Last Thursday and Friday, LeShawn Orr, Nadia Dale, and Shakia Sullivan, young employees of Columbus High, coordinated an event focused on the cultural challenges facing high school students. Called the “Wake Up Project,” the event featured a concert with positive hip hop artists and poets, a presentation by a scholar on education, and a panel with community members and students discussing the health of education in Columbus. The event also consisted of gender based workshops where students and young professionals discussed the impact of music and peer pressure on teenage behavior.
I participated in one of the workshops and the conversation about the images of manhood in rap music reminded me of a fight I got into in middle school. The incident started when another male student looked at me strange in the cafeteria (still don”t know why). At the time, all the cool kids were tough and willing to fight to prove it.
As a result of this, during middle school, I got grades good enough to keep my parents satisfied, but hid it from my peers and portrayed a tough guy image as much as possible. Thus, when the student looked at me strange in the cafeteria, I didn”t want to lose the respect of others, so I returned his glare. The student then threaten to beat me up if I went to the high school football game that evening. In response, I mouthed threats back at him.
Privately, I was terrified. The other student was stronger than me, and I thought he would kill me in a fight. Yet, I had told my friends I was going to the game, and if I didn”t show up, they would realize I was scared of him, so, I felt I had to face the potential confrontation.
Throughout the game, I avoided walking around; hoping the student hadn”t come or I wouldn”t see him. Towards the end, just when I though I had avoided my funeral one more night, the guy from the cafeteria and I ran into each other. When we first made eye contact, I remember seeing a quick look of disappointment on his face, like he hadn”t wanted to see me either. But when he did, he started talking trash, reminding me of his promise to beat me up. This caught the attention of everyone around us, and folks started circling us, eager to see a fight.
The attention of the crowd increased the tension. Now, neither one of us could walk away from the fight without risking embarrassment. My only chance to survive was to hit him first and hope adults separated us before he could retaliate. So that”s what I did. Afterwards, all I remember is the police breaking up the fight and one of my parent”s friends, Janet Adams, recognizing me and convincing the police to let her take me home.
The Wake Up Project workshop on manhood triggered this memory because the current male students are confronting similar types of peer pressure. While this type of peer pressure has always existed amongst teenagers, it”s becoming more negative and more endemic. There”s more and more pressure on our male students to be tough rather than smart, to have nice clothes or shoes rather than go to college, to be cool for being like everyone else rather than for being themselves. These misplaced priorities have had devastating consequences, consequences that have damaged the future too many students.
The Wake Up Project was aimed at reversing this trend. The workshops and events confronted the long-term ramifications of bad decisions and had a dialogue with the students about how to create positive peer pressure. Unlike a regular classroom, where the teachers do most of the talking, this dialogue allowed students to talk to each other about the cultural challenges influencing them.
These challenges won”t be conquered over night, or with a two-day workshop. It will take years to build the momentum to reverse the trend and the effort will have to find ways to make parents and teachers part of the process. They”ll be frustrations and setbacks. But, with this aim, Columbus will be addressing the attitudes and behaviors that are holding our students back. And maybe, one day, students will see learning and passion and academic achievement as cooler than trading punches at a football game.
Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.