Words to lift a struggling child: 'You can do this'

January 18, 2001|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME was Mrs. Woodard, and she taught third-graders in a little classroom in Jacksonville, Fla., where a kid named Joe Hairston struggled mournfully to write an essay. Mrs. Woodard leaned down and whispered in his ear. Forty-five years later, Hairston can still hear the echo.

"You can do this," said Mrs. Woodard.

To the future superintendent of Baltimore County's public schools, the words felt like the opening of a future. He could do this, and maybe he could do anything else that had given him doubts: school lessons, and growing-up stuff, and a system of American class and race that is always working itself out at somebody's expense.

Hairston is the first African-American to head the county's schools, and he was in town for maybe three minutes before he realized that the appointment carried much symbolism. He is a signal to black families that the public schools are their children's as much as anyone else's. Such perceptions matter - not only for the health of the child but for the ability of the parents to look honestly at their own kids when things get rough.

In March, Hairston told a gathering of three African-American groups, "Race is scientifically insignificant when it comes to academic success" - thus leaving a nagging question: Because black kids are as smart as whites, why are so many black youngsters - in this area, and around the country - failing to live up to their potential?

In the latest Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, only about 30 percent of the county's black third-graders performed satisfactorily in reading - 20 percentage points lower than white kids. In the fifth grade, another 20 percentage-point gap. In the eighth grade, a 17 percentage-point gap.

In the city schools, which are nearly 90 percent African-American, the reading and math scores are among the lowest in the state. Across the nation, black students earn the lowest grades and test scores at every level of schooling. Those are statistics agreed upon by everyone, and baffling to everyone trying to narrow the gap.

"Psychological lynching," Hairston called it yesterday, sitting in his school headquarters office overlooking North Charles Street. "I learned that phrase in the five years I was working in Georgia. But race is not a Southern thing. I mean, Baltimore has its own history, so who are we kidding?"

The words look more provocative on the page than they sound coming out of Hairston's mouth. America's racial history is no secret, he is saying, so let's accept it and move on. But in which direction? Hairston mentions some of the usual suspects for black underachievement: tests (and entire curricula) put together by whites with no sense of the cultural gaps involved; black "self-hatred, the sense that an invisible ceiling exists for us, the sense that some children have of feeling left out and shut out"; the sense that "statistics tell a story, but not the whole story"; and fractures in the old family structures.

Hairston was a military brat. His parents did not have much education, he says, but they knew its value. His mother couldn't help him with high school math, and his father was sometimes stationed away from the family. But they always stressed school and hard work.

"When my dad came back from assignment overseas, he'd be so depressed," said Hairston, 53. "He felt restricted here. And he was restricted. But he constantly reminded us, never allow anyone to treat us as less than a full human being. There were no labels. ... They had three kids, and we all got college educations."

His parents asked only for a fair shot for their kids, even though little in their experience suggested it would happen. Hairston heads the county schools in a different time. Laws have been written. Social mores have changed, and so has a sense of political strength.

But some things remain psychologically unchanged, he was saying yesterday: the sense, among some black families, that the system is still stacked against them. This is why Hairston's appointment carries so much symbolism. It says the system cares about black kids as well as whites.

But it also offers a look into another element of the racial learning gap. Hairston talks about "sound-bite images" from the ever-present television, about the pressures of advertising, and kids who want $100 tennis shoes and parents who believe they have to supply them so their children won't feel deprived - and about accountability.

"Families," says Hairston, "need to be more introspective. There's a level of responsibility for adults, as well as for children. My wife and I raised two boys, and never held the schools accountable for their success. That was our responsibility. We brought them into the world, and we care for them. I want to know how they're being taught, and change where they're not doing well. But all of that crosses racial lines."

With black parents, he says, "Sometimes they love the children too much - not spoiling them, but not telling the kids, `You have to take ownership of your own behavior.' ... The parents have to be there, but so does the kid. And there's this subtle suspicion, driven by history, that the parents hold on to - the suspicion that the schools are at fault when the kid's not doing well, that the schools don't care about the black kids as much. That's wrong. We have to get past that. And I want them to understand I'm not looking at the past. I'm driven by possibility."

All these years later, he's the one leaning down to whisper in the children's ears: "You can do this."

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