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At an impromptu roundtable discussion in the Wells Elementary School library, boys were clearly turning into young men.
“It just makes my heart so full,” said Nicole Boyce, school liaison for The Gentlemen’s Agreement program. “Before, they were just boys. Now I see young gentlemen. I see them transforming into gentlemen.”
The successful mentoring program, started at the high school level in fall 2015, has now been widened to the elementary school level at Wells and Hearne elementary schools.
“It is an interesting program,”said Jahkel Speight, a fifth-grader. “We go to different places to learn about stuff that some of us probably haven’t learned before.”
Jeremiah Best, a fifth-grader, said he has learned to take responsibility for his actions.
“I think there are consequences to everything you do. Even if you do something good when nobody’s looking, you should always know that it’s the good thing to do,” Jeremiah said.
For fifth-grader Jamir Council, it’s about getting exposure to other parental figures.
“My mom was having trouble raising a man.” Council said. “She always says that I already have two strikes against because I’m black, and I am growing up to be a man because I don’t have my dad around most of the time.”
David Applewhite, The Gentleman’s Agreement liaison at Margaret Hearne Elementary School, said kids have a better chance of success when the program begins at the elementary school level.
“I feel, personally, when you catch them at a very young age, you have more influence on them versus when they get to high school because some high schoolers may have their minds made up as to what they want to do,” Applewhite said. “Now, if you put positive people in their lives at an early age, it’s going to influence their decisions as they get older.”
Boyce agreed. “I think it is vital to get it at an earlier age. I think it is great to start at this age because by the time they are in middle school and high school, it is hard to retrain that mindset. To me, now is a perfect time to shape and mold them,” he said.
Boyce had a young man tell her he’s happy to be in The Gentlemen’s Agreement because he feels the program will change his future.
“That made me feel amazing that this little boy, who used to be kind of a behavior issue before, I have not had to say one word to him since The Gentlemen’s Agreement, not one single word of correction have I had to say to him. I think it is very important for it to be in the elementary schools.”
Applewhite and Boyce have designed days when Gentlemen’s Agreement members are expected to come to school in a dress shirt and a tie.
“This is their Men’s Day Wednesday,” Applewhite said. “They agree to wear a shirt and tie every week. It is somewhat mandatory for the Gentlemen’s Agreement guys. They take pride in it. They really appreciate it.”
The Wells Elementary version of it is called Distinguished Thursday.
“The first time they did it, they got so much attention in the school, it was amazing,” Boyce said. “Children were stopping, peeking at them, parents looking at them. Other kids who are not in the program want to dress up on Thursday just so they can be part of Distinguished Thursday.”
Applewhite’s group of 15 youngsters meets every Tuesday.
The group completes career inventory assessments. Members discuss whether they want to go to college or if they want to jump right into a career. Do they want to be an entrepreneur?
“We have discussions. We talk about bullying. What does it take to be a man? What are the characteristics and traits of a real man? We touch on a lot of subjects,” Applewhite said.
“We talk about a lot of stuff that can help us be better people when we get grown and other stuff like that,” said Robert Kenan, a fourth-grader at Hearne.
Fourth-grader Daryn Cox said the discussions have helped him see the world in a different way, “So when people ask you different questions about your community, you will know things right off the top of your head.”
Cox said the discussions provide context to help him make decisions.
“It does because maybe you can become a leader of your community and change some things as a kid that you thought were wrong,” Daryn said.
RETURN TO CIVILITY
Boyce said one of the main objectives is to teach the boys appropriate behavior and responses. They need to learn not to blow up emotionally.
“It might seem like a big deal at that moment, but later on, you realize after you have reacted, now you are in trouble,” Boyce said. “When you get 18 or 19 and you don’t know how to control that and you blow up at the police or you blow up at somebody and you scare them and they react and hurt you and shoot you out of fear over what, something that wasn’t really that important? They need to know this.”
Boyce said education has to start early.
“It has to start now, reshaping their minds from what they see on TV that the police are not the enemy,” Boyce said. “We have to show them this stuff now. What you see on TV, that’s not always real life. There are consequences, and if you do some things, there will be consequences. Let’s not do something that is gong to result in bad consequences.”
The boys have learned that they have to give of themselves, and they can change others’ lives with something as simple as a compliment.
“For me to give a compliment to someone else, it lets them know that I appreciate what they do, and they do a good job of how they act or how they do their work,” Jahke said.
Both the deliverer and the receiver benefit.
“You can be a friend and act in a calm way to tell them that you have been there,” Jeremiah said. “Even if you don’t know what they are going through, you can still be a friend to them when they are sad or mad. You can still be kind to them even if you don’t know them.”
Maurice Barnes, founder of the original Gentlemen’s Agreement program, said hearing the comments of young men at the elementary level makes him feel a sense of gratitude.
Barnes said the program is dependent on the passion and commitment of liaisons like Boyce and Applewhite.
“This program is on solid footing,” Barnes said. “It is on a solid foundation. We are changing lives. We are giving hope to generations of children that will become adults with their own children.”