Education has long been at the top of my family’s list of priorities, even decades before Brown v. Board of Education, the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South and affirmative action policies which opened the doors to prestigious bastions of higher learning that formerly barred Blacks from attending.
In fact, our insistence upon striving for academic excellence has only increased from generation to generation, following the example of my parents and my former wife’s parents.
So, you can imagine the pride I felt earlier this week while taking a short visit to my hometown of Detroit where my firstborn child and daughter walked across the Fox Theatre stage to receive her master of education degree from Wayne State University. As I looked across the sea of jubilant families, friends and graduates, I find myself thinking back to the words shared and lessons I learned from my parents. And I found myself thanking them both, wishing they could be there with me but also knowing that in many ways, they really were.
Three vignettes from the past came roaring back. The first was an episode from elementary school when, as a sixth-grader, I followed the crowd during our lunchtime, leaving the school’s playground and walking with a group of other kids to the nearby hamburger joint. Who knew that my father would have decided to take that day off early from work? Who knew that while I was “chilling like a villain,” Daddy would drive up next to me and snatch me off the sidewalk and into his car? Who knew?
It would be my one and only attempt to skip school.
The second memory is one very early in my education when it was determined that I was a “gifted” child. However, I was similarly deemed to be incorrigible because I could not stay in my seat or keep my mouth closed in class. When my father went to meet with the principal and teachers, he told them it was their job to keep me busy. He told them that as part of a two-parent home of educators, he and Mom demanded that those in charge give me work that would challenge my mind and feed my inquisitive spirit. He also told them that he expected results — from the educators in charge and from me. And he expected nothing less.
So, while some may have wanted to place me on the list of little Black, disruptive boys, Daddy stepped up and squelched all related efforts or considerations.
Finally, as I moved from elementary school to junior high, an all-boys college preparatory Catholic high school and college, one phrase would often echo in my mind — something that both of my parents would say with great frequency, “C means cheat.”
Their explanation was simple: because I was not an average student, because I was not a “C” student, that for me to go on automatic pilot in the classroom when I had the potential to achieve greater success was tantamount to cheating. In fact, when I earned average grades, my father would actually make me pay him — decreasing my allowance during my formative years and later, withholding “fun money” that I would receive from time to time during my matriculation at undergraduate and graduate school.
I share these stories because I have grown weary of seeing young Black children salivate over standing on bus stops, smoking cigarettes or blunts, disrespecting adults and walking home from school without one book under their arms.
If they only knew the sacrifices our ancestors have made so that they can attend any school they desire. Perhaps what really gets my goat isn’t that they do not know but rather that some simply don’t care. The mind is still a terrible thing to waste. My parents knew the deal. And I am a better man because of it. Now, I watch my own children and grandchildren follow the family tradition. That’s joy!