Like many parents around the country, I walked my daughter to school this morning for the first day of classes for the year. Entering middle school, it was an exciting moment, not withstanding the emotional tug on me and my wife from seeing our only child embark upon a new phase of her life. One step closer to her teens, we recalled all of the other first days and her genuine excitement about returning to school. Jordan, our daughter, enjoys school and the challenge of excelling in the classroom. We are fortunate to live in a community where learning is valued and the public school system does an incredible job supporting its students and preparing them for the future.
The joy I saw in my daughter this morning reminded me of the “magic” of education. With all of the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis, it is easy to forget one of the most enduring benefits of American society – universal public education. Though it is not a right per se, education has been afforded a special place as a uniquely American inheritance. It is why the battle against school segregation was fought because Black adults living under Jim Crow understood that access to quality, public education could help level the playing field. They were right. We would not have any semblance of Black progress had it not been for the children of the civil rights era gaining access to secondary education and, as a result, college. We do not embrace education for the change agent it was and remains in our society.
As I looked at the eager sixth grade students preparing to enter their school this morning it just struck me how special a time it is, or should be, to be a child in America. Unlike children in most parts of the world, our kids have the leisure to learn and explore, and expand their horizons in infinite ways. For the next ten months my daughter, and her friends, will have but one responsibility – to learn. Of course you don’t realize it as a child, but it is truly one of life’s gilded moments when you have the opportunity to acquire knowledge for no other reason than to better yourself. Even with the pressures of today’s test driven environment, schools are still an oasis amongst the chaos; a place where young minds are molded, imaginations soar and the future is without boundaries.
It is one of the reasons why I believe we must embrace education and restore it as an important value in our community. My parents stressed education though neither was a college graduate, my mother was a high school graduate and my father only attended school through eighth grade. Both, however, recognized that the only hope for their children rested in our receiving a good education and having the opportunity to attend college. It is that zeal for learning, that fervor for knowledge that we need to revive in the Black community. Looking at my daughter this morning and the celebratory mood as the students gathered, I could not help but think of the generations of Black children, some of them our parents, who walked miles to attend physically inferior schools or faced racial epithets when finally allowed to attend white schools. For no other reason than to honor their steadfastness, we need to reinvigorate education as a cultural imperative.
I am convinced that the Black community, and our nation as a whole, is doomed if we do not convince our young people of the value of education and demonstrate its long-term benefits in a very practical way. The allure of gangs, “fast” money, and a subterranean lifestyle must be met head-on with a counter offensive that promotes learning, the acquiring of knowledge, and healthy lifestyles that include reading for illumination. We can ill afford to go through this millennium betraying the gift bestowed upon us by those who understood that to embrace the American dream you first had to understand it.