No matter how great technology, nothing replaces nurturing school environment

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Vernon A. Williams

Memories abound in the fog of autumn reflections on childhood school days growing up in Gary. Around this time every school year, summer was but a faint memory as we dove deep into the increasing familiarity of a new school year.

It was a time for football at Gilroy Stadium and anticipation of basketball rivalries in Memorial Auditorium. Students gravitated to their interests by joining clubs and organizations that aligned with their interests. Talented Roosevelt students pursued artistic passions joining the Madrigal Singers, the band, drama club, or the Orchesis Dancers.

School was a springboard for young people forming new friendships with students who shared common interests.

Gary’s singing groups and band interests didn’t start with the Jackson Five. Thaddeus Shelton was the dynamic bass for the Epics. Tolleston student Roosevelt Christmas and his group had a hit record on the radio called “Just Another Reason.” Cornelius McPherson and pianist Robert Lee lit up talent show stages. Milton Crump was the smoothest tenor, and Grammy Award-winner Deniece “Niecy” Williams came out of that culture.

Gary schools were fertile fields of dreams for students of every ilk. The impact of predominantly African-American teachers, principals, coaches, preachers, community leaders and involved parents all formed a potent formula for success. By graduation, another “anything is possible” chapter was written in the election of Mayor Richard G. Hatcher.

Young people benefit from example, but they are empowered by the school setting.

Then and now, what occurs in the classrooms, the hallways, the playing fields, after school and on field trips contributed to so many people from humble beginnings of the Steel City on Lake Michigan rising in myriad fields of endeavor across the nation.

In my high school senior year, I got an opportunity to attend the Radio-TV class at the newly-constructed Gary Career Center. There was a licensed radio station that was moved from Lew Wallace High School to the 35th and King Drive facility. At that time, students primarily read the news accounts but had never hosted a music program.

We learned early that just because something had not been done didn’t mean that it could not or should not be done. So, I couldn’t resist making a pitch to become the first after-school student radio personality. The idea was summarily dismissed by the station manager who thought it would be counter-productive to buck tradition.

I was persistent because Gary schools built confidence. There was no way I would let the first rejection be the last. I bugged the station manager until he finally gave in – allowing me to start “Do Your Thing,” the first student program on WGVE 88.7. It featured a music-talk format, playing soul music, reading teen news and weekly on-air interviews with students from all eight Gary high schools.

My story is one among many of Gary students who chased dreams with a relentless spirit. Gary schools provided a caldron for the formation of achievement mindsets. Even if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted to do in life, exposure to different activities often gave students a chance to learn what they did not want to do.

The school dynamic is nurturing and sustaining. We were inspired and encouraged by adults who saw possibilities in all of us.

This unusual but relevant reminiscence comes from thoughts of students pre-school through post-graduate university studies who, in the midst of this pandemic, don’t have access to that incomparable hands-on learning and socialization that only can be achieved from a school presence.

Undoubtedly, the decision to keep students home for health reasons is the right one. But so much of a child’s and adolescent’s development relies on the socialization process that goes far beyond making friends, even though that, too, is part of it. Human beings have a natural yearning to see, feel, touch and respond to an open atmosphere. Children confined to their homes stymies that process. And yet during these times of pervasive threats to our health, there is little choice.

Even though the wise acknowledge the necessity of the times, if you have any sense of empathy, you can’t help but feel for what the children are missing. If you don’t have the capacity to put yourselves in their place, think back to what that learning process meant to you – well beyond the classroom.

The prayer is that this nation will begin taking the pandemic serious enough to make selfish politics secondary and to dismiss the temptation of “privilege” in favor of how this crisis is hurting the children. These are days, weeks, and months (God forbid years) that they will never have the ability to recover.

In general, younger children seem to have short memories. If we can get control of this situation and resume their routine education, this will be but a faded memory of youth. We have no idea about the long-term effect of children who are forced to endure this kind of isolation over an extended period of time. We pray that we never have to find out.

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