Steering Pupils Clear Of 'Low Road' Stress The Positive, An Educator Urged Teachers. That's What Her Instructors Did For Her.

Posted: June 25, 1992

Crystal Kuykendall, born on a kitchen table in a housing project on the West Side of Chicago, daughter of a teenage mother and a father with a seventh-grade education, became a teacher.

Crystal Kuykendall, widowed with two small daughters after her husband was shot to death while jogging, earned a doctorate and became a lawyer, an author and executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

She accomplished all that, and more, she said, because a handful of people, most of them teachers, believed in her along the way.

At a conference on wellness as Ursinus College in Collegeville last week, Kuykendall spoke to a packed auditorium of 200 people, most of them teachers, about children who happen to be black and poor, children of every color who happen to be different.

And the author of From Rage to Hope: Strategies for Reclaiming Black and

Hispanic Students told the mostly white group that while school dropout rates locally are not anywhere near the 46 percent dropout rate in Washington, where she lives, they are too high everywhere.

"What can we look forward to as a nation when we lose so many children so early to the hopeless side of life?" Kuykendall asked. "When too many children get the message that they won't make it in our schools, that they won't reach the high road of life, they take the low road.

"And when they do, we all pay a price."

Keeping children from that "low road" has become the life's work of Kuykendall, an educational consultant for school districts and towns in more than 40 states.

She took that road partly because of the death of her young husband, "a Harry Belafonte look-alike," who died at the hands of three juvenile drug addicts. She later met one of his killers, an angry, guilt-ridden young man.

Kuykendall said the teenage killer was an example of so many other black youths who never got a chance to feel good about themselves.

"If Johnny doesn't achieve at something legitimate, Johnny will find a way to achieve at something, even if it means robbing you at gunpoint," she said.

During her hour-and-a-half presentation, Kuykendall elicited laughter, tears and, finally, a standing ovation from her appreciative audience of teachers from Montgomery and Bucks Counties and other parts of the state. The teachers, most of them wearing shorts and T-shirts, took part during the week in workshops on aerobic dancing, scuba diving and other health-conscious activities.

"While we talk about health promotion," Kuykendall said, "many of our children are hurting, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally."

She said the key to reclaiming black and Hispanic students, as well as other "disaffected" youngsters, is searching for something positive about them and nurturing that strength creatively, whether it be by directing a born debater to the debating club or a convincing liar to an acting class.

"Make sure the spirit in these children doesn't die," Kuykendall said.

Using her own childhood as an example, Kuykendall talked about how much power teachers have to direct the course of their students' lives.

She said that although some look at her today and assume that she gained her love of learning in a privileged home, her family was poor and her mother originally aspired for her to become a beautician making $3 an hour.

But while her mother supported Kuykendall's ambition to become a teacher, her parents weren't comfortable with the notion of school.

"I didn't have parents who could tutor me for the SATs," Kuykendall said. ''They were intimidated by the PTA."

But it was teachers - from the kindergarten teacher she fell in love with to the high school teacher who told her that she was beautiful and sent her to join Future Teachers of America - who convinced Kuykendall that she could leave poverty behind.

She urged the teachers not to rely too heavily on student achievement records, particularly as they might relate to minorities.

"Woe is the child who gets tracked with an ability group called the earthworms," she said. "Would you want to be called an earthworm? Very often we put labels on children that destroy natural enthusiasm."

Kuykendall told the teachers not to judge students who may not speak "the king's English" because eventually, those students will develop an "us versus them" mentality.

"I'm a former English teacher who taught high school seniors who crucified the language," she said. "I taught them that with English, the more you know, the farther you'll go."

But in casual conversation, she said, she felt then and believes now that it's important to let students "fall back on the language of the home, and even sometimes the language of the streets."

To do less demoralizes and ostracizes minority children.

"The us-versus-them mentality makes them ripe for the rage and hopelessness that very often fuels the violence of our nation," she said.

Kuykendall said she made it to the "high road" because of teachers.

"I had teachers who could look beyond my funny-looking looks, my race and my gender," she said. "I had a teacher say to me, 'Baby, if you can conceive it and in your heart believe it, you can achieve it."

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