IT'S BACK-TO-SCHOOL time. For me, this always brings back an olfactory memory -- the pleasant smell of denim.
There were five of us boys and we usually started the school year with new pairs of blue jeans. The old ones became play
clothes. If Mama was tired of darning and patching, she would cut them off for shorts. But with sewn hems. Mama didn't like us to look as poor as we were.
I eventually liked school, but it was a slow process. Kindergarten wasn't a requirement back then, and by the time I reached first-grade age I didn't see any good reason for me to have to leave home during some of the best hours of the day.
This was 1959 so there was none of that bleeding-heart stuff about stigmatizing children by grouping them according to their academic skills. I couldn't read, so the teacher put me in Group Four.
I recognized most of the other kids in Group Four were from the projects, too, so that didn't bother me much. After all, I didn't want to be at school, period.
Before long, though, I discovered you needed to read to find out what Dick and Jane and Spot were up to. I learned to read so well that I moved up to Group One. But I've remained a Group Four person at heart.
I can identify with children who have been characterized, classified and sometimes demonized as "slow" or "poor" learners when their real problem is they need to be given a reason to learn.
Finding that reason isn't as simple as it was 40, or even 20, years ago. When I grew old enough to stop caring about Alice and Jerry and Jip, I started caring about more interesting stories to read.
As I became more aware of my economic status, I saw education as the way to improve it. And I received the unqualified encouragement of my teachers. All of us did. Some never made it out of Group Four, but not because they were made to believe they couldn't.
Stuck in Group Four
Too many inner-city children today don't think they can get out of Group Four status because they can tell no one expects them to. From kindergarten on, they are treated like poor, unfortunate souls who will do well to avoid a life of homelessness or crime.
Even among academically successful children are many who have no clue as to the heights they might reach were it not for some teacher or counselor who thinks someone with a background of urban poverty shouldn't expect to achieve more than they have.
One unavoidable tragedy of the lawsuit Baltimore has filed to get the state to increase the city's education funding is its dependence on a portrait of city students as slow learners who need extra help.
Some of the strongest evidence that Baltimore schools need more money is their students' lack of achievement on standardized tests. But this continued insistence that their test scores are inferior because their schools are inferior can't help but make children feel, well, inferior.
Those of us who went to inferior, segregated schools in the '50s and '60s never really thought of them that way. Even as our people marched for integration, we didn't think of white schools as superior or their students as better. Our teachers wouldn't let us.
I could have come to school as raggedy as a tramp (though Mama never would have let it happen) and would never receive any indication by a teacher that my circumstances might affect my learning. Someone might give me some clothes or make sure I had money for lunch, but in the classroom I would be challenged to achieve. There would be no pity. No goal would seem unattainable.
Baltimore schools do need more money. But their children also need the confidence lost in the zeal to portray them as inferior.
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 8/24/96