Overload of toxic information imperils already fragile kids

June 20, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

TMI.

It's a term e-mailers and message board mavens use that stands for "too much information." Today's America is becoming dangerously overloaded with TMI, and it's our kids who are the most vulnerable recipients.

No one knows that better than Cornell Dews, who teaches a class of third-grade boys at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School in Baltimore. Located in the heart of a poor, crime-ridden West Baltimore neighborhood, the school has a pupil population that is overwhelmingly black.

Last year, Dews taught the same group of boys when they were in second grade. It was then that he realized how rampant this TMI syndrome is.

Dews talks to his boys from time to time about things outside the classroom. One day they were talking about rappers.

"Inevitably, 50 Cent came up," Dews said.

It was inevitable because 50 Cent is the hottest and best rapper on the scene today. He was born Curtis Jackson in the Bronx 28 years ago, according to the Web site www.answers.com. (The same Web site also said Jackson was born July 6, 1976. Ah, the unimpeachable reliability of the Internet!) He was raised by his grandparents after his mother, a drug dealer, died. Jackson slung some drugs himself, and claims to have been shot nine times in the year 2000.

That latter claim falls into the TMI category.

Dews talked with his then-second-graders about rap and gangsta rap. One boy said he knew of a gangsta.

"Who?" Dews asked him.

"50," the boy answered.

"Why is he a gangsta?" Dews continued, perhaps not realizing he was rolling the dice with his sanity on this topic.

"Because he got shot nine times," the boy answered.

Then a voice of reason piped up from among the students. One of the boys, somewhat more grounded in reality, chimed in.

"That doesn't make him a gangsta," the perspicacious lad observed. "That makes him lucky."

Fast-forward one year, to the spring of 2005. Dews was having a similar conversation with his class. Of 22 boys enrolled, 17 attended the day the subject of rap, gangstas and guns came up again.

"How many of you think it's cool to be shot?" Dews asked.

Twelve of the 17 raised their hands. Of those 12, seven said they wanted to get shot, provided there was some assurance they would survive. Dews asked them why and got a laundry list of reasons.

People will think I'm tough.

People will fear me.

People will respect me.

My buddies will give me a cool nickname like "Animal."

You may not think it got worse, but a conversation that reaches this point really can't go uphill. When it came to the subject of prison, some of the boys said they wanted to go, just to see what it's like.

The boys also knew the slang names of almost every drug on the street. They knew inmates make knives from toothbrushes.

TMI.

Standing in his classroom last Monday while six of his boys played chess after school, Dews was stumped. How did we get to this point? And if these boys aren't afraid of being shot or jailed, why would being suspended from school frighten them?

That's a point to ponder when we consider the disparity in school suspensions and expulsions that disproportionately affects black boys. Dews doesn't rule out racism as a factor, but he figures black folks need to be held accountable as well.

Dews said that was the message of 1995's Million Man March, which he attended. A graduate of Lake Clifton High School and then-Coppin State College, Dews was set to use his business degree to get a job as an investor. But he took the message of the Million Man March - "to return to the community and do some good," he said - seriously.

After mentoring ninth-graders at Lake Clifton briefly, Dews taught for two years at Eager Street Academy before landing at Furman L. Templeton. He's disturbed by what he hears some of his third-graders saying. He's got a problem with black folks who throw barbecues and cookouts for relatives who get out of prison. He's particularly incensed by the latest issue of XXL magazine, which is a "jail issue" dedicated to "hip-hop's incarcerated soldiers."

Featured on the cover is - you guessed it - 50 Cent, with some character in an orange prison jumpsuit named Tony Yayo. Glorifying the criminal lifestyle, Dews said, is part of the problem.

But he doesn't let white youngsters - who buy most of the rap records - off the hook. If little white boys were saying they thought it was cool to be shot and land in jail, Dews said their parents wouldn't hesitate about not letting them buy gangsta rap. Instead, they see the black urban nightmare it depicts as entertainment.

"What's entertainment to them is the reality of so many," Dews lamented.

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