It was not good grades that brought a smile of pride to Ebon Williams' face one afternoon when she came bursting through the door after school one day.
Ebony, all of 9 years old, had beaten up a boy after class.
"This boy started calling me all kinds of bad names at lunch and said my mother was on welfare," said Ebony, the middle of Rose Fletcher's three children. "He said I was poor and couldn't afford a pennyworth of candy. And then he said I was a teacher's pet and after school he was going to beat me up."
So, in one of the timeless rituals of growing up, Ebony walked to a secluded yard to meet her tormentor. "He gave his friends his books, and I gave my friends my books," she said with a wide grin of excitement. "Then I said, 'Go ahead, hit me.' And he hit me.
"I started banging him, boom, boom, boom," she said, punching a pillow on the living room couch. "I didn't get hurt at all, and my friends were cheering for me."
"Oh, yeah," she added as an afterthought. "I got a 'B' on my spelling test, too."
Ebony, born and raised in the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex, doesn't fight a lot. But in the schools she and her brother and sister attend, children who are routinely exposed to violence, neglect and drugs often learn to respect toughness more than good grades.
"Once you let people know they can't push you around, then no one bothers you," she says.
More than 80 percent of their classmates live in public housing. About 35 percent of them are being raised by grandparents or foster parents. Many others live in homes headed by teen-age mothers. Half the students will drop out before getting a diploma.
"We are No. 1 in all the bad things," said Ruth Bukatman, principal of Booker T. Washington Middle School, which gets most Murphy Homes middle school children. "This zip code [21217 and 21215] has the highest teen pregnancy rate, juvenile arrests and juvenile drug abuse and trafficking in the city. Our kids face these problems every day and bring them into this school."
4 Mrs. Bukatman tries hard to make her 96-year-old
school a world where her 700 students can learn to believe in themselves -- a safe world where teachers are generous with praise.
"We want every minute of their day to be filled with something inspirational," Ms. Bukatman says.
But she can't do it alone, and sometimes the realities defy the goals.
One day last year, the sixth-grade homeroom teacher for Ebony's brother, Jamel Broadway, walked into class without greeting his students. He sat down, took attendance and then worked silently grading papers for the entire 35-minute period -- which is supposed to be used for study or for motivational talks with the teacher.
Instead, one girl sat rubbing baby lotion on her hands; a boy drew pictures of cartoon-character robots; others caught the teacher's attention and a sharp reprimand when they threw paper airplanes and footballs.
Unsupervised, Jamel and three of his classmates moved their desks together and talked about the current events most relevant to them -- whether Hulk Hogan would really beat the Earthquake or the Ultimate Warrior in a highly touted wrestling match.
Brown skin, brown skin
It's so good to see.
Brown skin, brown skin
All over me.
It makes me feel so good.
It makes me feel so fine
To know that this
Brown skin is mine.
Nakia Williams, Rose's youngest child, and her 20 classmates at Union Baptist Head Start stood fidgeting and recited the poem for their teacher, Soraya Harden, last school year. Mrs. Harden had taught them the verse in celebration of Black History Month.
The children's activities are largely recreational -- finger-painting, singing, dancing -- but there's always an underlying message to inspire self-esteem and pride in African-American culture.
One day they were asked to draw pictures of important black vTC Americans. Some drew M. C. Hammer or Michael Jackson. Many drew pictures of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nakia, a chubby-cheeked girl with doe eyes, drew Dr. King standing next to her sister, Ebony.
"She loves her sister and always talks about things her sister is doing in school," said Mrs. Harden, who has taught at Union Baptist for eight years. "Ebony is like an inspiration to Nakia."
But Mrs. Harden says that many of her pupils, ages 2 through 4, have no such sources of inspiration. The success of Head Start depends heavily on parental participation, and the parents of most of her children do not read to them or play games with them. Less than 20 percent of the parents attend monthly teacher-parent meetings, she says.
"Many of the parents think they have to be really smart or that they have to buy a lot of materials and books," she says. "We try to impress upon them that they can do it with things they have around the house."
Rose never has to be asked twice to support her children's endeavors. She attends PTA meetings and every school performance featuring her children. At home, she makes sure her children have done their homework, practices arithmetic with them or listens as they read aloud around the kitchen table.
"I'd give Nakia's mother an A plus," says Mrs. Harden.
Rose insists all three of her children will graduate from high school, as she never did. But beyond that, her plans for their futures are clouded by financial reality.
"I can barely afford to keep them in school now," she says. "How could they go to college?"
"I don't want to go to college," Ebony says. "Nobody goes to college, do they? So I wouldn't want to be by myself."