One of the more defining chapters in my revised, updated and probably never published autobiography is entitled Prayer vs. Preyed.
The chapter reflects on two defining experiences from 2013-14 when I nearly died from a mysterious illness after spending a year as a mentor at Washington High School.
Maybe it’s a stretch to connect the two subplots. But when you throw in revelations about religious transmutations, cultural cataclysms and juvenile debauchery, you either have a reality television series worthy formula, or a confused state of mind.
In case you haven’t heard about my educational and spiritual sojourn, it started when I was asked by the school superintendent to establish a mentoring program for at-risk students at Washington High School. It ended with my leaving the Veteran’s Administration Hospital 19 months later in a wheelchair and a prescription to pray for those lost in the abyss of cultural and spiritual stupefaction.
The link between the two incidents was a statement I heard during an interview with a former MPS principal who left the public-school system to lead a private sectarian school five miles away. Asked about his rationale for the transition, he proudly proclaimed that while at MPS, he could pray for his students, but at the private school “I can pray with them.”
Let me start at the end of the chapter because that statement is the glue. I was taken to the hospital a couple of months after my first tour of duty at Washington and before I could accept an extension when an affliction ravished my body, shutting down organs and other nasty things. I was immediately put in a comma, and within days my wife was told to consider pulling the plug. Even if I survived, which they said was highly unlikely, I would lose much of my memory, including my year at Washington.
Without getting into all the specifics, the fact that you’re reading this column implies I tricked the devil—aka Satan, Beelzebub, Donald Trump. Actually, I didn’t trick or even confuse him/her. Instead, I benefitted from a prayer vigil that encompassed hundreds of folks from Milwaukee to Memphis.
I entered the hospital apprehensive and confused about the power of prayer but left—six months later—spatially reinvigorated and, equally important, convinced that prayer, under certain circumstances, does indeed work. Indeed, prayer is once again the cornerstone of my religion, ranking up there with a myriad of guiding rules and mandates. My comma induced journey into the “dark side” provided me with the conclusion that prayer appeals “generally” work when it addresses the needs of others, but only by believers and those of gentle heart.
Unfortunately, though 90% of us call ourselves Christians, I figure less than 9% even understand what that means, much less adhere to singular tenets. Few of us have ever studied and analyzed the Bible or read other theology manuscripts much less compared them to African antiquity to acquire a rudimentary understanding of the concept of our faith. In truth, most who claim to be Christians ignore the basic tenets, or believe the Bible is an evolving document that amends to suit people’s lifestyles and desires.
I’m not trying to get holy on y’all, but it’s important to come to grips with some of the reasons behind the social dysfunctionality in our society. The former MPS principal’s implication was not just that Dominican High School offered him an opportunity to stand on his faith, but that the students subscribed to similar tenets. Another factor in his decision was the environment at Dominican made it easier to teach and nurture.
Most private schools don’t have the disciplinary problems that plague MPS. And, not only were most of the students at Dominican empowered by the advantages of being raised in two parent households, (one of the hallmarks of their faith, but a taboo subject in our community), their parents considered themselves partners in the educational process and had high expectations of their children.
What I experienced at Washington was in sharp contrast to what was taking place at Dominican. Which is not to say Washington was full of atheists, malcontents and the Walking Dead.
Most of the students were good children. Most of the parents were caring, loving and hopeful that education would be their child’s passport. But Washington had more than its share of hoodlums, terrorists and disciples of the demon. And they didn’t pray. They “preyed.” They disrupted the educational process for the good students, put the innocent and studious at risk, and struck fear in the hearts of the weak and meek.
When the superintendent approached Earl Ingram and I about creating a mentoring program, we were given leeway to assist students as we saw fit. Initially, we were provided lists of students in need of guidance or a little fatherly advice. Within a few weeks of my tenure, my list morphed into an open-door policy that included “soft” children in need of protection as well as several gang members who sought another lifestyle or alternative.
Although it is not widely known or publicized, many of the parents who enroll their children in schools participating in the school choice program do so not because of the academics, but because they seek a “safe” environment for their children. The religious orientation offered at Messmer, Hope and Dominican among others, is a plus in that it provides values and a disciplinary code of conduct.
So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I had a dozen students who sought sanctuary in my large office. I had teachers who asked me to harbor small groups of students who needed a quiet and peaceful place to study. I even had an appeal from a parent for me to hide her child, while a terrorist was on the prowl.
For the record, I acquired a new respect for MPS teachers during my tour. Most were excellent academicians, resourceful and nurturing. And they could have excelled at their craft if they worked in an environment where their primary duty was teaching, instead of policing.
For Washington teachers, it was almost impossible to lead a class like their counterparts at Dominican because of the thugs who disrupted classrooms, frequently physically challenging the teacher for control. I witnessed white teachers being called niggers (n-word), women called bitches (b-word) and several referred to as MFs, SOBs and an assortment of epithets I can all but guarantee the terrorists couldn’t spell.
You can trace the blame for their behavior on their religious orientation— or lack thereof—or the absence of a cultural foundation to stand upon. Most were members of the statistical club that has given this city a black eye for the past decade: Milwaukee has the smallest percentage of African American fourth and eighth graders proficient in reading in the entire United States of America—Canada, Mexico and the Not So Virgin Islands.
And in case you haven’t figured it out, high school students who can’t read will frequently disguise their handicap through disruptive actions. So instead of praying, they prey—upon the gentle, the studious, and the reserved. Had I undergone my medical problems and religious revelation prior to accepting the mentoring position, I would have followed the principal’s example and prayed for the Washington students, and probably led them in teachings about Christianity, African spirituality and my own personal religious theories that are rooted in an acceptance of our (African) selection as Nyame’s chosen.
I did introduce dozens of Washington students to African/African American history and why I refer to God as Nyame. I told them they are the descendants of the inventors of math, science and medicine. They stand on those ancestors’ shoulders and have the power to achieve beyond their wildest dreams.
In an ideal world, the students would receive that orientation at home. They would also have a full-time father in their lives, live in safe neighborhoods, not have to sleep in homes heated by an oven or space heater and not have to be taught to hug the floor when they hear gun shots.
A strong religious and cultural foundation can help an impoverished child growing-up in a single parent-headed household overcome some of the obstacles that come with their culture Obviously, we don’t live in an ideal society. Far from it. Milwaukee has the highest Black poverty and unemployment rate in the country. Seventy percent of Black children are born into a single parentheaded households. Far too many men, aren’t… “men.” Instead, they are sperm donors who contribute little to nothing other than chaos.
Thus, by the time a child gets to high school, they have been trademarked by a myriad of negative social indicators, which have stunted their educational, cultural and spiritual growth. For reasons that make no sense, society believes the schools can overcome those obstacles. But by high school it’s generally too late, unless there is significant intervention that requires an investment we don’t seem willing to provide.
The reality I had to accept at the end of my tour of duty was that there was little I could do to change the status quo. I’m proud to say I impacted a handful of students, some of whom I continue to mentor.
But there was one wanna-be gangster who has stayed in my mind and dreams. Despite his bluster and outbursts, he was actually a gentle soul I connected with. But as soon I left and landed in the hospital, he returned to his disingenuous path.
A representative of Running Rebels, which provided violence intervention at Washington, said he reverted to preying upon the weak; and ended up dying in a stolen car.
He “preyed,” and I ended up praying for him. After the fact.