Million Man March moves into schools

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Vivid memories of the Million Man March still grip George Brydie four months after the historic event. Taut, hyper, ping-ponging back and forth, the 7th-grade teacher shares the stirring sights and sounds with 25 students and parents in a recent evening of male mentoring at Edward H. White Career Academy in Victory Heights.

Amid the massive throng in Washington D.C., Brydie had spotted a fellow White Academy staffer, R.C. Hardy, a husky, no-nonsense, Vietnam veteran who is the school’s custodian. Both had accepted Minister Louis Farrakhan’s challenge to marchers to seek right relationships with the Creator and reconciliation with each other, and to take personal and collective responsibility for their lives and the welfare and future of their families and communities.

Brydie and Hardy are seeking to make good on their pledges by reaching out to the 146 young brothers among 208 students at White, and the hundreds of non-students adrift in the surrounding Victory Heights community.

Here and there throughout the city—at Carver Primary, at Westinghouse Vocational and at Harlan, Harper, Orr, Phillips and South Shore high schools—fellow Chicago marchers are doing much the same, exploring how personal commitment might somehow be fashioned into mentoring, tutoring and other youth rescue operations.

“We need to get some planning going,” Brydie tells his White Academy listeners. “We need to be doing things. What should we be doing? That’s where we need you all. Me and Hardy don’t want to dictate, Here’s what we gonna do. What is it that we can do in an hour and a half together [each month]? We want to know what you all want.”

Suggestions come slowly at first, then quicken: chess-playing, table tennis, bid whist (a popular card game), computer instruction, CPR demonstrations. Having agreed on these and other activities, the meeting adjourns.

“Our first meeting was in November,” Brydie later recalls. “Only one person showed up. We wondered, What is it that we’re doing wrong? Are we disseminating the information wrong? What is it that we’re doing wrong? We’re not going to give up on this.”

Their first invitation had summoned black men in Victory Heights. One student, a Caucasian lad, asked: “Well, can my daddy come?” Quickly, Brydie and Hardy changed their invitation to read simply “men of the community,” but the boy’s father never came.

The group’s December meeting attracted 15 people, who discussed how to get organized. A slightly larger January meeting addressed the question, What is a mentor? “Usually someone outside the family,” Brydie said, reading from Career World magazine, “an experienced adult who befriends and guides you and shows you the ropes … believes in your abilities and wants to help you succeed.”

Clearly, it’s going to be a struggle for the fledgling program, but that doesn’t faze Brydie and Hardy. “One of the reasons why I work so hard is because I don’t want to go to funerals,” says Brydie. “I’ve been to a lot of them. A lot of young brothers got caught up one way or the other—dead! That’s sad!”

“If you walk into a classroom and introduce yourself to a kid, he may shake your hand and tell you his name, but he will put his head down first,” reports Charles Lewis, describing part of the challenge he faces at Carver Primary School in Altgeld Gardens.

Lewis, a pest exterminator who lives in Englewood, is a Carver graduate. He, too, found a partner in Washington, D.C. “I ran into a kid that grew up with me in the neighborhood,” he recalls. “He’s a former gang leader who spent some time in prison. He was at the march for the same reason that I was. We decided we would try to do something about our old neighborhood.”

Lewis pleaded their cause at a November meeting of Park Manor Christian Church, explaining that perhaps 95 percent of Carver’s students have female teachers and no classroom exposure to men. Initially, 12 churchmen agreed to become big brothers or tutors, to speak to classes or to help finance field trips and the like. Park Manor’s minister, the Rev. James Demus, slated talks on the vital importance of earning honest money. Now the number of volunteers is up to 45.

Darlene Reynolds, Carver’s assistant principal, says about a third of the school’s 900-plus 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds—boys and girls alike—will participate in the program. “All of them need help,” Lewis explains. Faculty volunteers will join the churchmen for 90-minute tutoring sessions, which will be held twice a week after school.

At Westinghouse Vocational, about 100 men met recently to establish a mentoring program under the guidance of Jimmie Lee Tilman, dean of students, jazz drummer and persistent peacemaker.

Because of the march, Tilman himself has taken a more positive approach to student discipline, symbolically turning the “in-school suspension room” into the “restrictive learning center,” with soothing, piped-in music. In this meditative setting, some students have sharpened their academic skills and undergone personality changes, says Tilman. “One at-risk boy who spent 20 days in the center is now on the honor roll,” he reports. Further, the number of fights at Westhinghouse dropped to 41 last semester; previously, 100 was typical.

Tilman also has arranged for a drug- and alcohol-abuse counselor to visit the school once a week.

Long before the March, Orr High School teacher Richard Watkins had tried, without success, to revive a failed mentoring program. “After the march,” he says, “we felt that, with the commitment black men had made, we should be able to do something with that momentum.” Despite a major snowstorm, 12 men showed up for a December organizational meeting. Later, a town hall meeting attracted 70 of Orr’s 647 male students. Now each of 15 mentors has charge of 10 young men, and the students have their mentors’ home phone numbers.

The mentors focus on improving grades and self-esteem and teaching legitimate ways of earning money. They’re also trying to break the boys’ habit of using “the B-word” for females and “the MF-words” for males.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Authority garage at Chicago Avenue and Huron Street has adopted Orr, and Watkins sees it as a rich resource. “We want to utilize as many of the 1,200 people who frequent that facility as we can,” he says. “We want to make sure we serve every young man who wants a male figure in his life.”

That also is the aim of Harlan High School teachers Sidney Moffett, Leo Boughton, Keith Kennard, James Yates and Michael Wellington, who all marched in Washington.

To achieve its goal of unity at Harlan, the teachers plan to work with the school’s 400 male students individually or in small groups. An earlier mentoring program had dealt with students collectively in assemblies. “You can get Jesse Jackson or somebody to speak, but you’re going to lose two-thirds of the kids in a half hour,” observes Moffett. “We intend to deal with them one-to-one so they can feel better about themselves. Once they do, they’ll go to class, do their homework, stop shooting each other, and teenage pregnancy and drug addiction will stop.”

Current plans call for 90-minute workshops twice a month.

“It’s going to be hard to just concentrate on the boys,” Moffett predicts, “because people are going to ask, ‘Why not the girls, too?’ The message didn’t reach a lot of people. What we’re trying to do is reach the boys.”

At Phillips High, Donald Linder, dean of students, is trying to recruit all of the school’s male staffers—janitors, cooks, faculty members—for a male mentoring program. So far, about 20 have signed up and divided up eight divisions, each with 13 to 20 boys. Mentors talk to the boys about their appearance, hygiene, self-respect and respect for women—advice that many young brothers never get from an adult male.

Senior Terrence Thomas, a football cornerback, got his send-off into manhood at the march itself. “The march was a life-turning-around experience for me,” he says. “It showed me that black Americans can do if they want to do. It showed me that I can be successful. My grades are going up because I’m working much harder now than before, and I plan to go to Jackson State College to major in English and physical education.”

Thomas was among four Phillips students who joined football coach Pierre Henderson and 61 other passengers on a bus chartered by Pilgrim Baptist Church. “There were a lot of street gang members at the march,” Henderson recalls. “There were guys from Chicago that I know usually wear their hats turned all the way to the side. But their hats were on straight. There was nothing but love, black love like back in the ’60s.”

At Harper High, Louis Wright, a youth guidance counselor, has talked with 62 students about striving for excellence and is working to get a Community Fathers Committee off the ground.

At South Shore High, teachers Edwin Brown, Herb Hedgman and Gregory Lee also are starting a mentoring program, aimed in particular at 75 to 100 young brothers in particular need of tutoring.

“We might not see the fruits of the march in our lifetime,” says Jerry Muhammad, a middle-aged member of both the Phillips High faculty and the Nation of Islam. “But seeds have been planted in the young brothers.”