Commentary | Education

Lessons—In Some Important Ways, the Day Only Starts at 3

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


In Some Important Ways, the Day Only Starts at 3

By Richard Rothstein

The art of Jacob Lawrence, the magnificent African-American painter who wove color, shape, history and sociology into emotionally powerful images, is on display at the Whitney Museum.

The Phillips Collection, of Washington, organized the exhibit (it leaves on Feb. 3 for Detroit, Los Angeles and Houston), gathering for the first time all 60 paintings in Lawrence’s narrative of blacks’ migration from the South. Museum stores sell a middle-school guide to Lawrence’s life and work, “I See You, I See Myself.” Every child would appreciate it.

But behind the art is another story, about Utopia Children’s House, organized in early-20th-century Harlem to offer after-school care to children of women working as domestics across the city.

Lawrence first attended Utopia as a 13-year-old in 1930, gravitating to a workshop taught by Charles Alston, later a notable painter himself but then an arts education student at Teachers College.

“They didn’t tell me what to do, how to draw or what to paint,” Lawrence once remembered. “They gave me materials and ideas on how to experiment, and left me alone to create out of my imagination.”

Few achieve Lawrence’s greatness, but many artists, athletes and leaders, especially those from poor backgrounds, credit after-school programs for their success. With low adult-to-child ratios, these are places where mentoring is possible. Today, as schools devote more time to basic skills, such programs may be a child’s only exposure to arts, music, dance and group activities.

Raymond Flynn, former mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican, recalls that in the early 1950’s, his immigrant parents, both working, were not home after school, so he went to the South Boston Boys Club. He loved basketball in the gym, but Boys Club rules required him to choose other activities, too, like being tutored with homework, organizing club elections or woodworking.

“You learned citizenship and how to get along,” Mr. Flynn said recently, but the main lesson was balance and moderation. “They kept the program well rounded, and it developed well-rounded youngsters.”

The actor Denzel Washington says the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Boys Club inspired him to go to college and pursue drama.

Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, says the New Orleans Y.M.C.A. developed his leadership skills.

“The Y didn’t lead marches,” Mr. Young said, “but everybody who led the marches was trained in the Y.”

In the 1960’s, Gregory W. Meeks, now a congressman from Queens, was bused from East Harlem to an integrated junior high school that had an after-school program. He joined a “humanities club” for conversation with students of varied races and ethnicities. He practiced photography on some days, and later paid for college by taking photographs for The Associated Press.

On other days, he was tutored in math and reading at the East Harlem Tutorial Project, a church-sponsored group. In high school, he tutored younger children in history. After-school activities, Mr. Meeks says now, explain his adult success.

The tennis great Althea Gibson first picked up a racket in a Police Athletic League after-school program in Harlem in the 1930’s, while Jacob Lawrence was experimenting with shapes and colors nearby.

Edith Jenkins, principal of Public School 123 in Manhattan, attributes her professional career to PAL programs where she tutored younger children, played the bugle, ran track and took field trips to the theater.

“You were taught skills to make you feel better about yourself,” Mrs. Jenkins said, “and exposed to things you didn’t get in regular school.”

At P.S. 123, she has organized after-school tutorials, a conflict resolution group, a cheering squad, and music and dance clubs, designing them to have the same qualities as those from which she benefited as a child.

But sufficient funds just don’t exist, in New York or many other places, for every child who needs those activities. Mrs. Jenkins can finance after-school enrichment at P.S. 123 for only half the pupils who need and want it.

The financier George Soros sponsors a foundation to promote after-school centers, with support from other philanthropies, the city and the state; still, about 400,000 children in New York City lack adequate after-school activities. The federal government, meanwhile, spends about $1 billion a year on after-school centers nationwide, but rejects $1.7 billion worth of applications for lack of funds.

Especially as math and reading squeeze other subjects from the curriculum, after-school programs are needed to build children’s character, confidence, civic awareness, athletic prowess, and artistic and musical sensibility. How many undiscovered Jacob Lawrences are among the 10 million children around the country who have no place to go after school?
Correction: January 10, 2002, Thursday: The Lessons column yesterday, about after-school programs, misstated the ratio of adult mentors to children in such programs. The ratios are high, not low – a high number of adults to a given number of children.

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