Men Without Marriage: Role Models for the Ghetto

“Why’d you do that?” Lester yelled.

“Do what?” I replied.

“Ya folded my drawing! Ya didn’t have to do that!”

The whole thing was bizarre, right? Here was a kid in a man-sized body having a baby-sized tantrum over a folded sheet of paper.

Lester kept pacing back and forth furiously waving his drawing in my face. “Ya had no right to do that. I’m gonna report you.”

I was ready to level him with righteous teacher talk. Lester’s drawing had visited half the class, creating still more crackle in the ongoing static. I not only had the right to confiscate that sheet of disruptive graffiti, I had the right to tear it into shreds. In the dean’s office. On top of one more referral. On the heels of an ultimate warning about where Lester would go if he screwed up my class once more.

But the hurt in his eyes stopped me. It seemed real, not a hustle to jive a honky teacher.

That look in Lester’s eyes was new. Usually his eyes signaled toddler-innocence, an affront to the masculine power rippling through his wide-receiver body. Look at Lester and you’re looking at Lynn Swann or James Lofton. Sometimes his eyes are mugger-mean, full of jailhouse menace. If another riot breaks out at our school, stay clear of Lester.

Most of the time his eyes are bewildered. In high school, Lester is part of a story written in a foreign language. He’s in my ninth grade special-help English class, which is Public Education’s way of saying that Lester reads and behaves like a fourth grader. While he’s trying to figure out what’s going on, Lester dances his education away to soul music sounding in his head. If you didn’t know that, you’d think he was brain damaged, the way he sits in his desk break dancing to music he alone can hear.

“Ya didn’t have to fold it,” Lester kept yelling. “Ya coulda just put it down.”

I examined the now-divided image he had drawn. The work wasn’t bad, not the usual misshapen cartoon you find smeared on desktops. Lester had drawn a bearded black man whose husky face filled the paper. From under fiercely knit brows, the man’s deep-set eyes looked out straight ahead. During a lesson on where to put the apostrophe, Lester had drawn a real man. Something more than soul music was alive in Lester’s consciousness

I returned the paper to him and found myself trying to press the crease out. He grabbed it and stormed out of the door. I sat down and squeezed Lester into a puzzling metaphor: “Surely the wit and soul of Public Education can figure out what to do with a kid like this?” As I articulated the thought, I again looked in the direction of the Great University just two miles from my school. For the likes of Lester, the university could have been sitting on a Martian polar cap.

Its School of Education had the numbers, which reported the reality I lived with everyday. Young male blacks drop out of school more frequently than girls, and when they drop out, they’re more apt to fall into a street culture at war with our institutions. For every 100 black females making it to high school commencement, you’ll find 85 males. For every 100 females entering college, you’ll find 71 males. For every 100 females entering professional jobs, you’ll find only 52 male blacks.

“Only?” That’s a woman’s word, isn’t it? As in, women make up only 30 percent of our doctors and less than 10 percent of our engineers, and make only 62 percent, on the average, of what men earn. Nowadays “only” is a battle cry.

And Public Education has heard it and marched to its demands. As far as Pub Ed is concerned, if you’re black and female, life has delivered you a double whammy for which you should be compensated with double affirmation.

They must believe that at my high school. We’ve got a neat program for minority kids with academic potential. It meets a couple of times a month, hears from blacks and Chicanos and Indians who have made it, and taps into a number of private and governmental funds. Our program numbers twice as many girls and boys and has always been run by a woman.

They’re also trying to help kids in Lester’s neighborhood with a tutoring program staffed by volunteers from the nearby Great University. It’s housed in the Girl’s Club (in a state whose supreme court recently outlawed the sexism of a Boy’s Club).

This extra help seems to be paying off. Minority kids are beginning to show up in greater number in academic courses. Last year, for example, we had two blacks in Advanced Placement English. This year, praise the Lord, we have four. All girls.

Want to meet the Invisible Man? Try to find a black guy in Pub Ed’s academic programs.

And in its effort to explain their absence, Pub Ed is about as retarded as Lester’s reading score. Which is where most of our cultural leaders are: women have problems; men make problems for women.

If you’re black and male, you’re still shuffling along with Stepin Fetchit.

Is Public Education to blame? Lots of blacks think so, but recently more and more of them are locating the problem closer to home where you’ll most likely find a single parent. Most likely a female. Most likely unmarried or never married, the daughter or granddaughter of a teenager who never married.

Better than 60 percent of black households are now managed by a single mother, and most of them are financed by welfare money. Kids like Lester get lost in those kinds of numbers and then wander in bewilderment into the public schools. Having an unmarried mother won’t guarantee for him failure. Having a father won’t guarantee success. But if you’re betting on his chances of making it to the educated manhood he pictures in his imagination, then you better know that growing up with an unmarried mother stacks the odds against him.

Blacks are therefore demanding help in their effort to re-stabilize the traditional family. Which brings me to the second memorable moment in my teaching day. After dinner I watched television for a while before hitting the stack of compositions on my desk. It was Thursday night where NBC had built a ratings winner by starting out with a beautiful black family called the Huxtables, which is beautifully intact, with a Mother and a Father and an achieving kid in every bedroom.

God bless us all! A screen full of role models! But before the Huxtables entered my living room, I had to endure the turn-of-the hour commercials. One of them promoted the local station’s next day talk show which would feature Lady Wholesome herself, Doris Day. In a ten second preview of Doris’s interview we heard the lady’s opinion of marriage, which she felt was “too confining.”

That was it, and it really wasn’t very much. But remember, I still had Lester on my mind and I was watching one more media decision, which managed to sneak in a social statement. Somebody at the station selected that comment, maybe because it would capture attention — one more snappy, iconoclastic opinion popping out of a high-salaried Hollywood mouth.

Such media decisions had gathered momentum recently. Just the week before I had heard from Mario Thomas, who has apparently struggled all her life to be free to be she even in matrimonial bondage to America’s most liberated male. Somebody in media land let us hear Ms. Thomas say that she “didn’t believe in marriage as an institution.”

And the week before somebody else decided it was big news that Grant Tinker compared marriage to a television series, some of which have long runs and some short runs and all of which eventually disappear from the screen.

Such media decisions seemed premised on the belief that those comments made news, that the audience had never heard the decade’s biggest celebrity cliché. Somebody in the newsroom nevertheless felt that we should hear one more time what fast-track people felt about that silly piece of paper retarded Americans still used for bonding their relationships.

Or for legitimizing their offspring. “Nobody bothers to have official lives anymore,” said “sexy Rexy” Harrison, who chuckled about his lady friend’s decision to have a child out of wedlock, just like Dorothy Lyman and Patricia Morrow and Natassja Kinski and Jessica Lange and Farah Fawcett.

And just like all those white, educated, middle-class, single women who daily visit the sperm bank doing business about 100 miles north of Lester’s single-parent home.

Lester doesn’t read very well, but he’s quick to pick up images. They stick deep in his consciousness, telling him the way it is. And now they’re telling him that a lot of fancy ladies are having love children just like his momma.

And his girl friends.


  • Paul Ostmark

    Paul Ostmark is the pseudonym of a public school teacher and free-lance writer who contributes to a variety of commercial and professional journals.

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