Former troublemaker is mentor to black youths

December 23, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

Four years ago, as he served in-school suspension at Wilde Lake High School for an infraction he doesn't remember, Charconn Darnell Rice borrowed "The Autobiography of Malcolm from a friend.

The words he read as a 10th grader tugged at his heart and made a permanent impression on his life.

"He's my hero," Mr. Rice said recently of the late black leader. "He structured his own world view and shook up the whole country. I want to do that."

Mr. Rice's vehicle: working as a mentor and academic monitor in a new project designed to help black male students do better in science and math.

He and fellow mentor Donald F. Wallace, a consultant in Columbia, will work with the initiative announced this month by the school system's Black Student Achievement Program and called "Focus: The African-American Male Learner."

The program, which organizers hope to begin with 10 to 15 young black men, calls for the two mentors to meet with students for structured study time in school and to discuss their concerns.

Having black male role models will make a difference to the young men's lives, Mr. Rice said, citing the way Malcolm X had a positive impact on his own life.

Mr. Rice, now 20, recalls how he was impressed by the way Malcolm X educated himself and learned and shared the preslavery history of blacks, which was left out of many history books of the time.

"He showed what we were before slavery," Mr. Rice said. "If you don't understand your past, you'll always think you were in this condition."

An aspiring international lawyer, Mr. Rice wants to emulate his Muslim hero.

"When you look at this planet, black people are suffering," he said. "We need soldiers for justice everywhere. . . . Malcolm X is the perfect example of a soldier."

Mr. Rice would appear to be well-suited as a role model for those aspiring to academic performance and leadership.

As a student at Howard Community College, he is majoring in international studies, has a 3.5 GPA and is president of the Black Student Union, which he revived and took charge of last year.

When not in class, Mr. Rice, a devout Muslim, works as a cashier at The Original Man Shop in Owen Brown, which specializes in African-American items. He also writes rap songs and reads, is working on a book of essays and estimates that he has collected 5,000 books since his political awakening.

Not so long ago, however, he was in the same situation as the students he will be trying to help through the mentoring program.

An "A" student before entering middle school, Mr. Rice's grades slipped, and he was suspended repeatedly from an Anne Arundel County middle school for misbehavior, including fighting.

That pattern continued when he began attending Wilde Lake High in 1989.

Mr. Rice said he got into trouble because he felt excluded from the educational system, which he says largely ignores the contributions and history of blacks.

"Schools are based on white middle-class values," he said, "and most young black men do not measure up to a white middle-class standard."

He said that young black males often are made to feel unwelcome in school because of their style of dress, walk and other mannerisms.

"The educational system should be structured so you feel comfortable no matter where you come from," he said.

As a student, Mr. Rice also became frustrated when a teacher stressed that he wasn't good in math and science. Another discouraged him from studying German and told him to play a sport instead.

"I don't think we understand the war when we walk into school," Mr. Rice said of the perceived negative attitudes toward black males. "They've already labeled us. . . . As a student, when you get told what you can't do so many times you start to believe it."

Those who know Mr. Rice say he will be a strong force in the mentoring program.

"I think he'll be a great asset," said Herb West, a Wilde Lake social studies teacher who became an informal mentor to Mr. Rice when he was in high school.

Mr. Rice "encountered problems that I understood," said Mr. West, who said he helped provide the kind of moral support the young man needed.

Gloria Washington, BSAP's facilitator, said that Mr. Rice will make a believable role model for other young black men.

"He understands, from a practical level, what it means to be left out of an educational system and see nothing there and not participate in it -- and then to turn himself around," she said.

"He says, 'If I can do it, so can you, and this is how I did it.' "

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