‘When I learned to tie a tie, I thought I was a man’: In West Baltimore, a school lesson in neckties, manhood

Booker T. Washington Middle School students received a lesson on how to tie a necktie by mentors and then were allowed to keep the tie.

The middle school boys poured into the library, laughing and horsing around, then hushed. They saw businessmen in suits, ties and gold-buckled shoes — clapping. For them.

Dozens of bright neckties covered a table like spilled paints. Teachers spread out more: new boxes, Vineyard Vines ties.


The day brought a surprise step toward manhood for these boys in West Baltimore.

Corey Witherspoon, the classroom mentor they call “Spoon,” offered up the morning lesson at Booker T. Washington Middle: how to tie a tie.

That and so much more.

“This is a rite of passage," Witherspoon told the sixth graders. "When I first learned to tie a tie, I thought I was a man.”

President Barack Obama wears a tie, he reminded them. A businessman wears a tie — it’s the stamp of a respectable man. Here, in particular, his encouragement is crucial.

Nearly 300 boys and girls attend Booker T. Washington, and they walk or ride to school each day through some of the West Side’s toughest streets.

Here, 60 percent of families live in poverty, double the percentage citywide. This neighborhood of Upton-Druid Heights suffers high rates of lead-paint violations and vacant buildings, researchers found in a 2017 health department study. They found fewer places to buy fruits and vegetables and more gun violence. Nearby sit the housing projects McCulloh Homes, infamous from HBO’s “The Wire.”

Ninety-three percent of children here live in single-parent households. In many homes, there’s no man to teach a boy how to tie a tie.


“You have to think about the absence of the father in the black community, through incarceration, through the mom and dad not being together; so it’s not taught. It’s sad, but it’s true,” Witherspoon said days before the lesson. “The smallest thing is actually like a really huge, huge thing.”

Early in December, the popular mentor took to Facebook with a plea.

In 2 weeks I want to teach all of my young men in the school how to tie a tie. This initiative might seem small to some but to others it is a rite of passage. There is only one problem I need more ties.

Soon a chorus of voices rose up to help. There was John Comer offering ties. Jamais Burts had a bagful to give. Witherspoon asked for volunteers to give the lessons. He called it, “Teach one tie one."

His request spread to Deb Trott Poquette. She had partnered with retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to open Lew Gambino’s restaurant in Little Italy. Now, she took up the call.

What men on my page have neckties they are no longer using?


Poquette drove to see old friends and co-workers last week, gathering nearly 100 ties — even from Lewis himself, she said.

“You just wonder what could make a difference,” she said. “It could be this; it could be something as simple as learning how to tie a tie.”

The University of Maryland School of Social Work donated 75. Witherspoon had more than 600; he was floored.

Now, he plans to expand his movement and bring lessons to other schools. He wants to collect more ties, collared shirts, maybe blazers.

Wednesday morning, Booker T. Washington Principal Misha Stredrick greeted the dozen men who volunteered to help. She urged them to be patient with her sixth, seventh and eighth grade boys. Last year, 18 of her students lost someone to gun violence.

“You just wonder what could make a difference. It could be this; it could be something as simple as learning how to tie a tie.”

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“They may need time to process what you’re saying," Stredrick said.

She thanked these men, too. They are role models, prominent black men who lead businesses, volunteer groups and neighborhood associations.

“I make it a point to hire males,” the principal told them. “It’s important they [the boys] see how they carry themselves.”

Christmas music played as the first class of 12-year-olds arrived. Cardboard boxes overflowed with neckties of burgundy, blue and black; silk ties and knit ties, others with paisley print or polka dots. The ties were patterned with bulldogs, billy goats, even a cowboy on a bronco. They showed the emblems from prestigious universities such as Georgetown Law. Maybe one tie will inspire a boy to get there, a social worker wondered aloud.

With each class, Witherspoon asked the rhetorical question: “How many youth in here see their father all the time?”

He explained the reason behind their lesson, noting their ZIP code is among the most violent in Baltimore.

“Society says ya’ll can’t do right," he said. “Ya’ll can’t do good.”

Witherspoon challenged them to prove the statistics wrong. Begin, he said, with a necktie.

And the boys learned quickly. One after another slid the knot up his neck and beamed. “Got one!” volunteers shouted each time. The room erupted with applause.

They cheered for 14-year-old Anthony Barnhill; he blushed. Other boys struck a winning pose. They cheered seventh grader Ra’neiko Washington. He left for class with a necktie and the prospect of a summer job from his volunteer mentor.

The boys dug through piles for, say, a black tie or one with footballs. Two boys practiced as professionals.

“Nice to do business with you,” they told each other, shaking hands seriously.

Some stood a little straighter; others goofed.

“Do not pull each other’s ties," their principal shouted. “Your tie is sacred!”

Volunteer Kelly Sparks taught a 12-year-old the traditional four-in-hand knot. Not long ago, Sparks learned it himself.

He spent nearly 30 years in prison for murder and came home last spring, he said. Heading to church one day, he found himself fumbling to tie a tie.

A friendly cabdriver showed him how. At 47 years old, Sparks was overcome.

“I started crying. I don’t even know why," he said. “I never had somebody teach me."

Now, he showed Kamill Braxton-McGill to portion the two lengths, wrap one side over, tuck under. The boy looked down and mumbled.

Back home, Rosalind Braxton-McGill said, her grandson could be shy and introverted. His father lives in Virginia. Since Kamill recently took up boxing, he was doing better in school.

“Make sure it wraps all the way around,” Sparks encouraged the boy. “Which side are you going to pull?

“Make it tight ... there you go ... you’re catching on!"

Kamill slid the knot up his neck. Sparks handed over his black suit coat. He is 5 feet 5; it almost fit the boy.

“Man, look at you!"

They turned to consider their reflections in a glass display case. For a moment, they just stood there, side by side. Two men.