Afew weeks ago, I arrived at school to see a police car with flashing lights parked in the driveway. Nearby, two black girls were rolling around on the ground, pummeling each other as a cop tried to pry them apart. One had threatened the other with a knife the night before, and now the girl who had been threatened was getting even with her fists.
Meanwhile, the usual group of 15 to 20 black and Hispanic guys were standing on the public sidewalk smoking and doing their best to affect the hard-core gang-banger thug look. They were dressed in the latest gangsta-rap attire: "tall T's" -- white T-shirts that come down to the knees and look like nightgowns -- baggy jeans and assorted headgear. Some sported the popular throwback basketball jerseys that sell for at least $150, while others wore the cheaper ($75) Nike Swingman jerseys. Most were sporting the latest Jordan footwear, too.
Taking in the scenes, I couldn't help thinking of Bill Cosby and the controversy he stirred with his recent comments at Constitution Hall during a 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.. I remembered how he'd said that he believed some "lower economic" African American parents had the wrong values -- that they'd rather buy their kids expensive sneakers than introduce them to Hooked on Phonics, and that they looked for someone else to blame when their kids got into trouble with the law. Cosby was criticized for being too hard on the less fortunate, but let me tell you -- the black students in my AP English classes are even harder. To them, the fighting and posturing that morning was nothing but out-and-out "ghetto."
That's a word the kids use freely, although among adults in Alexandria it's taboo. Several years ago a white principal caused an uproar here when she used it to describe the music at a middle school dance. Whatever we call it, though, the behavior and attitudes of many low-income minority students -- most of them black, but an increasing number Hispanic -- are at the root of one of the most perplexing challenges facing Alexandria and many other public school systems in the area.
In Alexandria, it's difficult even to have an honest discussion about the effect this issue has on the schools and the city. At a city council work session a month ago, council member Rob Krupicka, who is white, suggested that the city should aim to have schools that will draw families to town and keep them here. But another member, Joyce Woodson, who is black, countered that such a statement was "offensive" because it was "code" for concern about white middle-class families taking their kids out of the school system.
In one sense, Woodson is right. I've heard middle-class white parents complain that the city has "too much" public housing. But the unhappy truth is that middle-class families -- black and white -- are often vital to the success of a school system because of their dedication to learning. T.C. is 43.1 percent black and 23.8 percent Hispanic, and more than half of those kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. It's striking that, perhaps even more than their white counterparts, many black middle-class parents get very nervous about having their children go to school with a large number of kids who, in their view, choose the culture of the street over the culture of the classroom.
Obviously, there are many low-income minority kids who strive and manage to do well in school despite their disadvantages. But sadly, they're not the majority. Too many of them -- and especially the boys -- accept the idea that school is a white-oriented institution that doesn't offer anything they need or want. The boys' attitude is to idolize millionaire rappers and basketball stars, to believe that you can't be a real man and a student at the same time and that if you study you're a sellout. This set of ideas is so strong and prevalent that it often affects even middle-class or lower-middle-class students. A former student of mine who is black and whose sons went to expensive private schools on athletic scholarships told me flat out not long ago that she had feared that if her sons went to T.C., they would be dragged down by the guys with the gangsta attitude.
Charles Barclay, an excellent student of mine who'll be going to Howard University in the fall, confirms this fear. "If you try hard in school, you are seen as being white," he says. "It's like [guys] fear that they will lose touch with their own people if they stand out from the crowd and do well in school." Barclay says he has been called a sellout a couple of times, but because he has been able to "prove his manhood" by being a starter on T.C.'s basketball team, he says he doesn't "take as much heat" as other black guys who study hard.
Renee Miller, another former student of mine who is now a senior at Brigham Young University in Utah, described how her cousin bought into the street culture when he moved to Alexandria from Brooklyn in his junior year. "In Brooklyn he was going to a magnet school for bright kids and getting all A's," she said. At T.C., "he started pretending to be dumb so he could fit in with the black guys. When I asked him why he was getting C's when he knew he could get A's, he said, 'Naw, man, I don't need no A.' "
Miller said her younger brother did the same thing. "When he was around me with his friends he would say to me, 'Why do you use those big words?' as if he were embarrassed to have a relative speaking regular English. But when he and I were alone he would speak perfect English himself. Nothing frustrates me more than to see guys acting stupid to assure each other that they are black," she said.
University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of the book "Code of the Street," told me that the guys who think studying is selling out "are caught up in a street culture that is in opposition to middle-class values, which they see as white. Through their clothes and language and behavior they think they are dissing conventional society."
Clothes and other accouterments are a major part of the equation. Renee Miller described to me what are called "ghetto fabulous" kids, "the ones a half-step up from dire poverty, whose parents want to give them everything -- the new PlayStation, the latest Jordans, the flashy cell phones. They put all their pride in their possessions and lose sight of morals and how they should act in public," she said.
For Renee, the essence of this mentality is that "you can't see farther than what is in front of you. When you turn on the TV and see Lil Jon and Ludacris and 50 Cent and they are rappin' about the situation you are living in, you feel that they have the answer, that being like them or like the basketball players on TV is the only way not to have to struggle. Everything else is for white people."
The result for teachers is that if you have a class where these kids predominate, you are often doing remedial work. New teachers coming into the school are shocked at first that most of these kids won't do any schoolwork at home. When I've assigned my "regular," -- i.e., non-AP -- English classes such novels as "The Catcher in the Rye" or memoirs like Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," most of the American-born black kids come in unprepared and ask for class time to read, leaving me with the option of failing half the class or slowing down and allowing those who don't -- or can't -- work at home to catch up.
In many ways, these kids drive the academic agenda of schools. Take the Virginia Standards of Learning exams. They were initiated as a desperate quick-fix effort to close the gap between low-income minority kids and middle-class kids. The thinking was that if schools like T.C., with a large number of minority students, were labeled as failing, teachers and administrators would suddenly feel pressured to transform these kids into scholars. In fact, the performance of minority students on the SOLs has been so poor that the tests have been made easier to avoid a political uproar over disproportionate numbers of minority students not getting diplomas.
In the national debate over education, it's fashionable -- and politically safe -- to blame the schools for poor test scores and self-defeating attitudes. Inner-city schools, the argument goes, don't have as many resources as schools in the more affluent suburbs. But Alexandria has the highest per-pupil expenditure of any school system in the Washington metropolitan area. Since T.C. is the city's only public high school, every kid is offered the same opportunities. The clearest evidence that the culture kids come from can play a bigger role than the school is that immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, some of whom have spoken English for only two or three years, are leaving many American-born black kids in the academic dust.
No one sees this more clearly than the kids themselves. Senior Bryan Walton, who is American-born, has a Nigerian cousin living with his family. He thinks that "African guys are more focused and disciplined; they have goals. African parents are determined to make their kids work in school. African American guys are spoiled. They won't work their way up the totem pole the way people from other countries will."
Reka Barton, who will attend the University of Virginia in the fall, agrees. "The African guys come here wanting to get an education; they know it will pay off. A lot of African American guys don't understand that -- their thing is to act tough," she says.
And the problem isn't limited to boys. I see a lot of focused, determined African American girls like Reka. But I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that there is a group of hard-core girls who are the antithesis of young women like her. These girls are so crass that they are a source of both embarrassment and amusement to sophisticated black girls. Shouting, cursing, talking a garbled blue streak and threatening other girls are their trademarks. In the halls and even in classrooms, their decibel level can be deafening. "I'm so embarrassed for them," says Dominique Justice, who will attend Radford College in the fall. "They don't realize how ghetto they appear to others. They are desperate for attention. They think fighting is cute."
Senior Jaselle White says these girls learn their behavior at home. "If you see your mother yelling and cussing you get to think it is normal. They make themselves look stupid being all out -- fighting, yelling." Jaselle says that some girls aspire to no more than being "video 'hos -- the kind of half-naked ones you see on the BET videos at three in the morning."
"When I try to tell girls to be careful of their image, that they are portraying themselves as rude and obnoxious, they accuse me of being a hater," says Mathia Biggs, who will attend Florida A&M next year. "Because I don't go along with them, they think I am stuck up and conceited."
The odd thing is that, while they may appear threatening to outsiders, especially when they hang around in big groups in the school lobby or outside the cafeteria, so many of these kids are pussycats. As students, they really frustrate me, but as individuals, they can be delightful. One morning before school last week, I went over to talk to the gangsta wannabes. At first they were a little wary of a teacher with gray hair coming up to them, but when I started asking them about their fashions, they immediately warmed up.
I find that when they get to know you, they usually treat you with respect. In fact, they go even further; they try to protect you. I remember a couple of years ago hollering out my classroom window at some girls making a lot of noise on the sidewalk below. They hollered back at me to shut up. Two girls in my class instantly raced out of the room to "get" the noisemakers for insulting their teacher.
Of course, that isn't what I want. What I want is for the kids to adopt better attitudes, to be engaged in class, to care about themselves and others, and to recognize and respect their own potential. But how do we get there? And how much can the school do?
T.C. is undeniably superb at controlling these kids so that they don't run wild. But we're not so good at motivating them. I'm not sure how much a school with 2,000 students can actually do in that regard, but a good start, it seems to me, would be to hire some black men as guidance counselors. There's not a single male, black or white, among our nine counselors -- an obvious flaw, in my book.
Next year, we're considering taking one small step: banning the CD Walkmans that kids listen to between classes and often sneak into class as well. There's been some vague talk among teachers about a dress code, but would it work? It might help the school's image if those guys smoking out front every morning were dressed in khaki pants and dress shirts with ties, but I'm not sure it would change their attitudes.
In truth, there aren't any quick, simple solutions such as those the education bureaucrats and politicians promise with their "high stakes" tests. Yet in the long run I do see hope.
I've taught long enough to have the children of former students in my classes, and in almost every case, even when I remember the parents as being thoroughly into the street culture, I've found that their children are much more serious about school than the parents were. It's as though the parents eventually learned, even if too late, that being scholarly wasn't the sellout they thought it was and have done everything they could to make sure their children got that message. At least, that's what I think.
Author's e-mail: May6dog@aol.com