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Teens return to school with the right tools

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002


This is a personal, back-to-school column with a positive ending. I do not identify the teenagers because they asked me not to.

"I don't want to be made fun of," one teen said.

During a speech I delivered to a Boys & Girls Club in February, I told the audience about two black teenage boys I noticed getting off their school bus one Tuesday afternoon.

The boys' cool dress and wild hairstyles did not cause me to pay attention as much as I was struck that neither teen carried a book, a notebook or a pen or a pencil. The only thing indicating they had been in school was the yellow school bus.

Because of the father and the journalist in me, I parked in the lot of a nearby business and observed the boys. They walked to a car wash where I sometimes do business. There, they greeted the older males. For the next hour, the boys were part of the general scene -- listening to music, talking, telling jokes, flirting with girls and women passing, checking out vehicles, just hanging out.

When I drove away, the teens were still there.

I did not see anything illegal going on. Again, what bothered me was this: On a school day, two black teens left school without carrying any of the tools we associate with school. Further, they did not go home first. They did not even go to a job. They went to a car wash and did nothing.

That night at home, the image of the bookless teens bothered me, and I decided what I would do. The next morning, I returned to the bus stop. As I had suspected, neither teen carried a book, a notebook, a pen or a pencil. Dressed cool and handsome, they boarded the bus and went to school.

I tried to imagine what they had done at home all night. I did not think they did homework. What did they do? I tried to imagine what they did in school all day. Were they prepared to answer questions or complete assignments and exams? And what about their teachers? Were these bookless teens special problems? Did they disrupt the learning of other students?

A man who had been in the audience the night I spoke about the teens ran into me a month later at a bookstore. He, too, had been bothered by the image of the teens I had described. He had questions: Had I followed up on the teens? What had happened to them? Could he do anything?

Actually, I had followed up, sort of. I had my car washed one afternoon while the boys were at the business, and I struck up a conversation with them. I am glad I did. They lived several blocks from each other in a poor section of St. Petersburg. Each lived with his mother. One had two siblings, the other four. They were in ninth grade and hated school. I told them what I did for a living, and they were clearly impressed.

Both expressed interest in writing. I asked what kind of writing.

"I want to write about stuff around here," one said.

"Music," the other one said.

Their responses gave me a way to talk about school -- about the importance of reading, studying, doing homework, bringing books home. As I talked, I realized that they were actually listening. I learned that they simply had no one at home who pushed them to care about school. Their mothers worked hard at minimum-wage jobs, but they did not spend time with their children.

During the next several weeks, I got to know the teens better. I went home with them and got to know their families. They are decent, low-income people who struggle to make ends meet.

The man, an African-American, who heard me speak does not belong to the Boys & Girls Club, but he wanted to help. A state corrections officer, the man met the boys and their families and became the boys' mentor.

He does the simplest things with the boys. He takes them to the barbershop, to the movies, to BayWalk, to the Pier. He has not persuaded them to go to church with him and his wife, however.

And, now, the really good news: The man has convinced the teens that being academically smart is not acting white, that being smart is not being a sissy. Further, a foundation I am associated with publishes an online youth magazine. All of the writers are public school students. One of the boys has written an article for the magazine that I intend to publish.

The corrections officer bought the teens book bags. Each promised to use his bag appropriately. I have not seen them in about two weeks, but their mentor tells me that, although they still stop off at the car wash, they are carrying their bags to school.

I am keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that one man's simple kindness and concern will make all the difference for these kids as they return to school.

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