Robert D. Hubbard looked into the faces of the 30 black boys gathered in the library at Aberdeen Middle School and delivered his message.
"As young black men, you have to be one step above your competition; you have to be prepared," he told the boys, ages 10 to 14. "If you are not, life will eat you up."
In jeans and sneakers, like most of his audience, Mr. Hubbard pointed to other men in the room.
"We are here to help you be successful, to give you the skills you need," said Mr. Hubbard, who came to the school with the other men yesterday as part of a new program designed to help young blacks succeed. "You know who you go to school for?" asked Mr. Hubbard, a communications security specialist for the federal government.
Tentatively, one youngster raised his hand and said, "For yourself."
"That's right, you go to school for you," Mr. Hubbard said, beaming. "Education is the most important thing in your life. Going to school will make you successful. Going to school will make you like me, like these other men who are here today."
Mr. Hubbard is among about two dozen black men participating in the experiment. Aberdeen Principal Agnes S. Purnell, believes providing black boys with positive male role models will improve their grades and their lives.
"There are no throw-away children at Aberdeen Middle School," said Ms. Purnell.
The men, members of a Masonic Lodge in Aberdeen, tutored the youngsters in math. Nearly 50 percent of black boys at the school failed the math portion of the Maryland School Performance Program. Less than 17 percent of white boys failed. The results, released last week, showed great improvement for Aberdeen High as a whole.
Ms. Purnell, principal for two years, believes the black youngsters are allowing themselves to be stereotyped. "Society says young black men can be good at rapping and at poetry or in sociology or in the ministry," she said. "It does not tell them they can be good at math and science."
Mr. Hubbard said he wants to show the youngsters black men can succeed at whatever they choose. "There are more role
models for black youth than Michael
Jordan," he said.
Mr. Hubbard and the other participating men are members of the Jesse J. Shanks Masonic Lodge 137, part of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.
Students worked in small groups yesterday, the first of what will be monthly sessions, as their mentors helped them with math problems. The boys then played basketball and enjoyed snacks.
Each month, students will learn about black men of historical significance and about blacks' achievements in math and science. The youths also will learn coping skills, including how to deal with peer pressure, Mr. Hubbard said.
That's one reason Barbara Fields, a single mother, brought her son. She wants him to make friends -- without her worrying about his joining the wrong crowd.
She said she has tried to isolate her son from negative peer pressure but that shielding him gets harder as her son Terry, 13, gets older. "You can see it when you watch television -- children carrying knives and guns," she said. "It's terrible. I'm grateful these children can come together and help each other," she said.
"I'm a single mom, and raising a son can be very difficult," said Ernestine Coleman. She brought her 13-year-old son, Reginald Glover, to the class for help with math -- his hardest subject.
"Teachers tell me my son is very bright but he goofs off in the classroom," she said. "I hope this program will help him get his grades up."