Remember the people who formed our early lives. Remember everything they did to prod us to study hard, follow the straight and narrow, and give us confidence and ambition. Then imagine, if you will, growing up with none of those people in your corner.
Imagine yourself as a young black male growing up in despair. Imagine school as a place in which you always failed. Imagine having nothing but lint in your pockets and living in a neighborhood in which the only men you saw who had money were pimps or drug dealers or just plain thieves.
Imagine college as something inconceivable. Maybe you would not have known any men who ever attended one. Imagine the only honest men you know as beggars or alcoholics, men who sold their blood as donors to fill what they had left with cheap wine. Imagine bitter black women on welfare, shackled with children they may never have wanted, cursing the men who abandoned them, and imagine how long you might have stayed as a penniless, jobless husband. Think about it because you might have come to the conclusion that your family was better off without your no-income mouth to feed, too.
Then, you might have watched the same news broadcast that a young teen-ager named Lance McNair watched many years ago. Instead of what you might have focused on in that broadcast, you might have heard only what he heard -- that you could quit school at 16. He did.
He turned to the life of the men he saw who had money. He is now an inmate at the Lorton Reformatory. He may be there until 1992, and that has taught him a lesson.
"Education is the key to life," he says now.
A young man who might have been very much like Lance is on the streets now, having dropped out of Hine Junior High School in the District. He is selling ugs now, flashing his "B.R." (bank roll, lots of cash) on the street, taunting his former classmates who have no money, influencing them now, as well. He is barely 16.
Statistics merely make the problem seem worse. Black males, as a group, score lower than any other demographic group on standardized tests. They make up about 5 percent of the nation's population, but account for nearly one-third of all murder victims.
Black males are more than twice as likely as white males to be unemployed. In the crucial teen-age years, when a job might mean the difference between hope and total alienation, black unemployment stands at 34.4 percent. By one estimate, 20 percent of all black males who make it to college fail to graduate. The numbers of black males who attend college in the first place is falling, far faster than the number of black women who go to college and graduate. That fact seems to indicate even more problems for the stability of future black families.
So, what can be done? It is too simplistic to say only that education is the key. When a young man has a strong family to go home to, a good father to emulate, books to read, pocket money, maybe even a personal computer, education by textbooks is fine. It must be much more than that with disadvantaged black youths growing up in the midst of poverty and crime.
Regularly, Hine Junior High School principal Princess Whitfield, calls on a group known as Concerned Black Men to talk to her students about avoiding teen-age pregnancies. But there is something else at work when they come. Her students see several well- dressed and stylish black male lawyers. They are aggressively confident, honest, articulate, impressive. They represent what it is possible to achieve in this life. If it seems meaningless that a young female student goes into a swoon when she sees one of these lawyers, then imagine being the male student who is trying to impress her. He has something new to think about.
Mrs. Whitfield spends a lot of time taking her students on tours, to classical music concerts, and she tries to get every successful young black man she can find to come and talk with her students. All that may sound frivolous, but there is a purpose to it.
"Education for these children can no longer be just the basics," she says. "We have to show them that there is another avenue, another path they can take instead of what they go home to every day."
What can happen then?
There was a young black man whose father died when he was a teen- ager. His mother told him one day that she could provide for the other children, but not for him, too. He had to leave home, and things seemed pretty bleak. His family couldn't help much, but along the way he kept running into black people who saw his talent. They prodded him into college, then into law school. He became a judge, a partner in a large law firm, a state bar examiner. I know him pretty well. He's my dad.
Reports, such as a recently released study on persistent poverty in the Washington area, tell us one thing, that too many kids who grow up on the streets will live and die in the streets, or in some prison, unless everyone who has some hope to offer gives it freely. They have to see and know us to know what is possible. They will not be able to see that on their own.