drea and Mecca with me; they’d all led me to this place…

I was only there because of luck and chance and because I honestly needed it to survive.

I was only there because my big brothers decided to go for a bike ride on a misty autumn day.


After the championship, I graduated with honors from Valley Forge. With financial help from Work to Ride I attended Colorado State University, where I led their polo team to a national championship. Their first in sixteen years. I was named both Interscholastic and Intercollegiate Player of the Year.

I graduated from CSU with a major in economics. I was the first in my family to get a college degree.

After college, even though I had been told my whole life that if I ever got out, I should never come back, I came back to Philly. It is my home and always will be.

I don’t live in The Bottom anymore. I have a job in finance and an apartment in Washington Square. Every night I sit with my two cats and watch the sun set over the city from my window. …

On March 11, 2020, as I was finishing up the final edits on this book, my brother David Raheem Rosser was murdered. He was shot on the street, in broad daylight, multiple times in the abdomen and twice in the head. He passed away at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center the next morning at 8:03 A.M. His organs were donated to help other people survive.

I don’t know why he was killed. …I do know that, while David was still living in The Bottom, he’d been off the streets for almost a year when it happened, working a legit job as a maintenance man at a restaurant, doing everything he could to be there for his three kids, India, Nashon, and Aubrey, and still hoping to find a way out for them all….

I told the story of how, when I was a little kid, I wanted nothing so much as I wanted to tag along after David and Bee, follow them wherever they were going, but David always insisted that I stay home….

I thought that my brother just couldn’t be bothered with me…But then I started to think about what he did give me, and I realized I had been seeing it all wrong.

David could have let me follow him into trouble. Lots of big brothers in our neighborhood let their little brothers do just that. They used the younger kids as lookouts and witnesses and errand boys…

But David didn’t do that.

He insisted I stay home. He left me behind where it was safer. He didn’t allow me to follow him into streets….

Maybe his reasons for keeping me at home had been more about protection than rejection.

Because the one time David did agree to take me with him, he led me to the barn.

Maybe he didn’t realize it then, but David saved my life. He brought me to the horses, he showed me a world I never knew existed. He was the first person to lift me onto a pony. The first person to lead me around the ring. He opened the door that changed everything for me. He handed me the map that led me out of the same streets that would take his life so may years later.

When it came to his own safety, David had always been fearless, reckless even. But when it came to me, his little brother, he didn’t let me take a single chance. He delivered me to the best, safest place he could find, and then, as always, he slipped away.

In the Acknowledgments, he says:

Colorado State University, thank you. To my fellow Ram teammates, you made my four years in Fort Collins special. Together we studied, partied, and won a national championship.

What a wonderful story! And so well-written! I hope it becomes a movie someday. Kareem Rosser, you are a very special young man. Stay strong! Know that you have a Father in heaven who loves you dearly and longs for you to be in His loving arms. No fear in His Love, Kareem. God bless you and keep you now and forever!

The website for the Work to Ride Foundation is: (Chamounix Equestrian Center). Kareem is helping them fund-raise – he is the executive director of Friends of Work to Ride. Polo Ralph Lauren is funding collegiate scholarships for the Work to Ride high-school athletes.