Young men learn lesson in support


Last week, 40 teen-age boys who had begun to lose faith in school - and, possibly, in themselves - set aside their skepticism for a few hours and trusted again.

Taking turns, each teen-ager crossed his arms over his chest, closed his eyes and allowed his stiffened body to fall over. Each time, several outstretched hands propped him back up.

The exercise was part of a campground retreat organized by Annapolis High School for students in academic trouble. Held on the banks of the Severn River at Anne Arundel County's Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, the half-day event kicked off a new mentoring program intended to give struggling students an outlet to express their frustrations and seek help.

"I've always found kids to be open, but you have to get them in the right setting," said Assistant Principal Kurt Maisel, who organized the retreat.

The Champions are Good Students mentoring program eventually will consist of bimonthly meetings between students and mentors. It targets boys in danger of failing more than one class. More than 150 students in grades nine through 11 were given the opportunity to join.

"At Annapolis High, we have a history of grades falling off for the [male students] after the sports season is over," said Principal Deborah H. Williams, adding that a similar program for girls is in the works. "I really wanted to do something to keep the guys motivated all year."

Many of the teen-agers identified themselves as football or basketball players as they sat in groups of 10, introducing themselves. They listened to advice about applying for sports scholarships and looked pensive when told that their chances of becoming professional athletes were slim.

Not all of the students were involved in sports, however. Demarco Poole, a junior, said he wants to get a degree in computers. Poole, the youngest of six children, would be the first to attend college.

But a few months into the school year, he was falling asleep in class and failing two subjects.

Poole said the mentoring program, and the knowledge that others want him to succeed, has encouraged him to try harder. "It's made me want to go to college more," he said. "I don't want to be around here all my life."

Poole was the first to volunteer to allow his classmates to hoist him atop their shoulders - one of several warm-up activities that made students laugh and get comfortable with one another.

Afterward, they settled down for the serious part of the day: a series of 40-minute workshops on topics ranging from self-motivation to the criminal justice system.

Teacher Gary Priddy passed out charts comparing the average salaries of high-school dropouts and those of high school and college graduates.

Guidance counselor Deborah Gideon talked to students about doing community service and applying to smaller colleges that might offer better scholarships than well-known universities.

"You're not here because you did something bad," Gideon said. "You're here because somebody saw something in you, and they thought they could push that spark to greatness."

In the "street law" workshop, Rhonda Pindell-Charles, a Baltimore city prosecutor, and Gail Saccarelli, a public defender in Prince George's County, told the teen-agers what their rights were if they were ever stopped by police investigating a crime.

Saccarelli, the mother of an Annapolis High student, advised them to cooperate but not say anything that might incriminate them. "The best thing for you to say is four words: 'Talk to my lawyer,'" she said.

N.T. Sharps II, an Annapolis businessman who volunteered to be a mentor, led a game with difficult-to-follow instructions, using the teen-agers' confusion to stress that they should always ask questions if they do not understand something.

"How many of you will sit in class and not understand the lesson, but you won't raise your hand to ask for help?" Sharps asked. Nearly every hand shot up.

"A lot of people will laugh at you," said Jason Webb, a sophomore.

Eric Pickett, an Annapolis High alumnus, jumped in, telling Webb and the others not to let peer pressure rule their lives. "You need your education," he said. "Time is rolling on. You're young men now, but you're getting older every day."

By the end of the day, several mentors and students had begun to form friendships. As the teen-agers ate steak sandwiches inside a cabin, Sharps said he felt cautiously optimistic about what had been accomplished.

"Hopefully, we reached one or two of the guys," he said. "We're not trying to conquer the world."

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