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Education, college and work: That’s what’s cool

Updated: July 8, 2012 6:54PM

The car, brand spanking new, glistened in the sun as it rounded the street corner on my old West Side block. The kids, and even some adults, oohed and ahhed as its driver — a young brother with money to burn — leaned coolly behind the wheel as everyone took in the splendor of his new ride.

“Man, check out ‘Jimmie’s’ new car,” I can still hear them exclaiming, some jumping up and down as if they were seeing some rock star roll down our block.

So cool.

Except, as a young man, it all struck me strange. Never mind that I couldn’t afford a bicycle, let alone a car — and hardly a sleek convertible. What bothered me most was that this was a young man, reputed in the neighborhood as a high-rolling drug dealer whose fancy cars and clothes were the apparent spoils of a trade that reeked death and destruction.

Not cool.

The “cool” factor was always a big thing in my ’hood. In the ’70s, to be considered cool, a young man needed at least one banana lapel shirt and a pair of bell-bottom pants. You needed to have a semblance of an Afro (the bigger the better). And you needed to be able to play some basketball, know a little street slang, know how to “pimp walk” — a bounce-and-drag way of walking that with each step says, “I’m cool, man, cool” without you ever uttering a word.

Back then, it was cool to show prowess on the basketball court, cool to be able to score a touchdown at will. Cool to be a thug, a gangster, even to be a drug dealer. It apparently still is.

Back then, it was seldom cool to be smart, especially in a world where exhibiting proficiency and excellence in the classroom could make you a target of bullying and called a “sissy,” a “nerd,” a “bookworm,” a “professor.” And, to some degree, it still is this way.

I have long understood that this kind of thinking is a perversion within a culture that too often is prone to celebrate pathology and denigrate functionality, character and those attributes ultimately critical to building a successful life. I have even witnessed the pooh-poohing of education by some in the church.

And I have witnessed the celebration of “going away” and “coming home” parties from prison for some and yet the absence of even a care package or a congratulatory card to the kid heading off to college.

Truth is, at times it can still seem to some kids like being smart would be the last thing they’d ever want to be, especially when drug dealers and bad girls and bad boys too often are elevated to celebrity status.

Why would a kid risk being viewed as the oddball by demonstrating a love and knack for science, math and reading?


Because drug dealing doesn’t last. Thug life has no retirement plan. And because the best antidote to poverty is education.

I plan to say as much at an awards celebration this Thursday evening to a group of Chicago public elementary school students in a program called “It’s So Cool To Be Smart” — which seeks to promote college, and encourages and rewards student achievement while also strengthening “a culture of student success within schools.”

I plan to tell the kids something that, judging from their essays I’ve read, they already are learning to embrace: That it’s cool to be smart. That being smart pays.

Words from a former nerd who’ll be driving downtown Thursday evening in his shiny convertible. So cool.

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