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In Scholarship, Self-Discipline Surpasses Race

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page C01

Irecently talked with a black couple from Montgomery County who are the parents of three high-achieving children: a ninth-grader who is in a public high school magnet program; a seventh-grader who was accepted into a middle school magnet program but decided to stay at the school she was attending; and a fifth-grader who was accepted into a magnet program and is now deciding which school he'd like to attend.

The parents agreed to tell me what they did to help make this happen but asked that I not identify the family. They didn't want their children subjected to the glare of the public spotlight, which might distinguish them from their friends and create the impression that being black and smart is somehow unusual. And that was fine with me.

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A group called African American Parents of Magnet School Applicants has asked the Montgomery County school board to suspend the middle school magnet application process out of concern that too few blacks are accepted. The group wanted to know if the process was fair; I wanted to know how those few black students got in, regardless.

The father of the three smart kids told me: "All they have to do is go to school, do their homework and do their chores. That's their job. Those are priorities and requirements. They know that's what we expect, and they take pride in doing those things well."

The mother added: "During the school week, there is no television and no electronics -- only on Fridays after school until Sunday night. Then it's over. They know that. After school, they get 45 minutes of free time, then homework, dinner and more homework. They carry books. They love to read, and they are always reading something -- on the bus, wherever. Books are like toys around here."

In our conversations, race came up a lot less than responsibility. They are black and the impact of racism in America is obvious to them. But, they believe, if black students approach schoolwork with discipline and a sense of responsibility, they'll have a chance to lift that historic burden and even convert it into a source of strength. The mother said: "Our kids never have a problem with self-esteem. They have had people say, 'Oh, you're smart,' and they are not always comfortable with that. We just tell them that they have to set an example. They have to let others know that being smart is a good thing and let them know that they can achieve as well. To teach others, that is their role."

The father said: "The teachers' job is to educate our children. Our job is to make sure our children arrive at school prepared to learn."

A good report card calls for dining out that night. The mother said: "We celebrate achievement by letting them know, 'Oh, you did a wonderful job. Now you can go tutor so-and-so.' "

The mother was the first in her family to go to college. Her father had a ninth-grade education and worked as security guard at a post office. Her mother was a secretary, having spent one year in a secretarial school after graduating from high school.

The father was one of five children -- all of whom graduated from college. His dad served 22 years in the Air Force, retiring as a tech sergeant before holding several jobs with the postal system. His mother was a homemaker.

The couple met in college, which they paid for with loans and part-time jobs. They went on to law school. Today, she's a stay-at-home mother -- and a lawyer. He's a judge.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a child, no matter how well educated, will turn out as the parents had hoped. Nor is it possible to really say what made the difference in a child who did.

"When my wife was pregnant, I'd read a prayer to her stomach every night," the father said. The mother added: "When we hear comments about our kids like, 'They are such a joy,' we know that's not us. That's God's hand on them."

Maybe that's the secret. The parents don't regard the children so much as gifted and black as simply precious gifts.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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