by FAHEEM KHABEER (Author, Filmmaker, & Motivator)
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”- Frederick Douglas
Raised in the early eighties’, the inner-city of Cleveland left me on the path to becoming a broken man. I had entered into, “Major Works”, a program for gifted students, for the fourth grade and would be bussed across town. There was a socio-economic difference between me and the other children of color; they were middle class and I was on public assistance. I became very aware of my financial situation not only because of how the other students reacted to me, it was also in the eyes of the teacher. I was considered lesser than and it affected my self-esteem. I remember one particular episode where a teacher forced me to sit under the desk for interrupting the class. No other student was given any corrective actions close to that in severity of humiliation.
It would take a move years later, for me to rebound from the damage that experience inflicted, to how I viewed myself, and my attitude towards school. Once I was placed into, Roots Activity Learning Center, under the tutelage of an instructor that appreciated my mind’s capacity to absorb knowledge of subject matter easily, I was placed on the road to earning placement in the National Honor Society, French Honor Society, and Math Honor Society at Washington, D.C.’s premiere and only Blue Ribbon high school, at my time of attendance. I was featured in the Washington Post and made it to my first semester in college, however…
The struggle did not end there, because through an unfortunate act of bad judgment, I ended up caught in the wave of mass incarceration and spent time locked away. It was there that I saw the full effect of the lack of empathy for males of my generation; an alarming number could not read. I spent a lot of time reading people their mail and writing letters for them. Many of them I knew or had known of while in society. One would not easily be able to detect their illiteracy, if at all. Illiteracy becomes a major hurdle to overcome in order to re-enter society, especially when someone already carries the mark of a felon.
While incarcerated, my detail, (daily job assignment) was to teach adult students. I found that many of them wanted to learn how to read. The KEY was to make them feel comfortable, at ease, cared for, and to be engaged and patient. I remembered the looks teachers gave me when I was in elementary school… the apparent nonchalance towards me, and the way I had longed to be viewed like the students who had on nicer clothes. Those students were met with smiles instead of frowns. When educators in new school environments were determined to be positive motivating forces in my life, I had excellent results.
Engaging students with respect for their situations and introducing them to their worth as contributors to society as a whole, early on, I believe is instrumental in giving children a positive self-image. They develop an optimistic world view, care for other human beings, and a respect for the knowledge that school provides. A structured and caring school setting also helps to offset problems that a child may be having home. For many children, school is an escape from the reality of their home situation. If school is uninviting and the pathway to school is hostile; a child’s life can feel like going from one nightmare to next. One interested educator can make all the difference in the world for a child in need. We all want our youth to be able to attain their dreams.