Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Joe Ennis, Where for Art Thou?

     An old acquaintance from high school and I were exchanging thoughts over Facebook the other day and somehow or another Joe Ennis was mentioned.

     A tall, slender, wavy haired man with a stoic personality and a properly conservative suit collection, Joe Ennis was the most obdurate math teacher at our high school. I remember him quite vividly as I had his class a couple of years in a row and absolutely dreaded it. Firstly, I was never very good at math and definitely struggled with anything that didn't involve counting money. Secondly, I thought Mr. Ennis was, oh, how do I put this...the devil. He could be evil incarnate. It seemed as if he singled out a couple of us in his class for his particular brand of ridicule. He would call on you to answer a problem either verbally or on the chalkboard, and then unleash one of his time worn zingers on you if your answer was incorrect. As if being wrong wasn't public humiliation enough for the average high schooler, Mr. Ennis put an exclamation on the end of it with something like this...

(actual Joe Ennis one liners)

- "Russell, if they put your brain in a bird it would fly North for the Winter!"

- "Russell, you would need twice as many brains to be a half-wit."

- "Russell, I sure hope you find a way to make some dollars 'cause you almost never make any sense."

These indignities were hurled with the smooth, mellow cool of a Quiet Storm DJ, publicly and loudly for the entire class to enjoy, so I did everything  possible to avoid his calling me to answer a question. Although everyone fell victim to Mr. Ennis at some point, it seemed that his favorite targets were me and this other kid named Xavier. We'd blend into the background in an attempt to somehow becoming invisible so that Joe wouldn't call on us for ANYTHING. And God forbid he caught you daydreaming or distracted. The verbal public flogging would begin anew.

     That Facebook exchange got me thinking about the last time I saw Mr. Ennis, which was 3 years after I graduated at a high school homecoming game. As always he was immaculately groomed.  He was wearing a cream colored, 2 piece matching ensemble, ironed to perfection w/matching Stacy Adams. This was the first time for the better part of 7 years (he'd taught in my junior high as well) I had seen him dressed in anything other than a suit. I sidled up next to him as he was watching the game...alone, by the fence...

me - "How are you Mr. Ennis?"
Joe - (slowly looking me up and down, then returning his gaze to the game before speaking) "Russell...your looking well, son. What are you doing with yourself these days?"
me - "I'm in school sir. Studying communications."
Joe - "That's good to hear. I see you doing well with that."
me - (jokingly) "Well, we both know I needed to stay away from anything math intensive."
Joe - (finally turning to look at me) "You know, you could have done much better in my class. You never really gave it your all did you? (looking me straight in the eye) Well, did you?"
me - "Mr Ennis, I'm just not good with math. I know the basics but anything beyond that is Greek to me."
Joe - "You know Russell, you're much smarter than you give yourself credit for. If you would use that head of yours for something other than a hat rack you might realize that. (pulls a $10 bill out of his wallet) Go get me some popcorn please son...(turns back to watching the game) and be assured that I will count my change."

     Regardless of the fact that he rode me constantly, in his own unique way he was always encouraging me to strive a little harder. Call it the "shut me up by proving me wrong" methodology. Xavier and I took great pride in shoving it back in his face on the rare occasion that we did answer a question properly. So why was it that Joe Ennis rode us harder than the other students? I'm guessing that it was because like Joe, Xavier and I were the only Amer-Africans in the room.

      In retrospect, I've realized that Joe Ennis was one of only a few teachers that left an impression on me in a way that most other teachers didn't. Was it because he gave me such a hard way to go, or was it because he was essentially a relatable figure as a black male? So I started thinking about something. Outside of Joe Ennis, how many other black male teachers had I had? Of the teachers that I had from the time we moved to Maryland (4th grade through 12th) he was one of only two black males. Mr. Ben Cumbo was the other. In fact, with the exception of Mr. Vaughn Johnson (an art teacher in Junior High) and Mr. Alvin Jones (a substitute teacher) I don't remember encountering ANY other black male teachers. That was 25+ years ago. So how are black males represented in the school systems now?

     Unfortunately, stats show that my kids (3 and 5yo) will probably have an experience that parallels mine. In the state of Virginia (were I currently reside), 2.6% of the 100,908 teachers are black men. In fact, only 1.7 percent of the entire nations 4.8 million public school teachers are black men. Now I can imagine that you're saying that it shouldn't matter what color the teacher is or whether they're male or female as long as they are an effective teacher. You're right it shouldn't. What that line of thinking doesn't account for however, is the subconscious role model/mentor effect that naturally occurs when ones teacher is representative of you. Also consider this - nearly 50% of black male students do not complete high school in 4 years. Black males take fewer AP classes and are suspended or expelled at a higher rate than other groups.

     If we are to be honest, there are basically two influencing dynamics within the majority of the nations public schools - a female cultural and an Anglo-cultural. We have to ask ourselves where do black male students fit into this and is it one of the many factors contributing to the above cited statistics? Again being honest, a young black male can seem a menacing, baleful character, especially in the pubescent years when all kids are developing their personalities and testing the boundaries of authority. Considering that black males are America's go-to boogeymen when just about anything shady goes down, and that we all have been conditioned to associate them (and by 'them' I mean us) with a certain amount of negativity, it's not a stretch to think that Ms. Crabtree might be just a little terrified of this student demographic. Rightly or wrongly, the name " Da'Quan Washington " is going to carry with it certain imagery and connotations that " Chad Wellington" does not, but if Mr. Jefferson is teaching the class it may not matter. Do you get where I'm heading with this?

      In a nutshell, black male teachers expose students to black men as authority figures, can help students feel that they belong, motivate black students to achieve, demonstrate positive male-female relationships to black girls and provide African American youths with role models and mentors. I honestly believe that if every black male student had just one dedicated, black male teacher for every year they were in school, test scores and graduation rates would go up and discipline problems and drop out rates would go down significantly in these demographics. Black kids want black male teachers to relate to. The black females need them just as much as the males. A strong, positive black male influence might make the difference in the standards she accepts and choices she makes in her relationships with men. 

     Another possible advantage is the fact that male teachers in general tend to approach teaching a little differently than their female colleagues. Men are by and large more tolerant of chitchat and more likely to integrate active learning methods, including competitions and games, into the curriculum. They also tend to use more humor as a teaching method. According to Stephen Jones, an educator and author of "Seven Secrets of How to Study", "men tend to give more direction in their approach to sharing knowledge. They want to appear to be the expert.” Women, on the other hand, are more likely to collaborate with students and incorporate their ideas, Jones says.

     So why aren't there more black males teaching? The Civil Rights movement may have actually had an adverse effect on the number of black male teachers. Before integration, the education field was one of the major avenues available for those with higher education. Hence, someone would major in a field, be denied the chance to truly make a career of it, so they taught the subject to others. Since the civil rights movement  Blacks have encouraged their sons to explore other fields of study as more opportunity was available to them. Whereas earlier generations may have had more emphasis on uplift of race through education, today’s generations may have more focus on attaining the so called 'American dream'.

     Another possible hurdle is the stereotype of teaching being "women's work". Most men are going to avoid a profession that is seen as less than macho or perceived as a woman's domain. In order to attract more men we need to change the perception and redefine the description. The key may be to downplay the spinster image and emphasize the mentoring/role model aspect of the field.

     The major component however, most likely is financial. According to a USA Today survey, the average teachers salary nationwide is $46,752 per year. In the majority of this country, that's simply not enough for most people trying to support a family. When men do go into the teaching field, an even more pronounced disparity of male teachers is created at the early childhood and elementary level because most men will favor positions at the high school level where the possibility of subsidizing income through coaching is greater. Which brings us back to the mentoring/role model.

     Going back to my experiences, despite only having limited contact with them, both Mr. Jones and Mr. Johnson were role models to me. Mr. Jones was the one substitute teacher that you never got over on. He was a retired guy who was very active in the neighborhood. He made a few extra dollars subbing, but you always knew that he wasn't there just babysitting us for the paycheck. When Mr. Jones was there he TAUGHT the class and would jack you up if you got out of pocket with him.

     Mr. Johnson was probably in his late 20's/early 30's at the time, tall with an athletic build. He was always dressed well, but with a younger, hipper style than Mr. Ennis yet not trendy. As smooth and suave as they come, it seemed as if all the girls had a bit of a crush on him and all the fellas wanted to BE him. Although I never had his class he would always speak to me in the hallways between classes or occasionally strike up conversation at lunch. He always had an encouraging word and sincerely listened to you in conversation. With Mr. Johnson, you always felt as if he was genuinely interested in whatever was going on with you.

     The other black male teacher I actually had was Mr. Cumbo. Short, rotund and bald, he was physically the polar opposite of Mr. Ennis. He had a brand on his right calf which proudly indicated his membership to the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He had huge, tattooed biceps and a belly I suspect made round by a weekend routine of fermented hops. His bushy, cascading mustache and clean shaven dome gave him the look of a well lotioned bronze walrus.  His curt, surly and gruff demeanor was a ruse that didn't really cloak his grandfatherly appeal. He seemed the kind of guy you wanted to have your back when S popped off.

     As you can see, all of these men are etched in my brain. The subconscious impact they had still resonates with me decades later. Even Joe Ennis on a purely organic level, by virtue of his personal presentation and unshakable demeanor inspired me to emulate him. He and the others were uniquely different interpretations of the black male diaspora and a compliment to my ultimate role model, my father. The sad reality is that for far too many students, the black male teacher may very well be the only mentor, role model, source of manly wisdom and worthwhile father figure they ever encounter.

1 comment:

  1. OMG Flip, this was GREAT!!! I too remember Mr. Ennis but much more fondly than you. Could it be that I loved math and, without tooting my own horn was kind of good at it which possibly took the target off my back? Unlike you and several others on the FDHS site I have very limited memories about my childhood and HS but can clearly remember math class in the last temporary building by the road with Mr Ennis as being a bright spot of my days. And is it just my memory but didn't he take off his suit jacket and put on a white lab type coat??

    Thank You!!