He kicked her and ran. There was no apparent reason for the attack other than pure deviltry of an 8-year-old boy who decided to mark his first day at school by kicking the teacher.
Years ago educators "would have said this is a disturbed kid and they would have sent him over to us to be labeled and fixed," said James Comer, professor of psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center and speaker at the annual National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) conference.
Now, he said, some educators are questioning their own systems. Reviewing the boy's case, Comer and colleagues found the youngster had been reared by his grandmother in a small, close-knit town in North Carolina. Without any preparation he had been wrenched away from that home and sent North "to get a good education."
Locked into a strange city, among strange relatives and thrust into a strange school, he reacted in the only way he knew. He kicked the teacher.
"An 8-year-old youngster cannot say, 'Mrs. Jones I'm from the rural area and I've had all my support systems removed and I'm kind of anxious,' "said Comer.
The immediate problem was diffused but what, he asked, about the future?
The school, a predominantly black, elementary school in New Haven's inner-city, had a myriad of problems. About 50 percent of the pupils were welfare cases. Few parents participated in school events. Most of the teachers were not trained in child psychology, and those that were had not learned methods applicable to the problems they were seeing daily: "such as the fight-and-flight syndrome," said Comer.
Furthermore, many of the teachers were working far away from home, friends and family, lacking the same supports as their students.
After working five years with a team of educators, mental-health specialists, parents and administrators, the school, said Comer, became a "model in modern-day education . . . and these were parents on welfare prior to that time."
Behavior problems diminished. Academic scores rose. The P-TA increased from 30 parents to 400. Two parents became school teachers, two social workers.
As gains were made in other schools accepting similar programs, "We began to ask what's wrong with our (educational) procedure?" said Comer. "It's not the kid, it's the procedure."
In a tide of social consciousness touched off partly by Reaganomics, partly by instinct, black child-care professionals are turning introspective.
Many are asking what's wrong. Why are practices no longer providing solutions to the problems of the people they're supposed to be serving?
Some are asking, what can we do, as black people, to heal the problems in the black family, to stem the increase of youth crime, high infant mortality, unemployment and social alienation?
More than 500 people attended the NBCDI conference, trekking cross-country from towns like Compton, Calif., and Xenia, Ohio. They discussed the quality of life among black families in America, explored child care in the African family, children's literature, federal programs for children and the educational system, among other issues.
Their overriding concern: Who cares about the overwhelming needs of the black child and black family? Their response, in the motto accepted by NBCDI: "Who, if not us, will be responsible?"
In New York City, "especially in Brooklyn, we probably have more people from North Carolina than in all of Raleigh," said Pat Morris, associate dean of Fordham University's Family and Child Welfare Graduate School of Social Services.
"What I say to some of my friends who are now part of the problem -- they don't want to teach these black kids -- I say, 'Hey, if you don't get them in the school they're going to be out on the street after your mama."
Said Michigan University Prof. Richard English: "The real problem American families are now facing is not a symptom of family breakdown, rather it is a response to social change. There is no standard. No monolithic model of American family. We are living in a time of contrasting morality."
Among statistics presented at the conference:
* Parent role models: 44 percent of all black children live in single-family homes headed by women. Twelve percent live in homes where neither biological parent is present.
* Education: Over 1 million school-age black children are not enrolled in school. In many families the head of the household did not graduate from high school. Thirteen percent of all black youths 17 or older are functionally illiterate.
* Housing: Black children are placed in facilities for the homeless and retarded at twice the rate for white children.
* Health: Black infants are almost twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday. Forty percent of inner-city black children are not immunized against diphtheria, polio or other childhood diseases.
* Employment: 30 percent of all black children have no parent in the work force.
"I am deeply worried that because black families have been able to get over and use other forms (of survival) we feel that's enough," said Michigan University sociology Prof. Walter A. Allen. "We're talking about the quality of life . . . I'm not talking about what the federal government can do, but what our own institutions can do.
"Strong black families are able to survive because of strong black communities. The black church provides support under a variety of conditions. It provides sustenance and so forth for many families. It provides various kinds of socialization.
"The role black teachers play in the socialization process is independent of themselves. This happens independent of social class. These are the processes in the community that serve to support."
In a presentation on black literature, award-winning author and illustrator Tom Feelings advocated social change through art. Though an artist all his life, Feelings said he "didn't really start drawing until I began drawing the faces I had seen all my life," in his inner-city Brooklyn community.
"You must show a reality," he said, "even if it's very painful, without showing cynicism. It must also show a job, the job that allowed us to survive."
Said Washington librarian and author Sharon Bell Mathis, "Our children are already strong. What we need to do is remind them of it."
And, "Sometimes we have to show children that sometimes we have to stop thinking about our problems," said Washington writer Eloise Greenfield, explaining her rationale for Honey, I Love -- a lilting, carefree poem of a child prattling about the things she loves, from her southern cousin's way of talking to one of the neighbors turning on the fire hose to make a "flying pool . . . Honey, I love a flying pool."
But advocacy for black education is going to require more than "colorful rhetoric and rhythmic exhortations," cautioned Carol Gibson, director of education for the National Urban League. "Within our communities we must initiate action."
Said Georgia Sullivan, director of the Head Start Program at the Charles R. Drew Post-Graduate Medical School, Compton, Calif. -- "The only black medical school west of the Mississippi":
"I don't like all these statistics without coming away with something we can do. In my community we don't have a show. We don't have a skating rink. It makes me mad. But we can give our kids some music. We have old grandmas there who can sit under a tree and teach our children how to crochet and do the right thing."