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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What's Wrong With This Picture

I was walking for a cup of coffee this afternoon and sat for a minute to let my brew cool before drinking it. Two kids with backpacks, I guess leaving school, came walking by and paused on the sidewalk in front of me.

One had a little boom box, bumping a song I recognized as a rapid-fire tune by Busta Rhymes. If you know hip-hop then you know that Rhymes rhymes at a ridiculously fast pace. You have to have special ears or a stereo that can play in slow motion to understand what he's saying the first dozen or so times you hear one of his songs.

Don't get me wrong. I was a fan back in the day. Rhymes ticked me off recently though over a moral issue, but that's another blog entry on a different day.

So anyway, one of the kids stopped 'cause his shoe was untied. While he knelt to deal with it, his friend with the boom box stood by and waited patiently. A few seconds pass, the shoe's still undone. A few more pass, and a few more, and a few more, till about 30 seconds have ticked off. It hit me that the kid was taking so long, because he just couldn't tie his shoe.

Here's what tripped me up though. All the while as he struggled with that lace, he was rhyming along with the boom box, keeping up with Rhymes word for word! His little friend eventually grew impatient, called the shoe lace kid a dummy and started walking on.

I don't think the kid was a dummy. That's not cool. But that whole scene made me think of something else.

I hear about kids that get low grades in the classroom 'cause they can't remember lessons from day to day, and experts who say we should spend more money and use more state of the art equipment. And kids are still failing. And so the conclusion always seems to be that these kids have learning disabilities.

I don't want to hear any of that learning disability stuff until the experts have spent a day in any average middle of the road neighborhood, even a poor 'hood, and listened to the kids and their music. These kids are smart. They can memorize lengthy song upon lengthy song upon lengthy song and not miss a beat. So if properly motivated, they can memorize stuff in a classroom too. But that kind of motivation comes from parents, and guardians, and older siblings, and aunts, and uncles, and grandparents, and responsible neighbors - that whole village-raising-kids concept from the African proverb. And as long as kids have rappers and rock stars and sullen over-paid jocks to look up to, it's those guys whose words they'll continue to memorize, not the people contributing something useful to the planet.

Alright, I feel the soapbox buckling underneath me. I'm getting down now.


  • You're right there, Mr Burnett. If the folks at home reckon it's important to do well at school, if the kids see their parents & extended family reading etc as a matter of course, it's all going to help. & not just for the 'African-American' kids either.

    Cos we have the same thing over here - with white kids who don't know, don't want to know & don't care.

    The cultural (music, jocks etc) thing is good too. If they can plug getting an education in a credible way. Please.

    By Anonymous Bronchitikat, at 2:49 AM  

  • I don't know, champ. I still see sandals, black socks, shorts just below the nipples and a metal detector at the beach in your future. I agree that kids today need to study their lessons more and that they are entirely capable of learing anything put before them. I do not subscribe to the notion that my generation was smarter, better, or more intelligent than the young 'uns out there today. They've survived crackhead parents, knuckleheads shooting at cars, and gun battles that were really unheard of before the mid to late 1980's.

    But your Cosbyesque tirade has as much to do with children feeling left out of school as it does with their parents feeling alienated from the system.

    Right or wrong, many parents of children in a minority group schooled during integration did not have a Sandra Dee Rydell High School experience. Theirs was more like Rizzo's. Therefore, it is difficult for them to champion the school system when it comes to educating their child. Many of us who grew up during the height of integration (late 1960's- to now) have bitter feelings about public and private schools and it is difficult not to transmit those feelings to your child when you see the school treating them the same way. I come from a small town family of teachers who knew how to work the white man's educational system to get the best opportunity at the schools that were the best funded. It involved fake addresses, clandestine night moves to a cousin's house and drop offs at bus stops miles away from home so I could go to the white school.

    I saw that and drew respect. But not for the school. It was for my folks, who were making a sacrifice. And after all that, the school still was in the antebellum south. Between 1978 and 1986 I must have fought 10-20 times over racial issues usually related to my presence. I fought with public school kids and private school kids, who were worse because their parents were allegedly more "liberal" and "education minded".
    So it will be difficult for me to promote faithful participation in school learning without an air of contempt. Much of the learning that my children receive will fall on my shoulders.
    Which brings me to my next point. Tired parents who didn't get much out of school don't make great teachers. I am not making excuses here. But I would like all to realize that coming home from work, making dinner, and then teaching a child 2 hours of math is not something most parents can do every day for 13 years. They need help. The first thing is to make the kids more responsible through a** whoopings, but advocate for parental help that parents can trust. The trust is the big part that's lacking. That's what we had before integration--a trust that the people at the school cared as much about your kids as you did because they were your neighbors, friends, associates. I never felt that level of trust in my school. It's a shame that hasn't changed.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 5:00 PM  

  • That's funny because they say Albert Einstein supposedly couldn't tie his shoe laces well.

    Too often as people of color, we descend to self flagellation and then turn the anger frustration towards our kids (often looking at such simplistic answers as ass whippings as a solution). BTW, the next time any of you advocate ass whipping, while noting that rich, white parents fail to do the same with their children, look at some of outcomes statistically.

    Another delusional escape is when we think back about how "it used to be". Our children were catching Hell then and are catching Hell now! I dare anyone to go beyond anectdotal b.s. and show where our children were doing better on test scores and attending college at a higher rate.

    At this point asking for parents to inform and support children to provide outcomes that they themselves failed to achieve (not to fault our elders) is not dealing in reality. We need to create community institutions with knowledgeable folk (not just some semi educated rejects in need of a job) to assist our youth.

    We need after school educational programs for students in the bewitching hours, after school when students do not have constructive activities and safe places to engage in them.

    We also need to concentrate on the testing, study, research, time management (and unfortuantely comflict resolution) skills that these kids so sorely need.

    Our youngsters, especially youth of color often don't have a chance from the outset. There are so many incompetent teachers in the Dade school system it's hard to believe.

    Our youth are not learning basic composition and math. They are also not receiving the education in Math and Science that they need to pursue lucrative fields in science, math and technology.

    If this wasn't enough, when it comes time to prepare and advise our youth for college entry they find virtually no help to navigate the complex admission and financial aid process. (Including PSAT and SAT preparation, completion of various applications and essays, etc.)

    In the past I started several such programs in New York and Los Angeles. The funding was available as was the awareness of the need for such programs. The difference that can be made in the lives of children is incredible. At one point a program that I ran in Harlem placed over half of the youth who attended Columbia University through the HEOP (opportunity) program. With over 200 students we achieved a near 100% placement rate with students in competitive (and usually highly competitive) colleges and universities.

    God, I have tried so hard to create such a program in Miami. I had a program that was active for 6 months using my own money. I wrote for funding (not covering salary because I had enough saved to work for at least two years as a volunteer). Nothing. I had the sneaking suspicion that if a football were involved I would have gained infinitely more support.

    As a personal aside, it was through my own attendance of several horrible inner city schools followed by my time at an elite boarding school in the New England that made me aware of something. Kids have much of the same behavior regardless of their surroundings. The differences lie in opportunity and expectations. More precisely it is a question of available knowledge, trust and engagement.

    I'll sign off on this one for now because it reminds me of my utter frustration with social and political realities in Miami.


    By Blogger Miamista, at 2:46 AM  

  • It doesn't seem to help anyone of any color when they idolize the lazy and self-centered vs. the motivated and selfless. In all seriousness, briliance comes in many ways, not just in standardized tests. Kids have it and need to forget the easy and lazy and do what they love no matter how hard it is.

    I'm not sure how much sense that makes....

    By Anonymous ChrisA, at 10:16 PM  

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