What kids need most: a culture of caring

Good parenting, not more money for schools, is the answer for poor and minority students

August 31, 2011|By Scott Carroll

When I came up in the 1970s and '80s in Baltimore, there were many depressed areas that instinct told you to avoid, but the real face of danger was the projects. In those high-rise developments, like some kind of matchbox conglomeration reaching to the sky — or their cookie-cutter, low-rise counterparts intended to approximate town homes — there seemed to be no room to stretch out and think, no space in which to breathe.

I saw "Boyz N the Hood" in 1991 and wondered what in the world was making those guys out in sunny L.A. so angry. Exactly what was driving them to be violent? They all lived in single-family homes with yards and cars parked both in the driveway and on the street, the sun ever shining overhead. It never occurred to me that Baltimore's housing projects represented only a small percentage of its lower-income housing — that so many of our own potentially deadly neighborhoods consisted largely of those same single-family homes.

I saw myself as very fortunate when I was growing up. I was able to do my developing in a pretty spacious house with a wraparound yard in a tree-filled, grassy neighborhood. My father was not in the house, but he was very much present in my life. My mother always had a car. Occasionally, our utilities were cut off, or I might pick up the phone to that annoying out-of-service signal. But usually, there was enough money — even enough to squeeze out a half tuition payment to an expensive private school through five key years of elementary school.

The fact is, however, they did not have a lot of money, and the money they did have had little to nothing to do with why I was so fortunate.

It was not the pretty spacious house that gave me my appreciation for knowledge and understanding but a couple of well-educated parents who themselves harbored the deepest appreciation for those attainments. It was not the tree-filled, grassy neighborhood that gave me an idea of how to conduct myself in public, in school, in a business setting. It was not the size of my parents' bank account that influenced me to speak standard English throughout my toddler years and beyond; to hold onto an empty soda cup until I passed by a trash receptacle; to give an informed, well-articulated opinion on some current event in conversation at the dinner table; or to meet some mild provocation of mine with introspection and then reasonably solid logic.

It was neither the house, nor the neighborhood, nor the money that made me so fortunate growing up. It was them — and it was the example they provided day in and day out.

True, a family's economic situation is often directly related to its educational history, which is directly related to the sophistication of its children's rearing. However, you do not need a college degree to know how to insist that your children read books, or at least sit with their faces in a book through some prescribed period of time every day. You do not need a college degree to read to your children persistently. You do not need a college education to know how to require your children to sit at a certain table every school night for a certain prescribed period and at least seem to be completing their assignments. You do not need a college degree to demand of yourself and of your family that standard English, or some earnest attempt thereof, be spoken in the home.

You do not need a college degree to know how to perform these and countless other meaningful daily observances, but you do need the enduring example of a coherent, healthy culture maintaining these values and practices at the forefront of the collective consciousness, ingraining them in the family — in the parent and in the child. The fact that humans are the animals of the intellect has only become many times more meaningful in our current technological age, and yet, somehow, African-American culture — my culture — has become, progressively, a culture of the athlete, the entertainer, the hustler and the laborer.

I had the privilege of teaching for four years in an immaculate building that had just undergone a $27 million restoration, a Baltimore City vocational/technical high school complete with the kind of expensive, computer-aided manufacturing machinery I had seen on campus as an industrial engineering student at Morgan State University and in industry as an industrial engineering intern. Many students showed their appreciation for the very expensive, potentially high-quality education they were being offered for free by setting that building on fire almost weekly, and by cursing freely in the vicinity of and often directly at teachers and administrators alike. When attempts were made at discipline and parents were called in, the parents often exhibited this same behavior while searching for any and every way to blame teachers and the school for their children's trouble.

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