Monday, October 15, 2007

Cosby on "Meet the Press"

Comedian/actor/author/activist Bill Cosby, of whom I've been a fan for over 20 years, appeared yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press (along with co-author Dr. Alvin Poussaint) to promote his new book, Come On, People: The Path from Victims to Victors. Mr. Cosby has been an outspoken critic of the cultural and sociological trends that have affected and afflicted the black community in America in recent years, imploring black parents and youth to take a more active role in parenting, education, moral development, and in securing for themselves a brighter and more prosperous future by taking responsibility for themselves and acting wisely and prudently, rather than blaming others for their plight and misfortune. While his forceful, blunt message and very public stance on the issue has drawn some criticism, people of all races and cultures would be wise to listen to Mr. Cosby's admonitions about how our lives are determined by the choices we make from day to day, not by the conditions that exist around us which are beyond our control.

One particular moment on the program caught my attention (transcript available at

(Videotape, July 1, 2004)

MR. COSBY: Hey, man, let me tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It’s cursing and it’s calling each other n*****s as they walk up and down the street. They think they’re hip. They can’t read; they can’t write. Fifty percent of them. They, they, they take it into the candy store. They, they put it—they put themselves on the train and on the buses, and they don’t even care what color or what age somebody else is. It’s about them, and they're cursing and grabbing each other and laughing and giggling and going nowhere. And the book bags are very, very thin because there’s no books in them.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The audience seemed to be responsive.

MR. COSBY: Yes, because the people know exactly what I’m saying. See, a great deal of, of the negative is about people not wanting so much attention in that area, but it has to come out. If it is what it is and that is a horrible, horrible problem, then we must direct ourselves to it. I keep thinking about a parent who’s called in to, to the principal’s office because the child is misbehaving, and so many teachers have, have said, “And the parent comes in yelling at us, that their child would never do that, and why are they called, and all of a sudden it’s, it’s no longer about ‘We’re, we’re here to talk about making corrective behavioral changes in your child,’ but about the parent who is using all kinds of language and threatening people.” It’s something that goes into the person.


What Mr. Cosby is talking about here is the ubiquitous my-child-can-do-no-wrong attitude which today's parents bring with them into school whenever they are displeased with the child's academic evaluation, a disciplinary outcome, or any other determination made by a school official. "How dare you tell my child she's not fabulous!" The outright hostility with which parents view any less-than-stellar assessment of their child's performance and behavior is comparable only to the degree to which they are usually proven wrong.

Last year, I had a student not show up to class on the day of a final essay. Since this was the first essay of the term, any student who did not show up that day received a zero and thus failed the first marking period. (Of course, those with legitimate absences were afforded an opportunity to submit the essay the next day, but it is the student's responsibility to do so.) Over the course of the day, I took careful note of every absent student, typing a list of names and adding to it each period, and ultimately distributing it to my Assistant Principal and the 10th grade Guidance Counselor. I made special note of that day's absence on my weekly conduct and attendance charts, and sent a form letter to the parent/guardian of each absent child to inform them that the child was absent and would receive the aforementioned zero.

The student subsequently asked if she could submit the essay later but she never did, nor did she ever dispute that she was absent that day. That is, until Open School Night. When she came into my classroom with her mother, I informed the mother that she had been absent from class that day and had not made up the essay. Stunningly, and for the first time, the student now claimed that she was in class that day after all (a bald-faced lie), and that I must have lost her essay. I showed the mother a copy of the list of absentees I had sent to the AP and Guidance, with this child's name unmistakably printed on it. I showed the mother a copy of my attendance bubble sheet for that week, as well as the handwritten weekly conduct chart for that week. I showed the mother all of the essays I had received from that class section (I still had them, as I prefer to hold onto them until the next writing project when they will be of some use in the classroom, as well as to show the parents on Open School), and there was no essay with her name on it.

In short, I showed the mother four separate items of proof (the Guidance list, attendance form, conduct chart, and missing essay) which were all in agreement, and would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the child must have been absent on the date in question. The response? What else would you expect? "If my daughter says she was here, then she was here."

Let me reiterate this, so there is no misunderstanding. Presented with four separate items of objective evidence on one side, and the unsubstantiated word of a 15-year-old girl on the other, this woman took the latter as the truth. And her solution was to go immediately to the assistant principal and demand that the child be taken out of my class and placed with another teacher.

It's perfectly understandable (albeit irrational) for adolescents to harbor a certain degree of paranoia about their teachers. Especially since they view academic failure as punitive action instead of a denotation of their own performance (as I've discussed at length in previous posts), students always think their teachers are out to "get them," as if we have some sort of special incentive to see to it that they all fail. Whenever my students have written fiction about school, the teachers and other adults are always portrayed as over-the-top, arbitrarily-evil cartoon villains (hence my adoption of the "Dr. Evil" persona at school to mock this ridiculous caricature). As absurd as it is, we accept it because that's how teenagers think.

Adults, on the other hand, should know better. Which is more reasonable, more likely, more believable: that a teacher would lie to make sure a student fails, or that a student would lie to make sure she doesn't? Could even the most hardened cynic answer the former?

Again, I ask: Is it any wonder our children are not learning?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Off Topic, Just for a Moment...

While I had hoped to confine this blog to issues relating to education, I find myself compelled to comment briefly on a current news item.

The story of Michael Devlin, the pizzeria manager who abducted an 11-year-old boy in 2002 and held him for four and a half years, only to be found out when he abducted another boy and police serendipitously found them both, grows more heartbreaking by the day. Between the state charges to which he pled guilty and was sentenced last week, and the federal charges to which he pled guilty today, this profoundly evil creature will never again see the light of day; he'll be 100 years old before he can even think about parole. But the details to which he admitted, apparently to avoid having even more details about his crimes come out at trial, are both chilling and deeply saddening to anyone who has ever cared about a child.

Aside from the abduction, sexual abuse, child pornography, etc. perpetrated by this individual, it seems that shortly after he abducted and abused his first victim in 2002, he decided to take the boy to a remote location and kill him. He took the boy out of his pickup truck and began to strangle him to death. And this child, with Devlin's hands on his throat, somehow "talked him out of it." The boy talked this monster out of killing him. 11 years old. I can't even envision this without feeling profoundly sad.

It goes without saying that what Devlin did to this kid, the fact that the victim lived with this man until he was 15, four critical years of his life which he can never get back, added to the kidnapping and abuse of the other boy, is all just unimaginable, ungraspable, inexplicable, unconscionable, and all the adjectives anyone can think of. Then when I think of what Bill O'Reilly was saying on his cable show after the story first broke earlier this year, that the now-15-year-old victim probably saw his abduction as some sort of vacation from parental and educational authority, that living with Devlin was more fun than living at home and that's why he didn't try to escape or contact his family, it just makes me sadder. Even I'm not that cynical about kids. I don't care what Mr. O'Reilly thinks about anything, but I remember him saying this, and in light of what's been revealed about this case this past week, I hope he will acknowledge his error.

It's rare that a news story comes along that affects me so viscerally, that produces such a range of emotions, that I feel the need to write about it in order to make sense of it and sort out my thoughts. I'm going to have to work on this for a while longer. I just can't believe what I've been reading. It's just heartbreaking.