Few artistic expressions possess as much personal meaning for me as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Anytime I listen to the album, I am transported back in time, back to my college years, back to the blossoming of new love (When dating my wife, our first song was "Nothing Even Matters", a duet by Lauryn and D'Angelo, featured on the album), back to the final moments of the last century which, oddly enough, feels like simpler times.
Equally as captivating for me as the songs on the album are the interludes, wherein a male "teacher", played by hip hop activist and current Newark City Councilperson Ras J. Baraka, leads his young "students" in an engaging dialogue on the meaning of love. The first interlude serves as a roll call of students. When Lauryn's name is called, there is no response, highlighting her presumed absence from class.
From the first time I listened to this interlude, and every time since, another name, not Lauryn's, has reigned prominently over the others; ShaQuan Sutton. The name stands out for no other reason than its auditory appeal. Recently, however, I have begun to envision the endless promise for ShaQuan's life given the context of his factious educational upbringing. For ShaQuan and his "classmates" experienced something that escaped much of my own educational experience, as well as the educational experience of countless youth, today; a strong, nurturing male presence in the classroom.
Last month, I served as Principal for a Day at a local elementary school. I extended an invitation to my congregation to join me that day as we coordinated our continued efforts to support public education. Upon arriving on campus, I was greeted by a cadre of extraordinary professional women: the administrative office manager, the guidance counselor, the assistant principal, the principal. I would meet dozens more accomplished women throughout the day. Yet, as the day progressed, my maleness loomed large.
The principal informed me that in her school of 500 students and sixty staffpersons, only two men were part of the professional staff. One was a coach. Only one man taught in the classroom setting. When two men from my congregation arrived our collective presence doubled the average adult male presence on the campus!
The impact of our presence was immediate and discernible. Teachers noted that as I read the morning announcements, students immediately quieted, sat up straight, and listened intently. I spoke at an assembly on the topic of bullying and informed any bullies that day that they would be meeting with me in the office. No student reported to the office that day. Many noted that the campus "felt" different with the presence of men.
When I inquired as to how our church could best assist the school, I told, "We need men! Men to serve as mentors. Men to read to our students. Men to sit and have lunch with our students. Men who will be present in the lives of our students."
This experience caused me to pause and to reflect upon my own educational journey. I had reached the sixth grade before I had male teachers in the classroom. I was a senior in college before I took a course taught by a Black man. I came to recognize that the absence of men, especially men of color, in my educational experience propelled me to take every course that I could that was being taught by an African-American male scholar my first time as a graduate student. And it's likely the reason why my doctoral committee is headed by a Puerto Rican man, an African-American woman, and an African-American man. I am making up for lost time, still seeking now what was lacking then; a nurturing and empowering male presence in my educational experience.
I, like many, have previously noted the impact of male absenteeism in society, especially in the family. But I had failed to see the impact of male absence on our youth in the educational process. Is it possible that declining interest amongst men in the pursuit of education is their consideration of it being a primarily female pursuit?
I fully recognize that there are men, including men of color, who actively nurture and empower our youth as teachers, coaches, administrators, and volunteers. I honor them for their commitment and effort! However, our educational process is producing too few ShaQuan Suttons; young people whose educational journeys have been positively shaped and empowered by male teachers.
So I ponder several questions: What positive impact does male presence have upon the educational experience of today's ShaQuan Suttons? What can ShaQuan Suttons grow to become, their lives shaped early by a nurturing male presence in the classroom? How does nurture and support from a male teacher prove formational for students in their conception of the contributions men can make to society?
Two years ago this month, my maternal grandfather died at the age of 83. For forty-four of those years he worked in public education as a biology teacher, a coach, a bus driver, a principal, and before retirement, as an assistant superintendent. At his funeral, and for months following his death, men from across the nation came to offer their respects. Many claimed that the time they spent with my grandfather changed their lives, and that the lessons he taught them not only shaped them intellectually, but gave them greater vision of what it means to be a man. Grown men, many now seniors, themselves, gave testimony of the impact this male educator had upon their lives with tears in their eyes!
We desperately need more men to become involved in public education so that in the future, when the roll is called for a new generation of young people who will be productive citizens, they can answer the roll as ShaQuan Sutton did.