Monday, August 07, 2006

A Wakeup Call

Friday, August 4, 2006. Kokomo, Indiana. The speaker flips to a new powerpoint slide. A man dressed in a snazzy suit is shown. He’s holding a cup. The speaker asks the audience if they know who this is. Young voices yell out, “Bishop!” Not a single older person knows who the cup-holding man is. That’s the problem, the speaker points out. Parents don’t know how their children are being programmed.

It’s the second annual “Back To School Explosion” sponsored by the Carver Community Center. I’m one of the few white faces in a room filled with parents and their children. The speaker is Leroy Robinson, our special speaker from Indianapolis. This man’s message is timely and direct. I scramble for an envelope to take down quotes.

He starts out by chiding the audience for flocking to the back of the room instead of filling in the front-row seats. “We’re still going to the back of the bus, the back of the classroom.” Then Mr. Robinson specifically tells parents to set the example for their kids.

He goes on,”A computer only operates on what’s been programmed inside it.” The picture on the screen is of a chip overlapping centered on a young man’s head. Mr. Robinson points out that “The chip inside your head -- your brain -- is being programmed every minute every day.”

“How many of you believe knowledge is power?” To prove that he believes it, the speaker explains that before he goes into a town to speak, he does research on it. Based on what he had read about Kokomo and what he had seen in it, he makes a few observations and suggestions. He motions with his hand: “There’s no stop sign in this direction.” Outside the Carver Center, when a child walks out from the double doors, he has to cross a street that has no stop sign for the cars coming in his direction. While this sign needed to be addressed, there was at least one sign at the Carver Center that he does like. It’s the one posted in the gym, the one that discourages sloppy pant-wearing. It reads, “No sagging.”

The next slide is titled “The Cultural Acquisition Process” showed some of the influences that “program” kids. These influences include ethnicity, health, sexuality, race, the Arts, electronic media, neighborhood, church, and religion. Mr. Robinson explains a child’s behavior, saying, “However he acts, he’s been programmed to do certain things.”

Then the examples start coming. They aren’t pleasant, but they do prove his point. For example, cigarette companies have learned how to tailor their ads to target a specific audience. “Young black kids like things that shine. They like diamonds.” The picture he shows is a shimmering blue background behind a glistening picture of a -- cigarette pack.

Besides the pictures that appeal to young people, there’s the people they identify with, or yearn to be like. The speaker flips to a new powerpoint slide. A man dressed in a snazzy suit is shown. He’s holding a cup. The speaker asks the audience if they know who this is. Young voices yell out, “Bishop!” Not a single older person knows who the cup-holding man is. That’s the problem, the speaker points out. Parents don’t know how their children are being programmed.

Mr. Robinson starts explaining just who Bishop is. Not only does he always carry a cup with him, he also loves using the word “pimp.” Because of his songs, many of the young boys who listen to him have started saying they want to be p----, even if they don’t know what the word means. Mr. Robinson polls the audience again. He wants to know who saw Bishop with “two females on dogchains walking down the red carpet. Who saw it?” He pauses and young hands fly up everywhere. “All the kids saw it.”

He describes the “Bishop’s” influence: because it’s cool “our young women want to be called ‘p---tresses’ or ‘p---ettes.’” The guy’s even marketed a drink called “P--- Juice.” Mr. Robinson’s response is characteristic: “They have been programmed. We have to fight that programming.” Why does he feel so strongly on this point? “Our kids are being programmed for destruction.”

(I’ve been scrawling notes on the back of the envelope. At this point I have to turn the envelope over and regroup.)

Mr. Robinson is speaking quickly and forcefully. From this point on he continues giving parents a picture of what their children are being exposed to. He also tells them how they can begin to counteract it. “As an educator, you have to get their attention. Put a picture of Snoop up there and they pay attention.” When a nasty TV image comes up “[y]ou watch it with them and teach them.”

Sometimes the images that are programming kids are obviously tasteless. Other times the message is more of an undercurrent. The image on the slide is a Reebok ad. Michael Jordan and three other famous, black role models are pictured. The curious thing is the poor quality of the pictures. They’re all black and white headshots -- mugshots, really. Mr. Robinson asks, “What would somebody with 40-50 million dollars want a mug shot? It’s a subliminal message.”

Mr. Robinson refers to an idea from the Carver Center’s namesake, George Washington Carver: “Our people have been programmed [so] that you don’t have to show them the back door. They’ll find [it].”

Another subliminal message is in a clothing advertisement. It shows a young man working in what appears to be a basement drug lab. But he’s not laboring over any cocaine. He’s wrapping clothes in kilo packages. Even though companies use this kind of advertising, parents still support them by buying their products. “You buy it for them,” he tells the parents.

He quotes an African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” But today, “many kids don’t have their parents.” “I told you earlier that information is power. We don’t have the power because we don’t have the information.”

If it’s not parents, then other people have influence with kids. One of these people is King James. The picture of him on the slide shows a proud man sitting on a throne covered by lion skins. The opulent red of the background enhances his lush appearance.

(Picture credit:

Mr. Robinson explains that King James uses twisted religious symbology to push his message. “King James” wants to rule kids, but Mr. Robinson says, “Don’t let the basketball players be your leaders. Yeah, he’s a good basketball player... He ain’t no king.” He also pointed out that other than kings like King Tut, “learn your African history -- there are no kings.”

Another source of bondage is in the form of video games. He says, “You play 6 hours a day. You should be good!” If you take the same time you spend on video games and do anything else, you’ll get good at that. His suggestions: “Read a book, do some homework, Do some studying.”

Speaking directly to the parents and kids listening he went on. After looking at the numbers in Kokomo, he concluded, “You’re not doing too well.”

Then he flips back to video games. This time he shows a slide with images from two very popular video games: Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2. He concentrates on Grand Theft Auto. “What is in this game to make is so popular? The more blood you get, the more violent you get, it’s more popular.”

Mr. Robinson describes the kids who play by saying, “They’ve become desensitized. The pain we felt for our fellow men -- we don’t feel it anymore.”

The solution is simple: “We need to reprogram.” The slide Mr. Robinson puts up next is “Programming for your Future Success.” The practical steps he gives start out are:
1) Find your passion
2) Uncover your natural talents and abilities
3) Earn a good education
4) Meet different kinds of people.
The steps went on into reading different kinds of books and volunteering. As he said, “You’re never too young to volunteer.”

Mr. Robinson isn’t just sounding a horn and expecting other people to do what he hasn’t done. As he says, “God has inundated each person with so many different talents and gifts.” That’s not the problem. The problem is that “[w]e never have the ability to nurture” those talents.) Mr. Robinson has found his mission. He says: “I have a job to do. I’m on a mission. I talk to our people across the nation.”

And as he talks, he addresses controversial, complex problems. “Down at the Black Expo, some people got shot. It was our people doing the shooting.” This man does not point his finger at society, government programs, or government officials. He says, “Our kids are acting up. Who’s fault is it? It’s not the mayor’s... it’s ours.”

The “Blueprint for Success” that he gave included these components: vision, self-discipline, responsibility, and positive communication. Parents can play a significant role. “We need to work with our kids, to identify their talents” instead of forcing them into a mold.

The time to act is now. After interviewing successful people, Mr. Robinson compiled a list of “seven things that we can teach our young people”:
1) Organization
2) Time Management
3) Self Discipline
4) Responsibility
5) Note-Taking Skills
6) Open Communication
7) Test-Taking Skills.

He’s advising: “Parents, make your home a learning environment.” This could be done by setting a regular study time, picking a study area, keeping a planner, and having needed school supplies.”

The home environment isn’t the only place that impacts a child’s education. The school environment also affects the school’s performance.

He asks “Who is responsible for your THOUGHTS, ...your ACTIONS, ...your SUCCESS, ...your PROGRAMMING? Program your thoughts for success.” There are alternatives, but they’re not pretty. “If you think like a thug, you’ll become a thug... Who you become is who you surround yourself with.”

By this point in the speech, some of the kids are growing restless. Some are milling around and even leaving the room. He stops midthought, and observes, “This is how our kids are in the classroom. Why do I have to fight with you to teach you?” He goes on, “We have a crisis in our families. Are families aren’t staying together.” Mr. Robinson points out that while “our people” have around a 65% divorce rate, the overall picture for American couples is a 53% divorce rate. The thing to do is this: “We have to get back to the ‘It takes a village’ concept.”

Mr. Robinson goes on, “My kids are doing well. They’re on the honor roll.” But -- there’s more to the story. Chances are there’s more than just your kids at the local school. You need to care about your neighbor’s kids as well as your, because “as soon as you turn your back, who’s he hurting? My kid.”

As an educator Mr. Robinson has seen some of the areas that need to be strengthened in the school. “Too few African Americans are in AP classes... The majority of Gifted and Talented classes are filled with white faces. The majority of remedial classes are filled with Hispanic, Latino, low-income, and African-American faces.” Speaking about the AP and Gifted and Talented classes, he said, “It’s our responsibility to get those kids in those classes.”

There’s different approaches to achieve that same result. One approach was recently taken by the NBA. Kids won’t go directly to the NBA. Instead, they will complete at least one year of college before being handed the ball. This encourages kids to do better in school ‘cause it’s not just getting into the big leagues; it’s about getting into school.” While the NBA is doing its part, parents need to pitch in too. Understandably, every parent believes “Every kid is good. My kid’s the best.” But if that idea’s taken too far, then it no longer is healthy for the kid himself! At a sporting event Mr. Robinson recently attended, “The parents were out of control.”

Is it possible that our emphasis is in the wrong spot? Mr. Robinson delivers a report card of sorts: ”Indiana: we’re ranked just about last in graduation rates. If they’re last, where are our kids at?” He refers to a handout that all of us have received. In the 2005 ISTEP scores for 3rd grade language arts, 58% of black students passed while 85% of Asians, 80% of whites, and 73% of multiracial students passed.

In the 6th grade Language Arts section, for African-American students the figures were 48% passed; 52% failed. This was while 56% of Hispanic students were passing, 77% of white students were passing, and 71% of multiracial students were passing. “Hispanics who speak English as a second language... are doing better than our kids.” He goes on: “Many of them don’t speak English at home.” In spite of this, the passing rate of Hispanic students was nearly twice that of African-American students.

Then: “In every city, in every state across America our kids are last.” “I’m not blaming it on the schools; I’m not blaming it on the teachers; I’m blaming it on us.” “We have to help ourselves.”

To see where his audience’s involvement level is, he starts asking a few questions. “How many of you went to your last school board meeting?” He pauses and scans the room. “I see one and a half hands.” He advises all the parents that “You can’t just go when you have a problem.” To really develop the relationships you need, he says to go in and volunteer, and then teachers and school administrators will respect you.

He starts reading off unfamiliar names. He starts asking if anyone recognizes those names. There’s not much of a stir in the crowd -- 3 people in all recognize at least one name. He points out that these are the local school board members’ names.

Now that all of the parents have been in the hot seat, Mr. Robinson advises them to pass it on. “Ask your kids a question a day -- per period.” Now he opens the floor for others to ask him questions.

(Now, near the end of the talk I have scribbled on both sides of my envelope, on its flaps, and on the inside. I reach for his a handout titled, “Getting Involved in Your Child’s Education.” Mercifully, the back sheet is blank. I start writing a summary of the Q&A)

Question #1: I keep hearing the N-word. Why do we hear that N-word?

“It’s now a word of acceptance.”

Question #2: “Can you touch on why some people think it’s a shameful thing to be smart?”

Mr. Robinson answers the question with another question: “How many of you saw Akeelah and the Bee?” (The lady next to me says quietly, “It didn’t come to Kokomo.”) When only a few people raise their hands, Mr. Robinson suggests that the Carver Center organize a public showing. He gives a quick sketch of what Akeelah did. She was a smart girl. But when her friends mocked her, “she started acting dumb.”

According to Mr. Robinson, too many times we’ve glamorized the wrong thing. While so many of the wrong things are praised and admired in the spotlight, “academic performance is somewhere over -- there.” Kids don’t see role models in academia. They don’t want to be teachers. But, as he sees it, “It’s so much better to be a teacher than a rapper or a basketball player.”

Question #3 “How do you address tutoring?”

“If you’re in Title-1 programs at your school, we have free tutoring on the computer.” Not only is the tutoring “free to you,” but a Dell computer worth $600 is, too.

But tutoring the kids is only the first step. “What we’ve found is that if there’s no follow-through at home, it’s going to be very difficult.” Now, when Mr. Robinsons speaks, he speaks directly to the moms and dads. “I want the the parents... It’s the parents we must reach.”

Remaining questions include “What is No Child Left Behind”?

Mr. Robinson refers this lady to The idea behind No Child Left Behind is to “raise the standards for all of America’s kids: put the pressure on the schools or we’ll close you down.” According to Mr. Robinson, despite good intentions, “It’s funded wrong. It puts the pressure on superintendents and principals. You can’t tell us to get up to par and not give me the resources to do it.”
My thoughts: Mr. Robinson helped explain so many things during his talk. He is is right on target with his assessment of “p----ology.” A few years ago I was doing facepainting at a trailerpark. For a while my question was, “What do you want me to paint on your face?” After a while I had to start limiting what I would do to rainbows, balloons, and animals. Too many of the kids were asking me to paint “P---” on their faces. This was from little boys less than 10 years old. At the time, I had no idea where they were getting the word from, let alone the desire to be labeled by it. But now I know.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, 58% of those in 10th grade in Indiana are passing both the English and the Math sections of the ISTEP. If you click on that previous link, you’ll see a graph that compares the passing percentages of kids in grades 3-10. Highschoolers in grade 10 are less likely to pass both sections of the ISTEP than anyone in any other grade. Is this really the legacy Suellen Reed (heads of the IN Dept. of Education) wants?

But that’s just looking at one state, and at general percentages. How are African-Americans faring on a national scale? In 2004, African-Americans were at a 50.2% graduation rate. That was in contrast to the overall national average of a 68% graduation rate. As a side note, in 2004, “[s]ix states (Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida) graduate under 25% of students with special needs.”

Where are the parents?

For more on LeBron King James (dubbed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated), see this link.

See the U.S. Dept. of Education website at

See the IN Dept. of Education website at
For loads of data on Indiana, see this link.
For a list of Indiana’s ISTEP passing percentages by ethnic group and grade, see Percentages

See the No Child Left Behind website at

See for some information on national graduation percentages.

See Locating the Dropout Crisis:Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them? for an important study conducted by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Social Organization of Schools.

See Rescuing Society’s Dropouts by Sandra Shea.

(Note: some of the percentages had been updated between the time Mr. Robinson’s handout was printed and I checked the IN Dept. of Education’s website. I updated the article above to reflect the changes on the IN Dept. of Education’s website.)

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