Just Say Know

No thermostat heat

No central air conditioning

No storm windows

No waxed floors

No cafeterias

No new books

No shiny desks

with compartments

for your stuff

 

No high tech lighting

No cell phones

No smart boards

No desktops

No laptops

No gaming consoles

No wi-fi

 

No bullies

No nonsense

No cheating

No missing homework

No disrespecting teachers and elders

No smartass remarks

No sagging your pants

No midriffs and cleavage

No smoking to get high

No cutting class to have sex parties

No baby daddies

No baby mamas

No drug dealers

No gang bangers

 

No dropouts

Just say Know…

Know technology
Know reading
Know math
Know science
Know history
Know music
Know mechanics
Know carpentry
Know electricity
Know geography

Know your brothers
Know your sisters
Know your purpose

Know your future
is in

your hands

You do know that, right?

 

On Black History Month

“They did not take slaves from Africa; they took people from Africa, and made them slaves.”

For years, they brought them out like Christmas decorations, only it was February: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.

No one but my father ever spoke of those with more militant stances, more edgy, prickly points of view: Eldridge Cleaver (Iceberg Slim) Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panthers) Malcolm X before his renouncing of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Imiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).

I did not know of the brilliant, biting edge of James Baldwin, the struggles of Josephine Baker, the strength and vulnerability of the tragic, plaintive-voiced Billie Holiday, the towering courage of Paul Robeson and the fiery Vernon Jordan.

These figures made people ‘afraid’ and ‘uncomfortable.’

We learned that 6 million Jews died and saw films on the horrors of the Holocaust, but as black children we were not taught about the 9 million Africans who died on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing lane called the Middle Passage, where slaves still chained together were tossed overboard, either deliberately to lighten cargo, or jumped willingly in order to die free, or just because they didn’t survive, but neither did we learn about Nat Turner (except that he led a rebellion and died, as if that was all there was to know) or the legal victory of the black men of the HMS Amistad.

And over the years, we learned the stories of our annual decorations. We saw films on the Civil Rights movement taking place in the south, having no idea those attitudes existed in the north, and given no awareness through our history textbooks that it was a global truth, if not universal:

Dark skin is evil.

It didn’t matter what form of evil, because all sorts of stories were concocted based generally around these two principals: Black was unclean, White was pure. Black was inferior, White was superior.

Yet, I was taught in science class that in the spectrum, black is the absence of color, and white contained them all. Why were we being persecuted for something we were not?

When I sang, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, until fourth grade I did not know my fathers died differently, I believed that Pilgrims and Indians lived in harmony. When I sang America the Beautiful, I did not know that its Natives had been stripped of their dignity, slaughtered like sheep, ravaged like Sabine virgins, and tossed aside as rubble.

I didn’t even know that as low as they were, they still owned Black men and women.

I was taught that the Quakers helped slaves escape to Canada to freedom. I have learned, only recently, that it was not so. There were slaves in Canada, too, and some who were free, were sold back.

Long buried in the archives of old libraries lay the story of my people, the mixing of my own ancestry, not just here in America, but across the world, doomed to die dusty deaths in the recessed shadows of long abandoned archives, unless one truly took the time to unearth them.

And then the Internet came, and grew, and evolved, and the archives were dredged and lovingly sorted, restored, and made available. And I learned that far more Black people achieved great things in the face of impossible odds and incredible oppression: denied admission, having no transportation, being ripped off, gutting of project financing, threats of death, and they kept going and became pilots and doctors, nurses and teachers, judges and lawmen, cowboys and business owners, so many, many names bubbling out of the soil after so much blood soaked in…

Their vision was clear and focused, their drive to succeed unstoppable, unshakable, and unswerving.

And all, all, having one common thread: ancestors brought here not to live, but to work, as commodities, not people, as beasts, and not men.

And they survived.

And I do indeed live here now, a free man in America, because of their sacrifice and vision, not limited to twenty-eight days in a government building. The storehouse is mine to visit, whenever I choose:

blackpast.org

blackhistorypages

blackhistory.com

These are just a few of the storerooms available online these days, rich with information. If you would gain some perspective, I invite you to celebrate with us, and not just for the month.

There are no ‘colored only’ signs on these doors….

Sleep, children. ( dedicated to the innocent victims of madmen)

Sleep, children.
The cowards who’ve stolen your childhood will pay.

Sleep, children.
For now with your friends you will no longer play.

Sleep, children.
Your parents must carry your bodies away.

Sleep, children.
Tomorrow for you will not be a new day.

Sleep, children.
And know that you will always

be loved.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 17th, 2014
Sleep, children.
All rights reserved

Sharing Homework with Cheerleaders: A Cautionary Tale

Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt,  and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.

She was a nerd too,  with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust)  hiding my feelings.

Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.

And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.

“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”

In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.

“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”

Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.

At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.

The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?”  He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”

Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:

“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”

His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”

I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.

Wearing her cheerleader outfit.

Dammit….

D Generation

pripyat-abandoned-school

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?

Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.

We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.

Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.

Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.

“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.

And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.

Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.

And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.

So what’s my point?

At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.

With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.

You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?

It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.

As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.

I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.

I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).

As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.

I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.

I went to baseball games and ballet performances.

It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post),  but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.

So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….

In summary:

Teachers are NOT the enemy.

YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.

You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours. 

It matters to your child the most when you do.