Straight talk about real issues was the theme Thursday night as students, parents and educators gathered at Lee Middle School to discuss ways to bridge the gap between personal potential and academic achievement, particularly among African-American youth.
As part of the WakeUp Project, the cross-cultural empowerment workshop was the brainchild of Nadia Dale, outreach coordinator for the Columbus Municipal School District.
Students met in gender-specific groups, with girls attending sessions on self-love, healthy relationships, the media-driven perception of beauty, and its impact on self-esteem. Boys attended workshops challenging societal views of manhood, attitudes towards women, entrepreneurism, and career planning.
As teachers struggled to understand why the behavior they see on Monday isn”t the behavior they see modeled in church on Sundays, students shared the challenges of peer pressure and fielded questions about mutual respect — how to get it, how to show it, and why it matters.
But perhaps the most striking topic of the night was love. Love between teachers and students. Love at home. Self-love. Community love.
“Why did y”all come here tonight, really?” a student asked educators and community leaders.
“Because we love you guys,” said local pastor R. J. Matthews. “You have such bright futures. It”s a reason for us to get up in the morning. It”s exciting. Who knows who”s sitting in this room who is going to do something to shake the world? You guys are worth it.”
The auditorium went silent as one student stood up and talked about single-parent households and the problems she and her friends face outside the classroom.
“You come to school, and no one takes the time to just sit down and talk to you or say, ”If you want a parent or someone to love you, here I am,”” she said.
CMSD Assistant superintendent Martha Liddell shared a similar story from her own teenage years.
She walked into school one day, devastated after an evening of listening to her parents fighting. The Christmas tree had been toppled. Her Christmas present had been ruined. She was upset, and though she didn”t want to talk about it, she needed someone to notice.
Finally, a teacher pulled her aside and asked her if she was OK.
“I looked OK on the outside, but I was a wreck on the inside, and you have to love someone to see that,” she said.
Knowing her teacher cared about her, she said, made all the difference in not only her day, but also her life.
But times have changed, a fact that troubles both students and educators. In today”s education system, “teaching to the test” sometimes takes priority over hands-on interaction, especially in the upper grades.
“I have 55 minutes to teach,” explained Flora Fortune, a biology teacher at Columbus High School. “My priority is to teach you so you can graduate. For me, my ”I love you” is the lesson I give to you. I do attempt to put my heart and soul into what I do, but you have to recognize love in different ways. From a teacher, their love is how they teach you. That”s just the nature of teaching.”
Fortune said her door is always open for students, but unless the problem relates to the day”s subject matter, it”s better for them to catch her after class, when she has more time for one-on-one focus.
Hearing Fortune”s words sparked a new way of thinking for Brooke Montgomery, a freshman at Columbus High School.
“I came to hear about how to be successful in life,” Montgomery said. “But the teachers surprised me. They really do care, and now I know I can go to my teachers and talk to them. It helps a lot.”
Continuing the theme, all area students and parents are invited to a free “Power of Literacy and Arts” concert tonight from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at Lee Middle School auditorium.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.