Class teaches boys to be men

NEIGHBORS

April 30, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GORHAM L. BLACK III knows what it means to be a man.

That's why the 61-year-old retired Army colonel, now a substitute teacher at Reservoir High School, lectures a class on the subject. Once a month, 30 boys sit in Black's third-floor classroom for 30 minutes to hear practical instructions on "What It Is To Be a Man."

Black tells them the truth - things they might not want to hear, such as cussing doesn't impress anybody. And that it is not hard to stop. "I fired people who did that," Black says.

And he tells the boys to shower every day and trim their fingernails.

This week, Black brought four female students into class to tell the young men what behavior they did and didn't like.

Take care of your breath, wear your clothes properly and show respect to fellow students and teachers, the girls said. Don't be rude to your parents, and keep the details of your relationships with girlfriends to yourselves. Just listen. Don't talk too much.

Black also discusses finances, infusing reality into the boys' dreams of owning cars by asking them whether they can pay for insurance, gas and maintenance. Young men today "don't have the first idea of a dollar, or have the sense to rub two nickels together to make the hair stand up on the buffalo," he says.

His students think "Mr. Black" is cooler than a snow day.

"I think he's a great person. He's very intelligent, and he knows what he's talking about," said Brendan Scanlon, 17. When Black was critical of the way the boys addressed him, telling them they needed to show more respect, Scanlon was impressed. He says he is lucky to have gotten into the class. He knows boys who tried but couldn't. "We learn how to be gentlemen, and it's interesting," he said.

Assistant Principal Gina Massella says Black is a good role model because "he walks the talk. He's a lot about being civil and appropriate."

Black is practical. In the short time allotted for each class, he has taught the teens how to tie a necktie. Vince Neal, 18, said he didn't know how to do that until Black showed him.

Black has taught his students how to properly introduce themselves to adults and even how to shave. "There are too many of us men who think grooming is a sissy thing," said Black, his deep voice contradicting any such notion. "I know it's just an analogy, but I swear this is true: My car just runs better when it's clean."

Though he is of average height, Black has a clear air of authority. His hands are thick, his handshake always firm. Everything Black teaches the boys has come from his parents, or from his 27 years in the military.

An Army brat, Black says he grew up in six states, Japan, Liberia and France. At 16 years old, he graduated from Poitier American High School in Poitier, France, with an acceptance to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

But because West Point couldn't take him until he was 17, Black's parents suggested he spend a year at their alma mater, Howard University. He studied pre-law there and liked it so much that he decided to stay. On graduation day, Black joined the Army, going on to earn a master's degree in international relations at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. And he also graduated from the military's National War College.

Through much of his career, Black taught classes for military personnel. Eventually, he did get to West Point, where he was assigned to command a company of cadets for three years.

Before retiring from the Army in 1990, his last assignment was Fort Meade post commander.

In 1997, Black and his wife, Aster, moved to Belgium. Aster Black was transferred there to be American Red Cross station manager at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons.

Black started a Young Men's Club at the SHAPE American High School, where he taught personal grooming, etiquette and current events to 45 boys for an hour twice each week, and took them to restaurants and on walking historical tours. His most popular classes were on grooming. "I think the guys really want something like this," Black said. "They're not going to tell anybody they want it. But I told the boys I wouldn't ask my parents this stuff either."

After returning to North Laurel in 2001, Black was invited to help with Reservoir High's homework club by his neighbor, Teresa Freed, a much-loved English teacher who died unexpectedly at the school April 19.

Black was devastated by her death. "She was just the sweetest person," he said.

"He's very straightforward and honest with the kids," Freed told this reporter earlier this month. "He doesn't patronize them and doesn't let them make excuses. He tells them how it is in the real world."

Jason Fung, 16, is enthusiastic about the class. "He tells us what it takes to be a man and what it's OK to do and still be a man. You can cry and still be a man," the 11th-grader said.

"It's all free. There's no test on this; no `I told you so's,' " Black tells the boys about the lessons he imparts. "Just accept it if you want to - or don't."

But he wishes he had more time. "If I was king for a day, I'd love to have some life-skills class taught sometime during the day, especially to the seniors, something that was 50 minutes. Boy, do you realize what you could do in 50 minutes?"

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