Nothing affords me greater pleasure than the opportunity to engage in rap sessions with young people all over this land. The opportunity to rap with kids on their own turf, by which I mean to say their school, is always especially welcome. So, on Tuesday when I was asked to say a few motivating words to some 15 to 17-year-old Bocage students, it didn’t matter that I barely had two hours to get to the school. I said I’d be there soon after the lunch break, even though I had more than my fair share of work to attend to.
From talking with the teacher who had solicited my presence, I learned that some local celebrities had earlier addressed the kids. I asked and was told what they had said to the ostensible young leaders of tomorrow. I also inquired why the inviting teacher thought his students needed to be lectured by the local celebs: singers, musicians, social workers among them. And he said, “Well, some of them have a tendency to lean to the other side of the fence.” The students, that is, not their lecturers.
“In other words,” I said, “you’re talking about problem kids who need to be set on the straight and narrow.”
“Precisely,” he said.
And I said: “I wonder why it’s always the young people who are blamed whenever this country is in trouble. For how much longer will we continue to misdiagnose Helen? How many more times will the same medicine men offer their obviously useless voodoo potions while anticipating cures?”
He chuckled, and I said: “You know, I have a different point of view and I hope you won’t mind if I share it with your students.”
And the teacher said: “You wouldn’t be who you are if you merely echoed others. The kids have their own reasons for requesting your presence.”
I could not believe how dilapidated was the classroom that would serve as my platform on Tuesday afternoon. The desks should long ago have been dumped as health hazards. The windows were for the most part without louvers.
And although, admittedly, I did not actually count them I imagine there were 20-25 desks in this room that could not have been built to accommodate more ten students—at any rate, with some comfort. The first row was barely two feet from the teacher’s blackboard.
Despite that school classrooms are supposed to be inspirational, this one brought to mind solitary confinement, at least as depicted by Hollywood. I studied the students as they arrived.The young men first, then three young ladies. A few smiled at me, some shook my hand but with such limp-wristed diffidence as left me wondering who among them might be the nation’s leaders of tomorrow. And then I thought about our present leaders, the politicians in whose hands we continue to place the present and future of this country: their demeanor that spoke of on-the-floor energy levels, their unchanging out-to-lunch expressions, their blank eyes—was all of that implanted in classrooms such as just described?
I opened my address with a promise: I would not lecture my young audience on good behavior. I would not lie to them about how well mannered I was in my youth; nor would I seek to convince them that I was the best son a mother ever had.
Instead, I assured them that as a kid I was a royal pain-in-the-ass (yes, I put it that way)—as are most kids. I told them I had energy to burn, like any other healthy kid 15-16 years old. And yes, I got into all kinds of trouble almost every day, as conceivably they did.
Meanwhile, I was noting with secret appreciation the attitudinal change that had abruptly come over them. They were actually listening to me, anticipation lighting up their wide open eyes.
I further reassured them: “Forget about those adult voices on the radio that keep talking about how bad you are. Forget their echoing allegations about 16-year-old killers. You are not to blame. Personally, I don’t blame even the 16-year-old monsters. Rather I blame those who brought them into this world in the purest state, totally innocent, then betrayed them, either by their own behavior or by egregious neglect, in the process turning them into killer teenagers, rapists and other vermin.”
I pleaded with the kids to trust their teachers. Touched on rape and its endless consequences. I told them I too had grown up wishing I were the son of wealthy parents, with everything wonderful within reach. I calculatingly recalled that I had been expelled from school at fourteen, for bad behavior of which I never was guilty. Yes, I felt my world cave in consequentially. But I refused to be beaten by prevaricating wolves in sheep’s clothing. I had picked myself off the floor—with a determination to be a champion at whatever I tackled.
I told them, truthfully, that for me losing battles had never been an option, never mind that here and there I had forfeited a round or two.
“My sweetest revenge,” I said, “was when I was invited to deliver motivational speeches at the very school that several years earlier had kicked me out for something I did not do!”
I took several questions at the end of my talk, among them, whether I had ever been a gang member; how I felt about Rasta. Interesting, but the best were asked one-on-one as I made my way to my car. All in all, I think I touched a few young hearts. But as happy as they had seemed as we said our good-byes, their joy did not begin to match what I felt as I headed back to work.