Hugh Price still bubbles like a little boy trying to tell you about his day at the circus, afraid some detail will get lost or that you won't quite appreciate the significance of what he's witnessed.
His adventure? A National Achievers Day program four or five years ago in San Diego's Bayview Baptist Church.
"There were all these kids spread out before us -- maybe 350 altogether -- all of whom had earned a B average or better," he recalled again over coffee a week ago. Half of the inductees into the National Achievers Society (sponsored by the National Urban League, which Price headed at the time) were boys. And there were a thousand or more well-wishers, including bishops and other dignitaries, in the church.
It was like a school honors day program, only several times as big and, since it was in a black church, a great deal longer.
But what Price remembers most is the pride on the faces of the young people -- no embarrassment over academic success, none of the studying-is-acting-white nonsense one hears too often. Just pride of accomplishment.
He says he recalls well over a dozen such days -- at Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y.; in Savannah, Ga.; and in other towns he visited while promoting his book "Achievement Matters."
"I love a parade -- for achievers," said Price, who now co-chairs the nonprofit and philanthropy practice group at the New York law firm Piper Rudnick. He thinks that if the National Achievers idea swept the country, black achievement would take off like a rocket.
And school volunteerism as well. "Volunteers respond to recognition just as surely as children do," Price believes. "We could have a whole series of peer-group competitions for volunteers -- Links against Links, Elks against Elks, churches against churches. We need to do something at a scale and at a decibel level that says to the children, 'Achievement matters -- and we're here to help you do it.' "
Nor, he says, is he talking about a one-shot affair. "True, the public praise comes on a day certain, but the buildup and the follow-up are where we can really make an impact on the children."
He thinks the parades are an important part of it all. He may be right, but I suspect the parades are just the manifestation of something far more important: a personal commitment by rank-and-file adults to the academic success of the children. The forms will vary according to taste and local custom -- a parade here, a newspaper spread there, a civic center rally elsewhere.
Some people manage to reach the youngsters through sports or music, some through visits to job sites, some by teaching specific school subjects. Orlando Doyle of Detroit created Impact Seminars for Youth, a program in which he recruits hundreds of successful adults to spend one hour a year at one school, talking about the connection between their schooling and their careers. With so many adults flooding the schools, the odds that a particular child will find an adult to relate to are greatly increased.
The key point, though, is personal commitment. Politicians, educators and school officials may be committed, too, but sooner or later they are drawn to their institutional priorities: defending their turf, protecting their budgets, saving their jobs. Moreover, politicians and educators tend to look to the transformation of institutions to set things right. If we can only get the right programs installed, the right budgets enacted and the right superintendent on the job, then good things will happen for our children.
What Price has witnessed over the years is a reminder of the importance of involving children intimately in their own education by infecting them with a love of learning. I've recently come across a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery that makes the point:
"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
And, Price might add, it wouldn't hurt to throw a nice party for good sailors.