Harriet Ludwig: A child needs someone to listen

Published: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 7:37 p.m.

Black community members applauded when Larry McDaniel, vice president of the 4As, told them they would hear chapter two of what they call the local school crisis on Saturday, Jan. 17, during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Week.

Chapter one was presented at last year’s annual event, co-sponsored by the birthday week founders (the King Commission) and the African American Accountability Alliance. That countywide black community group has become known as the 4As. They and the commission seek School Board action to change the black-white test score gap and wider implementation of the 1994 Florida law on infusion of black history in the K-12 curriculum of public schools.

I recently interviewed McDaniel, knowing he spoke for the 4As in dealing with the School Board and superintendent on their charges.

I agree with The Sun’s strong editorial reaction to state funding cuts in education. But after more than 10 years of writing about black school crises, I think money is only half of the problem.

The current grim statistics remind me of what Dr. Lougene Hill, then-principal of Prairie View Elementary School, told our church Social Concerns Committee in 1991: “What most of these children need, is an adult who has time to listen.”

That means an adult who is not working two jobs to make ends meet or is a single parent with double home responsibilities.

Or it could mean a mentor with both time and interest.

So let me introduce Larry McDaniel, manager of Alternative Sentencing for Alachua County Court Services. He deals with young delinquents and criminals and has a good idea of what would have kept them straight. He recalls mentors who contributed to his own success.

“I was born in Newark, N.J. In 1957 to a young, unmarried mother who just could not take care of me and my older sister, Linda,” he said. “So when I was six months old, both of us were sent to relatives in Hawthorne, Florida. People say a child is doomed if he grows up without a father.

“I disagree,” he continued. “I know who my father is, though I never met him. I see my mother occasionally, but it was the important people who mentored me that helped me to succeed.”

The relatives included a great uncle, the Rev. Willie Stitt, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Mattie; an aunt and uncle, Lucille and Fred Stitt, who raised Larry and Linda along with their own two children.

Significant help came from the priests at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, in Gainesville.

His aunt Mattie cooked for them and took McDaniel with her while she worked in the rectory kitchen. As he grew older, he helped her there. The priests often invited them to eat dinner with them.

“I learned so much from hearing them talk,” McDaniel says now. “It’s important for adults to talk to children about things not in the child’s life. They asked me questions and talked to me. When they gave me a scholarship to St. Patrick’s, I was the first black kid to go to that school.”

He graduated from P.K. Yonge Developmental School in 1973 at age 17. He said the school’s atmosphere was accepting, but playing basketball games out of town “taught me I was still black in America. I had to get my food from the back door of restaurants.”

A basketball scholarship took him to St. Andrews College in North Carolina. He graduated in 1977 with double degrees: a Bachelor of Science in political science and a Bachelor of Arts in the history of law.

McDaniel remembers a white professor, Julian White, who taught a black history course, as a mentor.

He said White told him: “You are charismatic. You are articulate. You have a love for people. You have to help other people reach the dream.”

Today, in Court Services, he helps young people in the prison system work for that dream. Also, he has found a unique way of making time to promote mentoring on a wider scale. He directs 16-week Leadership Training Groups in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and California.

He flies on Thursday nights to the site of a long weekend training session, and charges his Friday away from work to his vacation account.

Award certificates and picture of groups he has worked with line his office walls.

McDaniel’s recommendations on student school problems are as follows: “We need teachers who understand the lives of black kids and families. They need a vision of other people’s achievements. And blacks who have achieved socioeconomically need to come back and spend real time with disadvantaged kids.”

In other words, they need an adult who has time to listen.

Harriet Ludwig is a retired journalist who lives in Gainesville.

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