Sometimes it is hard for Vernard Portis to get up at 6:15 a.m., especially on cold snowy mornings, to catch a bus so he can make it to his 8 o'clock class at H.D. Woodson High School. And it's tough having to do the laundry, scrub the bathroom, sweep and vacuum his home in Southeast Washington, then do his homework instead of hanging out with the boys.
But Portis, 17, does all of these things, and when all is said and done, he's glad he did because somebody took the time to teach him that commitment, hard work and honesty are what life is all about and that wealth is not always measured in dollars.
Pity the people who have been caught up in the fast life, mourn for the souls lost to handguns and drugs. But how about a hand for the thousands of young black men like Portis, who live in and around these tough neighborhoods, who know people who have been shot and killed and strung out on drugs, and still, despite the distractions and danger, have managed to reach manhood in good standing?
As the cries for help come from neighborhoods under siege, one need only look inside homes such as the Portis'. Here, on an obscure little street just off Alabama Avenue SE, the mystery to survival unfolds in the arms of a loving mother and caring friends.
For those who say it can't be that simple, remember that warnings of the current crisis were forecast years ago. Even before infant mortality became the shame of the city, before teen-age pregnancies rose to outrageous proportions, Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund were cautioning that poverty and inadequate child care, poor parenting included, would haunt this town for years to come.
Now, as we reap what we have sown, this forever crisis-oriented populace seems willing to at least ask what can be done.
For many of our young adults, the answer is nothing. It is simply too late. But a new batch of children is headed toward a critical adolescence and for those interested in saving them, what better way to start than by listening to one who has been?
As president of the Alpha-Omega Young Men's Association at Woodson High, District president of the Future Business Leaders of America, vice chairman of the finance committee of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's Youth Leadership Alumni Association and recipient of an honorary mention in the Concerned Black Men's "Student of the Year" contest, Portis holds views about what is needed that are as good as anybody's.
"What keeps me going is support from family and friends," he says. "Young people can't do everything alone -- although we may not even know it at first. We need people to reach out and help, volunteer at schools and recreation centers. I find that every time I make a small achievement, do anything that helps break the stereotype of black males as drug users and criminals, I receive praise from adults. That makes me want to try even harder."
Says Cleo Davis, assistant principal at Woodson and founder of the young men's association there, "Parental involvement is the key. Vernard's mother is a very strong force in his nurturing. All a child needs is a significant person in his or her life. Having both parents is nice, but not necessary. I didn't have a father, but thanks to concerned teachers and a coach, I was saved."
Says Thomasina M. Portis, Vernard's mother, "I have, from the cradle, tried to instill the proper standards of behavior in my children. I let them know that we are all products of our environment, but we still have choices that can make our lives better or worse. A lot of young men somehow end up believing that the world owes them something, but the truth is they owe it to themselves to be the best they can be."
She adds that you must love the child, make the child feel capable of doing good. The result, she says, is a development of values and sense of respect -- not just for the lives of others, but for the child's own life as well.