When students let cool get in the way of school


March 08, 1998|By NORRIS WEST

WHENEVER I come across a photo of myself from the 1970s, I get the urge to incinerate it.

It was the worst decade for fashion in the history of mankind, but I did my utmost to wear clothes in style then. I owned a leisure suit, multicolored "fly" shirts and a pair or two of bell-bottom pants -- outfits crowned by an Afro hairstyle.

Perhaps I shouldn't disparage the Afro. For one thing, it was a powerful statement of heritage. Second, it had a fringe benefit for an African-American teen-age boy: It attracted attention from pretty African-American teen-age girls who welcomed the chance to twist the locks into cornrows, before Allen Iverson was even born.

Hair aside, 1970s fashion seems unfathomable now. In our effort to be different, to make a statement of individuality, we became similar. Styles meant to buck convention ended up becoming conventional for a young generation. They were the uniforms of the era.

Unlike clothes, the music of that period was truly inspired. Emerging from a tradition of blues, be-bop and '60s rhythm and blues was a generation of popular artists, ranging from Earth Wind & Fire ("Last Days in Time"), Parliament-Funkadelic ("Chocolate City") and War ("The World Is a Ghetto") to radical subcultural rhymes by Gil Scott Heron ("The Revolution Will not Be Televised").

Much has changed over a generation. Some young African-American males now wear their pants halfway down their behinds.

The first time I noticed this so-called fashion statement several years ago, I asked the youngster why the waist of his pants was six inches below his waist, exposing his underwear.

"I'm expressing myself," he said.

I still haven't found out for certain where this style originated, although some suspect that it infiltrated young African-American culture from prison life.

This is a theory I first heard from the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. I later found other references linking loose pants waists to correctional institutions.

Ex-cons' pants

In prison, inmates are not allowed to wear belts, and often, misfitting pants sag below the waist. The belief is that ex-cons returning to the streets continued to wear drooping slacks, and the look caught on with gangsta rappers and, therefore, with the teen-agers who idolize them.

If this premise is true, how many parents would feel comfortable with the notion that their children are following in the footsteps of ex-cons?

Personally, I detest the droopy pants look even more than I now do those leisure suits. If teen-agers are expressing themselves by showing their drawers, the message they send is one of sloppiness, laziness and a convoluted sense of cool.

Sgt. Morris Carroll, now the Howard County Police Department spokesman, once took me to task me for my disgust with that fashion style, advising me not to disown my sons if I see them with pants falling below their waists.

Don't worry, Mo, I would not disown them, but I would bring droopy slacks and exposed underwear to their attention, promptly and firmly.

As much as things have changed over a generation, many things have remained the same.

Teen-agers have long placed heavy emphasis on their appearance and how they are perceived by peers. And many children, then and now, maintain a healthy balance between their social world and the real mission of school -- academics. But I worry that the scale between school and cool is out of whack for too many young people. It is a serious problem when academic performance is viewed as the antithesis of social acceptance.

This should not happen to African-American teen-agers in Howard County, which has a thriving middle-class black population.

Children of opportunity

They are the children of opportunity. Their parents worked hard to provide lifestyles and educational opportunities many of them never had themselves, even if it is impossible to persuade privileged children that they are better off than the generation before.

A constant concern is that suspension rates remain higher for African-American males than for the rest of Howard County students.

While we must judge each case individually, I would guess that some suspensions are the fault of the children and others lie with teachers and administrators who lack the skills to deal with cultural differences.

Black suburban teen-agers -- and a large number of white suburban teens -- often mirror the behavior, tastes and choices of urban black youngsters that are displayed so vividly coast to coast and all points in between through music videos.

African-American adults and others have to remember the idiosyncrasies of our pasts, our fashion misstatements and attitudes to remind us how influences shape teen-age behavior. Maybe then we can help our children get their priorities in order.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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