By DERRICK BARNES
For the most part, he’s everything I’m not.
Well, not everything. I just wish I was born with his intensity and fire. But hey, were both devilishly charming. I’d say we share the same quick wit, infectious sense of humor, and enormous amount of modesty. My middle son, Solo, is a bona fide star already, at the ripe old age of six. He should have his own channel or website or something. Amongst his many nicknames, I call him Solo Dot Com when he does or says something vintage Solomon.
He has that it factor. That intangible, little Black boy from the block, neighborhood superstar, jena se qua that you just can’t pick up at your corner bodega. He’s always fly. His haircut is always crisp. He keeps a fresh pair of Chuck Taylor’s on his feet. Funks out his school uniform with a leather jacket and pops the collar on his white shirt like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. He has a lightening quick temper that can be mistaken as an attitude by others, but I just see it as unbridled passion a competitive, confident switch that’s always on. He’s an awesome athlete (he wants to be an All-pro cornerback for the New Orleans Saints and a sports agent when he grows up). Basically, he’s Eddie Haskell if Eddie Haskell was a cool, handsome little Black boy; the kind that parents want their sons to bring home as a friend, and their daughters to introduce as their future husband. That’s my man, Solo.
As cocky as Solomon is, there is one area that breaks his confidence down like Kyle West (pick up a copy of Al B. Sure’s In Effect Mode for that reference). We work on it every single day. I’m on him tough with it, too. His cool melts away slowly and it’s tough to watch sometimes, like a snowman being attacked by a cruel, warm breeze. His face crinkles and twists. Every now and then, but not as much as he used to, he breaks down and cries out of frustration when it’s time to read.
Occasionally he flips that Solo switch all the way down and refuses to even read along with me. He’ll act as if his brain has been picked clean of everything he’s ever learned about phonics and vowels. I have to catch him at the right moment and the right time of day in order for him to cooperate. And more than anything (and this took me some time) I can’t, under any circumstances, allow myself to get frustrated.
See, my eldest son, Ezra, spoiled me. He’s been reading since he was three and a half. To be fair, the eldest child statistically does better than the rest of the tribe because they’ve had more one-on-one instruction, but still I expected Solomon’s mind to operate similarly to Ezra’s. These dudes are so polar opposites in every way it’s ridiculous. But you know, that’s been the coolest challenge of being a parent; figuring out the best way to craft three different plans of discipline, teaching, motivation, rewarding, and expectation building.
Solo’s deal isn’t a lack of ability or a learning disorder. It’s a lack of interest. He’d rather be tackling the stuffing (literally the stuffing add roughneck to his list of glowing attributes) out of his brothers, riding his bike, listening to music, dancing with his fine momma, or pulling pranks on some unsuspecting sap. My deal was figuring out the best way to get this cat to not only learn to love reading, but the best way to get him to process and retain everything I’m teaching him. Where Ezra has a great memory and uses simple repetition to lock in information, I have to be patient, creative and calm with Solomon.
For instance, flash cards were my first tools of instruction when the boys turned two. With Ezra, I could show him a sequence of twenty cards, maybe three or four times, and he’d absorb everything printed on the cards, front and back. With Solomon—no haps. What I figured out was that order and a straight-lined presentation of information would bore him to death; repetition only created disinterest. So I said cool, what I’ll do is lay out all twenty cards and ask him to recognize the letters, shapes or numbers. It worked. So from that day forward every technique I tried with Ezra, I did the exact opposite with Solomon. I also learned that in order for the session to go well, I must start off with material that builds his confidence. He responds better when he’s as sure of himself intellectually as he is when he’s intercepting a quarterback’s pass or beating one of his little buddies in a foot race.
It’s still a struggle, for the both of us, but he’s improved a lot. The key is to sit down and read with the brotha every single day for at least twenty-five minutes. And every time I sit down with Solo I think about the thousands of little Black boys across the country that don’t have anyone that will take time to figure out how they tick. There are thousands of brilliant, talented, energetic Black boys that would no doubt be straight A scholars, and could easily have their names on the principal’s honor roll on the regular if they were not buried in the wasteland of special education classes.
Educator and author Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu has made a lifelong commitment to reverse this morbidly disturbing occurrence in American education; Black boys make up almost eighty percent of students placed in special education classes nationwide. I taught special education classes as a substitute when I lived in New Orleans for three years, and it always blew me away to discover how normal the kids placed in the classes were. Not normal in a regular sense but normal meaning other than the occasional behavioral issues, they were really no different than the rest of the student population. Most importantly, I wondered how those children could be properly educated by anyone that didn’t have a vested interest in their lives, community, families, and their futures. I could relate to most of my students, specifically the Black boys, because my family make-up mirrored most of theirs. I taught at one school in Metairie, LA for an entire month, and the following month my wife gave birth to our second son, Solomon Matthew Barnes. He’s our Louisiana baby.
In hindsight, I wonder how I would have related to him if he would have been one of my students. Would my baby be amongst the sea of unfortunate Black boys in this country that have been discounted and disregarded as dysfunctional if I were not in the picture? Would he be just another mis-educated, misguided Black boy that no one took the time to sculpt and craft an educational plan of action for? Would he become just another case of unrealized potential, primed for a grim future filled with criminal behavior, violence, and drugs, stamped as property of the state instead of a son of unlimited promise?
God willing, I’ll be around to see all three of my sons become men; fathers, husbands, college graduates, difference makers. We’ll never know the answers to any of those questions. My hope and plea is, that every Black man, whether he be a busy father of three or not, makes himself available wherever he might live, and become a tangible, living, breathing example of what a young brotha can become. Black boys are in dire need of mentors, tutors, big brothers, father-figures, and teachers.
Solomon now totes a book in his knapsack everywhere he goes just like his big brother and ol’ man. In fact, as his confidence grows, he is increasingly enjoying reading to himself. Although we arrived here gradually, there was one gigantic bridge we crossed a couple of months ago. It was a monumental scene between Solo and I that neither one of us will never forget.
He promised that he would read a series of three books by week’s end, and I held him to it. Every day after homework we would sit down and read two to three chapters. By Wednesday it was like pulling wisdom teeth, plugging those joints back in, and then pulling them again. He would make that face of frustration, which would eventually lead to tears, but I wouldn’t give up on him. We’d finish each and every evening. By Friday, he was spent, but we only had three chapters to finish. By the time we began the last chapter, he was almost in full shutdown mode; eyes red, voice trembling, and the waterworks were on full blast. After being prodded to push through the last sentence, he gave me the ceremonial conclusion, The End before whimpering like he had just battled through a twelve-round boxing match. I closed the book and sat there at the dining room table, exhausted, as he sulked out of the room, very un-Solo-like. He snatched a handful of Kleenex to clear his pitiful little face of what remained after a week full of treacherous reading.
After about two minutes, he returned to the table, wrapped his arms around me, and we embraced like two victorious combatants. He composed himself, looked me dead in my eyes with that Solo confidence that lights my soul, and told me, Thank you, daddy, for helping me with the books. Right then and there I thanked the most high for two things: for patience and for giving me an assignment that sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve. I could not be more grateful for this moment in time.
On Solo’s recent report card, he received all As and only one B. The B was in Art. I asked him if the work he created wasn’t what the teacher asked for. He responded with another quote straight from Solo Dot Com, Maybe it’s not what she wants, but I like it. She probably doesn’t understand my style. On so many different levels, I could not have agreed with him more.
What can I say? I’m on his jock. Big fan.
Derrick D’wayne Barnes is the author of eight children and young adult books, including the saucy MyBrownBaby favorite, the Ruby & The Booker Boys series. He’s given his insights about fatherhood on GreatDad.com, and is an incredible role model for brown babies everywhere. He lives in Kansas City, MO, with his wife and their three sons. Read more about him on DerrickBarnes.com.