My Father’s Retirement: For Work Well Done
“My father always told us ‘you don’t get any credit for what you do for yourself but for what you do for others.’” Kalamu ya Salaam
After forty-one years as a juvenile youth court counselor, my father retired in December 2011. Unlike many whose civil rights engagement led them into politics and grassroots organizations, my father’s work around voting as a way to influence the appointment of judges and to improve schools led him to work with troubled youth. (Clearly, I did not inherit that trait of working with troubled youth, but I digress.) On paper, his most significant accomplishment as a youth court counselor has been the institution of parenting programs for parents whose children have been removed from the home or whose children have been adjudicated as delinquent for serious juvenile offences. This small change took him more than twenty years to institute because, as usual, the “higher ups” are mostly concerned with criminalizing youth for sensational headlines and the so-called “advocacy groups” are more concerned with issues of race and other sensational headlines rather than objective critical thinking that asks simple questions: Why is a youth perpetually in trouble? And what role do parents, teachers, and other community leaders play in the perpetual trouble?
I have participated in a couple of those parenting sessions and workshops, and I was called into duty to transfer the VHS tapes used for the parenting classes to DVDs. It’s one of the very few technological things that I do well because all I must do is press one button. But, watching all those tapes and watching my father lead those parenting workshops gave me an insight and respect for his work that I did not develop when I was the wayward child of the super parent. I wasn’t criminally bad, but I was a bad child. I’m sure that is not surprising to most of you. Some of my family members used to call me the black Dennis the Menace, and I really can’t refute that claim. As a parent, my father never overreacted to my shenanigans and was a master at using the Socratic mode of questioning to make me see the foolishness of my behavior or choices. And, he used the same method with the parenting classes. He understood and attacked the fact that many parents are ineffective because they have never received proper parenting themselves. He was never clouded by the myth that human parenting is instinctual, but, rather, it is a learned skill, and, like all skills, it is even more difficult to teach the proper way to parent if one has spent one’s entire life being exposed to poor or ineffective parenting techniques. So, with a room of angry adults, pissed off because they are forced to participate in something that, for them, defines them as a failed human, he went to work by teaching a skill rather than indicting people for being failures. And as with most skills, he began by having them assess themselves, discussing their current techniques and having them to judge and grade themselves, which included having them set their own benchmarks that can be measured against the benchmarks established by the program/court. So, he began by giving them control and ownership of their ability to parent and then proceeded to act like a coach whose job it is to help them clarify what it means to be an effective parent and then to help them accomplish this goal. No, it’s not rocket science, but clearly far too many parents are “missing the mark” as poor parenting has ultimately replaced racism as the major issue in the African American community. (Send your angry emails to me, not my pop, because that is my position not his.) Thus, the numbers seem to prove that parenting classes work as the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders whose parents enter the parenting program drops dramatically—close to fifty percent—over those whose parents do not enter the program.
Yet, while the parenting program will be his on-paper accomplishment or testament of his contribution to society, there are two other accomplishments of his youth court legacy that mean more to me. One, by the age of twelve, grown men and women regularly approached me and stated: “Your father was the best juvy officer I had.” Even at twelve it struck me to think: “Just how many counselors have you had that you can compare them? How bad a child were you that you needed multiple counselors?” Of course, I never had the courage to say this aloud because of my fear of the common hoodlum (male and female) and because I knew that my father would backhand me across the street. (Actually, he wouldn’t backhand me. My mother was the disciplinarian parent. My father could make me cry by using the Socratic method of forcing me to realize how my wayward and selfish ways negatively affected others and disappointed the people who loved me. My mother, on the other hand, often said: “Boy, I ain’t got time for all that psychological crap of your daddy. If you want to keep your teeth, I suggest that you straighten up and fly right.”) So, I was continuously amazed that these strangers could cite real/tangible ways in which my father had helped them by citing real/tangible ways in which their lives had changed as result of my father’s involvement. Yet, when these adults or their parents attempted to thank my father, he always gave them the credit. “No, ma’am, I didn’t save your child. I gave your child some options, explained the consequences of each choice, and allowed your child to make a decision. You and your son changed his life. All I did was offer some services and resources that allowed y’all to accomplish the goal.” Then, he would stroll off into the sunset like a real black cowboy. I’m sure this is why I don’t take credit for my students that earn A’s and B’s and attend graduate school. They do the work. All I do is offer some tips on how to accomplish the goal.
Still, with all of the above, the most important accomplishment of my father as a juvenile youth court counselor occurred when I was fifteen. It was the summer of 1985, I was visiting my father for the summer, and I was finally old enough to stay home alone while he spent a few hours with friends. That was great for me because my father still has one of the best home stereo systems I’ve ever seen, which means that I would have three to four hours of full reign with my father’s system, all of his albums, and a few Prince records. If you have never heard Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, War, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Prince cranked up to ten on a top notch system, then you’ve never lived. Around 9:30 p.m., the light flashes on the telephone. I lower the music, answer the phone, and hear the low gravelly voice of a grown man.
“Say, youngblood, is Mac There?”
“No sir,” I respond, “he’s not in at the moment. Is there a message?”
There is a long pause. The silence begins to startle me. Finally, after ten seconds or so, he continues, “Say, youngblood, your father was my juvy counselor when I was a kid, and my head was never wrapped to tight. The way he got me through it all was that he always told me to call him whenever I was about to do something crazy.”
At this moment I realized that this call just took a turn, making it way above my pay grade. “Yes, sir,” I meekly replied.
There is another ten to twelve second pause, and then he states “I just came home and caught my ole lady with this nigger in my crib. I know it’s been ‘bout ten years since he’s been my counselor, but I need your old man to tell me why I shouldn’t shoot the shit outta they asses.”
His voice was monotone, concrete steady, and ice cold, not wavering nor yelling. The preciseness of his tone scared me. And, y’all must remember. This is 1985. There is no caller ID and no three-way calling. I’ve got to get this dude’s number and convince him not to do anything until I have my father return his call. Allow me also to add that I don’t have any street cred, I’m not looking to obtain any street cred, and at fifteen I didn’t even know what street cred was. Yet, I knew what my father would want me to do. “Sir, I know exactly where my father is. I can call him and have him return your call in less than thirty minutes.”
“Youngblood, I ain’t got that long.”
“You said that my father helped you. You called him because you knew he would help you. Let me make this call, sir, so he can help you.”
“Alright, youngblood, you got thirty minutes. But, I ain’t giving you the number. Tell yo’ old man that I’ll call him back in exactly thirty minutes.” Great, I got a gun waving hoodlum who’s punctual.
Luckily—not by design, I always knew where my father was. I had the number and made the call. When I stated the man’s name, my father abruptly stated, “I’m on my way to the crib,” arriving home in less than fifteen minutes. After a few more minutes, I began to worry, but my father simply stated, “All we can do is wait for a call son.” When that phone rang, both terror and relief began to tango in my heart. My father answered the phone before the first ring had stopped. The conversation probably lasted all of forty minutes. There was not a lot of emotional appeal from my father. He used the same technique that he always used. “How you want this to play out?” “What you gon’ gain by shooting them?” “Are you a fool for being a good man, or is she a fool for not realizing that she just fucked up a good thing with a real man?” The conversation between my father and the man was back and forth, like a championship tennis match between heavy hitters, point for point, return and volley until my father made the winning shot with a great cross court smash that hit the edge of the back corner line: “Everything you have worked for will be gone if you pull that trigger. You calling her a bitch ass ‘ho. If you pull that trigger, then you will be allowing a bitch ass ‘ho to ruin your life.” After that, the tone in the conversation changed, making it clear that the man was not going to shoot them. Then, during the last two minutes, there was another debate or negotiation that I didn’t quite understand. All I could hear was my father saying, “But what is that gon’ prove if you don’t give it to them?” “But you done already made your point?” “Okay, alright, do it your way, just let them go.” “Yes, yes, I’m on my way.” As my father hung up the phone, he shook his head and said, “Well, he’s not going to shoot them, but I couldn’t convince him to allow them to put on their clothes before he puts them out the house.” Then, he paused, thought about it for a minute, and stated, “Well, they may be walking the streets naked, but at least they walking out the house and not being carried out. Gotta go son; I told him I’d be there in fifteen minutes.”