(The following op-ed piece appeared in the Sept. 1999 issue of METRO EXCHANGE)
On any given Saturday morning during the regular school year, a casual walk along East Broadway in New York's Chinatown will find a plethora of Asian parents and grandparents who are barely able to comprehend any semblance of the English language, accompanying pre-teen school age children, standing outside the Chatham Square Public Library approximately twenty minutes before opening time. In stark contrast, talk to teachers from many other urban schools about open house, (parent-teacher night), where they are required to stay until 7 or 8pm to accommodate working parents and their pupils, and you will often hear of visits by 4 to 6 parents of a 28 to 32 student class.
As America closes in on year 2000 education, there is no feasible excuse for American school bathrooms to be devoid of toilet paper, soap or running water, but some are. School auditoriums were built for the experience of youthful collective entertainment and learning experiences, not a venue of separated makeshift classrooms, but some are. And schools are supposed to be peaceful environs welcoming the preparation for responsible citizenship, not patrolled fortresses with armed protectors, but some are. And as relevant issues like class size, crumbling structures and teacher salaries are singled out as causes of deficient education, they have precious little to do with the mindset of a child leaving home in the morning to spend several hours in what should be a wholesome, educational, life affirming environment.
When we witness a child incapable of saying 'please' or 'thank you,' spouting a vocabulary replete with four letter expletives, an inherent penchant for littering and a disrespect for all things older and wiser, the conditions of their learning institutions is not the first thought to enter our mind. Why then do we expect children without the capacity of basic manners and simple respect will succumb to the educational authorities we hold responsible for their tutorial development?
The post Civil War and Jim Crow south saw poorly paid teachers use rundown quarters with latrine facilities in an outhouse, educate future teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, ministers and entrepreneurs. Often, without the availability of school buses, standard books, taxpayer paid breakfasts and lunches, and in many cases without parents who could read or write, black children received the kind of quality education that 90's technology and basic creature comforts is failing to deliver. With child protection laws unavailable to them, many of these children worked to help the family and performed other chores that occupied much of their time, yet still received a good education. With the advent of integration, parents risked life, limb and livlihood to have their children educated. And with precious few role models and constant encouragement from the extended family, black children made their way.
Today, far too many young black boys feel like their best way out is to "be like Mike," totally oblivious to the fact that Mike spent four years at the University of North Carolina and is capable of conversing with cognizable coherency.
The present arguments over public vs. private schools, discriminate funding, school conditions, class sizes and teacher salaries can be revealing exercises in futility. Many parochial school teachers earn less, operate on smaller budgets, with smaller support systems and less technology but often receive better results than their public school counterparts. However, public schools in largely Asian communities are generally among the best performing schools in their districts. Talk show host and author Tony Brown, in pointing out the fallacy of forced busing to achieve quality education through integration exclaims that if they really think that to be the answer, "Bus me to Chinatown!"
The public schools in predominately Asian communities are not equipped with higher paid teachers, better bathrooms and smaller classes. What they are equipped with is quality parental involvement. And not just there! Ride a New York City bus during the afternoon of a school year and you will find adolescent children of all races and ethnic backgrounds reading aloud to an accompanying parent, guardian or babysitter with remarkable fluidity.
Denied access to formal education for most of our history here, eternal parental vigilance toward our children was the characteristic that drove the desire for education of black children in America. It was the only thing that we could control. Now, in our efforts to control the system, we have lost control of the children.
In addition to teaching our children at an early age to say 'please' and 'thank you' - to use the proper receptacles for trash, to respect their elders and the property of others, we might remember to ask them what they would like to be when they grow up, to read them children's books to expand and excite their young minds and imagination - or simply take them to the library on a Saturday.