Environmental Factor, February 2006, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
By Blondell Peterson
James Jay Rogers, a retired history teacher for the Durham School District, was the guest speaker at the NIEHS Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on Jan. 23 at the Rodbell Auditorium. His presentation was titled, "The Content of Their Character.
Rogers was invited to speak because in 1972, while teaching at Durham High School, Rogers was named the first African American National Teacher of the Year. He received his award during a ceremony at the White House, said Gordon Flake, chairman of the Diversity Council.
At the beginning of his speech, Rogers took off his rose-colored sunglasses, and asked the pointed questions, "If Dr. King were alive today, what would he think of us? "What is character? We all say it, but do we know what it means?
Rogers quickly stepped from behind the podium, and without the aid of a microphone, put all attendees on notice that character is lacking in many young people today. But, it is not just the responsibility of parents to teach character. He said the lack of character in the youth is the fault of government officials, teachers, parents and all adults who are not leading children, and teaching them character by example.
"How are you going to examine the content of their character when they have never learned it?" he asked. "Judge them by the content of their character if you can find it!"
Rogers went on to ask, "When Enron can get away with what it did, and when a United Airlines can get away with taking people's pensions, where is the character of the nation?"
Reminding everyone of the quote, "It takes a village to raise a child," Rogers talked about the way children were raised in his generation. "You know when I was in school they used to teach character building," he said. "The parents reinforced it, and the church was right there giving it to you on Sunday. Think about the lives we are leading. We can work and make money and have fine cars, but if the world is going to hell, we aren't going to be safe!"
He gave several examples of how some of his friends and relatives have disciplined their children in order to teach them character. Some of his illustrations drew howls of laughter from the crowd. For example, a friend in Virginia Beach had a son who didn't want his father coming into his room. The father told the boy, in no uncertain terms, that he paid the mortgage and the child would not lock him out. To further illustrate his point, the father took the door off the hinges. He did this to teach his son to respect authority, Rogers said.
Throughout his presentation, as he talked about the undesirable way that some young people speak, dress and conduct themselves, Rogers continued to ask the audience, "What are we not doing?" He also stressed that there are many well-behaved young people who should be commended for their efforts.
"There are some wonderful kids out there, but you don't hear about them because the bad apples are hogging the press," Rogers said. "So we need to go out there and confront the bad apples, and start doing something for the good ones. Join an organization to help the good ones, so they get the message that there are rewards for being good. Let's show them by example by volunteering to help the young people who are trying so hard."
In regards to judging young people by the content of their character, Rogers emphasized that it is important that young people conduct themselves in a respectable manner, and dress neatly, but he told the audience that racism does still exist. "We say that racism is gone, but that is a bald faced lie. Those that say it are deaf, dumb and blind. And, don't say you are colorblind. We see color, but what we should not do is allow it to become a negative [perception]. See me! 'I don't want you to go out and say, I don't know what color the speaker was.' I'm Black! Just don't make negative assumptions about me based on my color."
After the stirring message, Rogers received thunderous applause and a standing ovation. He then invited the audience to ask questions. Some parents made comments or gave examples of issues with the school system not meeting the needs of their children, or children being allowed to misbehave repeatedly and not be punished appropriately.
Laura McGrew, a contract specialist, said Roger's speech was "right to the point." She got involved and went to school when her son's behavior changed. After some investigation, she found that her son had Audio Processing Deficiency, and he was not learning because the teacher was lecturing and not using props or visuals that he needed.
"I was informed that I should get a 504 Plan to put in my son's file, which means that the public, grade, middle, high and college schools anywhere in the U.S. have to teach him the way he learns," McGrew said. "Being equipped with these tools and knowledge has made his quality of life much better. It has made a great difference in his self esteem and motivation toward school."
Chris Alston, a management support specialist, said "Mr. Rogers gave an inspiring lecture on the content of character. His lecture should have made every one of us stop and take a look at how we are handling or portraying character in our lives. What are people thinking about us? Are we dependable and honest in our dealings with others? Are we thoughtful, trustworthy and committed to what we believe in?"
Flake was stirred by Roger's question, "Why are our young people rejecting education? And, what do you do with the bad apples?" Flake said, "Mr. Rogers challenged us all to become involved in the problems with our youth in some way. I think that we need to revive the alternative schools, or votech schools, that were an option for all high school age students when I was growing up. Not all kids want to go to a regular high school or to college. With votech as an option, they could learn auto mechanics, electronics, carpentry, etc., and then be employable. Why should every kid have to follow the same route and study biology, algebra, etc. when they are not interested and may end up dropping out?"
Approximately 75 people attended the event. A reception was held in the lobby after the program.