By NICK CHILES
I can remember the moment so clearly.
I was watching the NCAA tournament, witnessing the amazing Kemba Walker strut, stutter-step and cross-over his way through the field on the march to the national championship. At some point I heard the announcer say that Kemba had accumulated enough credits to graduate early from UConn. I was so proud, I even nudged my rather disinterested wife and pointed to Kemba on the screen, happily telling her that the boy apparently had done his thing on the court and in the classroom. He seemed to be a glorious case of a stereotype being smashed this was no barely-literate college superstar skating his way through school.
Imagine my dismay and disappointment when I came upon the news that Kemba had unabashedly told Sports Illustrated that he had never finished a book until a few months ago. How ironic that the book he finished was Bill Rhoden's wonderful and blistering history of the exploitation of the black athlete in America, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
Kemba didn't seem too embarrassed by the admission, but I was. Because I've seen this story over and over again, up close. I was embarrassed not so much for what Kemba said; I was embarrassed for what Kemba doesn't know, what nobody has yet to teach him. What likely has plagued Kemba for years and what continues to plague millions of other black boys across America is what I call the do-enough-to-get-over syndrome. I saw it when I taught writing for 10 years in Harlem. I saw it when I covered education for newspapers in New York and New Jersey. I even saw it while raising my son, who is now an engineering major and a Division I college football player himself.
The syndrome is a consequence of our dangerously low expectations for our boys indeed, their disappointingly low expectations for themselves. Too many black boys look around and realize that as long as they give a minimal effort, as long as they show up most days, stay out of trouble, stay out of jail, stay relatively engaged, the world will have many rewards in store for them. Every once in awhile they might even push themselves and bring home a 93, just so everyone knows they are capable, just so we can keep tagging them with that wonderful word potential.
All kids look for shortcuts, the fastest path to the golden nuggets. That's what kids do. As parents, as adults, our job is to let them know that this is not good enough. But we can talk ourselves into some tight corners. We do it to our boys with the short-sighted insistence that they go to school and get an education so that they can get a good job. This does them a huge disservice. Using their clever powers of deductive reasoning, they create a simple formula: schools and books equals job. So if they can get the job without the schools and books, they are cutting out an unnecessary step. They are being more efficient. They are doing enough to get over. If Kemba Walker can make tens of millions of dollars a year without having to finish a book, why read?
I've seen this reasoning assert itself on a smaller scale over and over during the past three decades. When I taught writing to high school students in New York, it was the black boys who too often were content with the B-minus or C-plus. Somewhere, someone had given them the idea that we shouldn't expect more from black boys, that if they do average work it's the best we're going to get from them so we should all applaud them for the average effort after all, they're ahead of the game if they're still going to class because there are many others who dropped out of school or are in prison.
Don't think I'm just talking here about the children of the poor. Often it was the middle-class boys who were the worst, because they knew enough to realize how much easier it likely was going to be for them to get into a good school or to get the pat on the back, even with average work, than for that white kid or Asian kid or maybe even that black female. In my son's case, the thinking went, If I can use my natural brainpower to get a 92 and still have a thriving social life and do my thing on the field, why should I kill myself for the 97 and be a nerd? Once he even made the mistake of saying this out loud, in so many words.
Replace his 92 with an 85 in that apartment down the street, or a 78 in that house across town, and you find the same story repeated all over America. I certainly saw it repeated with many of his friends on the football team. It was a struggle getting him to see the value in giving 100 percent at all times in the classroom, just like on the football field, to realize the joy of conquering new material and absorbing fascinating facts and ideas about how the world works, finding revelations and answers and awe on the printed page. But it was a struggle I took on every day, no matter his reaction or resistance, because I knew how important it was and I knew he would one day thank me.
Kemba's arrogance is troubling, disarming and familiar. We were all there once, when we thought we had this all figured out. Ha, he laughs. I gamed the system; I made it through this bitch without finishing a book. I'm untouchable.
But I want to have a conversation with Kemba as his 45-year-old self, the one that will be looking back and pondering chances missed, mistakes made, arrogance unearned. Once the agents are gone, the managers have moved on, Kemba will be facing a contract negotiation for some sports-related job with nobody by his side, he'll walk into a cocktail party where somebody else is the new life of the party, he'll travel to some part of the world where there won't be an eager guide waiting he'll face his own child asking college-graduate dad questions about the fifth-grade or eighth grade or tenth grade homework. Kemba will invariably be left to wonder if there was some book that might have made that contract easier to understand, that will have given him something to talk about at the party, that will have provided him insight into some foreign land on his travels. And when his child excitedly asks him what was his favorite book when he was in 7th grade, he will want to run to the Internet and purge every one of those stories where he bragged about never finishing a book. That day will come for Kemba Walker.
For the rest of us, the next time a child asks us why they have to try harder on their homeworkget better gradesread another book, maybe we can reach beyond the pat so you can get a good job answer. We might try telling them so you can live a rich, full, joyful life without regret.
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestselling tome “The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life's Storms,” co-written with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. Nick also writes for several publications including Essence, where he frequently pens stories about fatherhood and manhood.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.