Reflecting on my days of elementary school, I can recall the when I was in the CLUE program (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment). In this program we took many, many field trips. Since we were a small group, the program relied on parents to take us where we need to go. My mother and Mr. Bernal Smith, Sr. routinely volunteered. I think the most fun part of those trips was going and coming. We had lots of fun. Sometimes we got rowdy. But when either my mother or Mr. Smith told us we needed to settle down, we settled down. There was no “you’re not my mama” or “you’re not my daddy” back talk. The children respected my mother and Mr. Smith. It was a given. If anyone showed disrespect, we had to deal with the CLUE teacher, our homeroom teacher, and then our parents.
After our elementary school CLUE days, Bernal, Jr and I would see each other in passing at different events. Other than a brief clip on the news or newspaper article, I never saw his father again until Bernal and I both had children playing in the Olive Branch YMCA basketball league. Our reunion was short lived because during that season, Mr. Smith passed away. Although I had not seen him over 20 years, his death impacted me. I reminded Bernal about the CB radio that his father had his car and the day he got on the radio and talked to some people. I had no idea how involved Mr. Smith was in the Memphis community until after his death. That in itself is a tragedy. Men who rob, steal, kill, and don’t pay their child support tend to get more recognition than a good man who tried to make community a better place. Before that brief tangent, my point I’m trying to make is respect. He was able to accomplish the things that he did because children had respect. Children at one point were raised to respect adults regardless to whether not they shared your DNA or not. That is why many intervention programs have very low success rates.
In order to teach someone a better way, they have to listen. If there is no respect, there is no listening. I hear many kids saying, “If you want respect, you have to give respect.” Yet they’re disrespectful and demanding respect at the same time. That’s not how it works. Adults who are taking the time out to teach something and to help are worthy respect out the gate.
How do we recover? How do we undo the years of children being raised to not respect? The answer is in the schools. I can recall my days at Doubletree Elementary. The building engineer, Mr. Troy King garnered just as much respect as the principal or our teachers. If he told you to do something, you did it. If he thought you were thinking about being disrespectful, he went for his belt. Did we run and tell the teacher? No. Did we run and tell our mother? Hell, no! We were held accountable for our behavior. We weren’t given excuses. We were disciplined.
The state legislature needs to protect our teachers. There should be stiffer penalties for disorderly conduct on school property. There should be felony charges for assaulting and/or threatening teachers. Any crime that is committed on school property or during school events should have enhanced penalties. Shelby County Juvenile court should adopt a “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence at school, especially when it’s directed at school personnel.
Most importantly, we need to return the Principal to the schools. Eliminate administrators. I went through school under many well-known, well-respected principals. All of which ran their schools. Teachers taught and the principal handled discipline. Teachers didn’t have to justify sending a child to the Principal’s office.
We can’t legislate parenting, but we can legislate our schools. We can protect our teachers. We can ensure that 180 days out of the year, the adults that are trying to teach and guide students and do so without fear. If children are taught respect in the schools and are held accountable for their actions, perhaps they can take that lesson home and we can break the cycle. If we break the cycle, we can improve our community. Maybe then, more men like Bernal Smith, Sr. will throw their hat into the ring and start rebuilding the moral fiber of Memphis.