Adults sometimes speak ill of young people’s behavior not realizing that grown-ups have to own a lot of responsibility for youths’ actions.
That came into full focus recently when I went to a private, black Northland school at the invitation of an administrator. She reminded me that years ago when she was a student, I spoke forcefully about good behavior to her and talked of how important it was for African Americans to get good grades, go to college and have a strong work ethic.
My practice of going to schools to talk and read to students started in 1977 when Marian Shaffer had me read books to her kindergarten students at Ladd Elementary School. I am happy to do for them what caring adults did for me.
That’s how the lessons and even tough love get reinforced. The voices that hold kids to high expectations weld into them the virtues of good character they’ll need as adults. I took time away from work to go to the administrator’s school. I arrived early enabling her to give me a tour.
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Educators put a lot of work into decorating classrooms with inspirational phrases and posters to keep kids motivated. But often the students pay little attention to what the bright colors and neat phrases convey.
I try to get across to kids whenever I am given the chance that neither their teachers nor the principals control the schools and the learning environment. The students must own that responsibility.
They must ensure that schools are quiet, welcoming, healthy places so learning can occur. That always surprises some kids, but it’s also empowering.
I was left in the school library — one of my favorite places — and the students were brought in after lunch. I was more than a little dismayed as they entered and slumped into chairs, some with their backs turned to me.
I was a guest at their school but couldn’t resist the need to put them on a better path to a good future. I insisted that those sitting in the back take seats up front.
Then I opened up with a lecture on life. Instead of talking about journalism, I spoke about the way they entered the room and how that expressed what they thought of themselves and me.
I let them know that they rarely get a second chance to make a good first impression, and it starts with how they dress and carry themselves. I let them know that they are representatives of their school, their parents and their families, and they have a great responsibility to never falter because it tarnishes not only their reputation but their community’s, too.
They were not expecting the life lesson, and it was not my intention to hammer them with it. But too often adults fail to hold kids accountable as earlier generations did for us. When we fail, kids don’t get the boundaries and standards they need to be good citizens. They also then fail to instill the same community essentials in the generation that follows theirs.
I always try to stop that domino effect, just as my 97-year-old dad did for decades with every young person he encountered. I invited the students to The Kansas City Star, where I promised to deliver the talk on journalism with a tour of the newspaper. They took me up on my offer a few weeks later.
A co-worker at the front desk called me, saying some wonderful students were waiting in the lobby. Indeed, the boys were in dress slacks, suit jackets and ties, and the girls had on crisp blouses and skirts. Everyone was well-spoken and eager.
On the 11/2-hour tour, several of my co-workers complimented the kids on their dress, behavior, interest, note-taking and the questions they asked. I also praised them and made sure they knew that they merited the responses they received.
I can only hope that our time together will be life-changing. They certainly showed me that adults should never shirk the responsibility to share values with kids at every opportunity.