Reflecting at age 45 on two very bad years


It happened 45 years ago today: my mom, accompanied by my dad and a few of his brothers, went to Provident Hospital. My mom went into labor -- the brat in her womb no doubt ruining whatever New Year's Eve plans she had -- and around 4: 13 a.m. out popped her first son.

He had an extremely large forehead. She named the ugly critter Gregory Phillip and had him baptized Catholic about a week later.

The late 40's aren't a bad age, actually. I figure most of us forty-something folks find we can do the same things we could do in our 20's, and we aren't as stupid. But for me turning 45 offers an opportunity to reflect on my life and how certain events may have influenced some of these zany columns that may have weirded out some of you in the past.

Two years were particularly bad for me -- excluding this one, which is in a class by itself. The first was 1963. For most folks, I suspect the major trauma of that year was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November. For me the major trauma came two months earlier in Birmingham, Ala.

It was on Sept. 15 that the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. Four black girls were killed. They ranged in age from 11 to 14. The girl whose name sticks out in my mind is Denise McNair. She was the 11-year-old, the same age I was. I remember her picture in the Afro-American. She was dark-skinned with lovely brown eyes -- the kind of girl I was a sucker for at the time. In fact, I'm still a sucker for dark-skinned women with lovely brown eyes.

The event left me with the feeling that solving America's race problem was going to be a long haul indeed. That's why when today's conservatives claim they want a color-blind society, I have to question their sincerity. In 1963, they opposed federal government intervention in civil rights matters that may have prevented the Birmingham church bombing.

Then there was 1968, when the entire year was, even at its best, simply dreadful. It started out with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and went straight down the toilet from there. In April Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots in Baltimore's streets followed. My mother forbade us to leave the house. Twenty-eight years later her edict still baffles me. Did she really think any of her children were going out in that madness? I sure as hell wasn't.

About two months later my mother woke me with the news that Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed the previous night.

"There's six months left in this year," I remember thinking as I lay in my bed. "And I want 1968 to end now."

I -- and the rest of you who remember those turbulent times -- had no such luck. In the summer, Chicago police clubbed youth demonstrators into submission outside the Democratic National Convention. The event was called a "police riot" and caught on camera. In fairness, it must be said that there were allegations that the demonstrators did their damnedest to provoke the police, including throwing bags of human excrement at them.

"The whole world is watching!" the demonstrators chanted.

"Us kicking your asses!" I suspect the police answered as they swung their nightsticks with glee.

It was in this atmosphere of turmoil and rebellion that members of my generation began to question our elders and demand certain changes. But did we go too far? We may well have.

"We demand a more relevant curriculum!" we insisted. For the most part, we got it. But now I find myself pining away for that old curriculum. Many of my funny ideas about education -- and why black students are failing -- come from black teachers who hammered that old school curriculum into our heads year in and year out.

Somewhere along the line, today's students -- mostly black, but the trend is becoming multiracial, according to some observers -- took the idea that resistance to learning is itself a form of rebellion. All too many black students cling to the notion that academic achievement is a white thing.

When I write that, some blacks act as if I've tried to drown the baby Jesus. They accuse me of maligning black students, but they know I'm not talking about all black students. The number of black students may not even be a majority, but they're enough that I can justifiably say an educational crisis exists in black America.

Many years ago, this 45-year-old man was an 8th-grader at Harlem Park Junior High School. I won the schoolwide spelling bee. There were so many students, my class couldn't attend the assembly and had to listen to the contest over the intercom. My class erupted in cheers when I won, and repeated the cheers when I got back to the classroom.

I have to wonder if that scene could be repeated at most black inner-city schools today, or if instead the winner of a schoolwide spelling bee would be met with jeers and ridicule.

Pub Date: 12/28/96


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