Last weekend I attended a college preparation program that featured a panel of college students who told the high school-ers in the audience what college is like, how to get in, stay in and do well. One young man mesmerized the crowd when he told his story. You could hear a pin drop in this room of about 100 teenagers and their parents. No one moved. MM is a student at City University of New York in the MD program. He is an intelligent, very mature, responsible and caring young man. When he spoke about his choice to attend City College he stated without shame or hesitation that his mother, that he could not go away because his mother is a single mom and needs to be protected. He did not provide circumstances or particulars, but he was adamant about the fact that while he was going on to become a doctor, he would not do so in such a way that his mother would be left to fend for herself.
As he spoke, I could feel the love this young man had for his mother. I could just sense how much she did for him. I could smell the lunches, the cookies and the breakfast in the morning and feel the aches in her bones from being up late nights doing whatever she could to make sure he would be able to focus on his schoolwork. I could hear her pleas for support and resources for her son, and my knees began to burn and tears welled up in my eyes as I stood there and watched this young man, just from the thought of the many nights his mother spent on her knees crying out to God as she prayed for her son. This young man was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, without even seeming to notice it.
I recognized his stature. I recognized his heart, I recognized my life in his eyes. You see my son, although he went away to school, has the same concern about me. He loves me, and just like MM he appreciates all that I did for him as a single mother. He also cares deeply about my well-being and like it or not, he walks in the role of protector and provider-- despite the fact that I always told him that I am the parent. No matter what, many young men are innately protectors and providers, the question is when does that need to protect their family, their single mothers kick in? And when it does what does the young man choose to do?
If there is no man in the house, it is likely to kick in prematurely, and like MM and my son Sean, many young black men grow up before their time. They may not have had a man at home, but they understand what manhood means and they step up way too soon, even when not encouraged by their moms to do so. Society demands it of them. They have to worry about police, crime, death, healthy issues, peer pressure, gang violence, drugs, girls, identity and more. They take all this on and they still realize that real men are responsible. They are protectors, providers, they do what they must to make sure that their family is well. Real men take care of their business, even if they are 16 years old in high school and struggling with their grades. They will not ask a struggling single mother for money. They will not leave their mom alone to fend for herself. They will not ask for money if they are in school and she just lost her job.
They worry if the family is about to be evicted. They cannot help themselves. The choices they make to help out may not be good ones, but they will not sit idly by and let the family go down without doing something. Not the responsible and caring young men.
For those young men who are not doing well in school from their early grades, having been routed through special education classes, failing grades, suspensions, poor standardized test scores, substandard educational programs and more... logic may say "I am not accomplishing anything in school, my family needs to eat... Let me drop-out and make some money.." That is the critical moment, and by then the system has already failed these young men.
When this revelation hit me after listening to MM intently - I wondered what happens to the the young men who like he and my son did excel, but are unable to cover the costs associated with college. I spoke to a friend about it and he shared an interesting story with me. A young man he mentors is one such student, good grades, excellent focus, great potential, but he would not apply to college. Deadlines came and went, and everyone was asking this young man why he would not just submit the applications. With his grades, he was a shoe in for some of the best universities in the country. After much prodding and near threatening him to submit his college applications he confessed to my friend that his single mom simply did not have the 65 dollar application fee. Embarrassed, ashamed, unsure what to do or who to turn to for money, this young man would rather suffer in silence and forgo college than burden his mother or ask someone else for the application fees. Yes, I know fees are often waived, I know anyone would likely have given this young man the money had he asked, but in his mind he had to do this on his own. My friend cut the young man a check right on the spot and within 24 hours the college application was submitted. That was a young man with a mentor. What about all the young men without a man like my friend in their lives?
Are these young men failures? Are they just bad boys who cannot do the work and are headed for prison? Are they mentally unstable products of special education who cannot do any better, or is it that maybe no one has dedicated time, resources, focus and concern enough to help these young men work through their problems and overcome the obstacles? Children are not here on earth to raise themselves. None of us can get through life alone. No matter how smart, how rich, how blessed. I submit to the world that the 60 percent or more of young black men who drop out of high school do not do so because they dream of being a high school drop-out hanging on the corner, listening to Lil Wayne. I just do not believe it. Nor do I think that every young man who is selling drugs, pimping, and living a life of crime dreamed of living such a life.
I certainly do not condone the choice to be a criminal, but I do believe that as a society we must reconsider how we are educating our children, and look at what is going on in their lives and their homes. It is not good enough to allow young men and women to walk through life at tender ages with 800lb gorillas on their backs.
Each case requires further investigation, but I know enough young men to know that many of them have had to grow up way before their time. Yes, the absence of fathers is a problem. A major problem. So is the absence of male mentors, quality teachers, straight talk, resources and cash.
As a nation it is essential that we refuse to accept an epidemic of drop-outs among any population of students in the United States, gender, race or nationality notwithstanding. Throwing all black boys in the cesspool of incompetence and ignorance is the easy way out. What we have to do is look for ways to change the outcome, and be on hand to help black boys improve their academic experience from the day they begin the school experience. Looking at high school is a little very very late. Let's start early, let's push hard and let's shift this paradigm. First, let's change our conversation about black boys and education from what is negative to what is possible. All this negative talk about black boys and the dismal education statistics creates a mindset of failure in a young boy before he even enters middle school.
Second, let's find a way to make it lucrative and inviting for qualified young black men who do make it through college successfully to become teachers. Men need to see men in the classroom. And Finally, third, find a young man, your child or not, and encourage him to go to college. To go to college he has to graduate from high school with the right type of diploma. Not every diploma will get you into college and the local/GED diplomas may not be accepted for college admission or certain employment positions, and are disproportionately issued to young black men. If we as a community of caring adults set the eyes of young black men on college from the time they are in elementary school, and guide them adequately through academia- graduation from high school is implied and far more likely. We