Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thomas' Early Education

A column by Rick Martinez in the News & Observer:
Thomas' Early Education

Rick Martinez, Correspondent
I picked up Clarence Thomas' autobiography not to read about him, but to learn more about Myers Anderson, the type of man I wish we had more of these days. Anderson was Thomas' grandfather who took in the future associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and his brother after their mother gave up the boys because she couldn't afford to raise them -- and because she refused to go on welfare.

"The damn vacation is over," said Anderson to his new charges, and he meant it. From the moment the Thomas boys stepped onto their grandparents' porch with all their belongings, they entered a world of hard work, discipline and rules that demanded their respect. Thomas writes that deviation from those rules guaranteed sure, swift and painful punishment. If the boys didn't like the rules, Anderson was quick to remind them, the door swung both ways.

While most parenting experts today are horrified at that no-nonsense, authoritarian approach to raising boys, I long for it. Not out of a sense of nostalgia, but desperation.

Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint are on a high-profile crusade to reverse the low rate of graduation and high rates of out-of-wedlock births and incarceration that plague the African-American community. Their book, "Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors" is an open letter to fellow blacks to finally recognize that while systematic racism continues, the real enemy is from within.

Though directed at African-Americans, the book also speaks to Hispanics. Our statistics, though not as bleak, show disturbing trends.

Cosby and Poussaint's self-help directives, aimed at overcoming the destructive elements of black and Hispanic-American culture, are not new. They're just not practiced with the same seriousness and obligation as in past generations.

Educational achievement is a prime example. Despite lip service, the minority community's commitment to the work and discipline required to obtain diplomas just isn't there. Nothing else explains the parental apathy that tolerates high school dropout rates hovering around 50 percent. Classroom excellence wasn't an expectation in Myers Anderson's household, it was a demand. Missing a day of school was unthinkable. He told his grandsons that if they died he'd take their bodies to school for three days to ensure they weren't faking. I believe he would have done it.

When Clarence Thomas entered a seminary, his grandfather told him the only option to return home was as a priest. When Thomas quit because of the racism he encountered, Anderson kept his word and kicked him out of the household.

His grandfather was hardly unsympathetic to Thomas' experience. A card-carrying member of the NAACP, he often mortgaged his property to raise bail for jailed civil rights protesters. Anderson was simply a hard man who wouldn't tolerate failure under his roof.

Growing up, I knew kids whose fathers were this tough. I sometimes felt sorry for them, but at least they had fathers. In their book, Cosby and Poussaint urge men, rich and poor alike, to understand that once they father a child, parenting by example must be their priority. Being there isn't enough.

Anderson understood what that meant. Thomas writes that his grandfather never told him to "do as I say." Instead, he commanded that Thomas and his brother do as he did. That meant going to church and not getting drunk. A man of moderation, Anderson limited himself to one drink an evening. He said blacks had enough problems, so why add drunkenness? Most of all, living by Anderson's rules meant working, not just to make a living, but also to keep his grandsons out of trouble. When trouble began to creep into his neighborhood, Anderson built a farm on family land to keep the boys busy during nine summers.

He told his grandsons that if they learned to work, they could live well. Armed with only a third-grade education, he used discipline, determination and stamina to build a delivery business and eventually own rental property.

It was that example, not material goods, that Thomas and his brother inherited. Character, not wealth, proved to be Myers Anderson's legacy, one that included the belief that individual liberties are to be enjoyed and exercised, but only after personal responsibilities have been fulfilled.

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