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Leaving no child behind

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Spring


In a memoir of his formative years, child psychiatrist James Comer describes what he learned from his family and neighbors—and how he sought to make those values the linchpin of an educational philosophy.

In 1968 a newly minted psychiatrist at the Child Study Center began working on a plan to help two underachieving elementary schools in New Haven. Behind this effort was his belief that, regardless of race, geography or background, all children can learn at high levels. Now known as the School Development Program, referred to more familiarly as “the Comer process” or “the Comer model,” the young doctor’s vision is in practice in more than 600 schools in 20 states. The Comer model celebrated its 35th anniversary in October with a symposium that explored brain research and its implications for child development, education and teacher preparation. At the program’s 30th anniversary in 1999, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who interned at the Child Study Center while a law student at Yale, was the keynote speaker.

The program’s namesake, James P. Comer, M.D., HS ’66, M.P.H., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry in the Child Study Center, applied the lessons he learned as a child growing up in a nurturing environment of family, church and neighborhood. His program takes into account the developmental needs of children, as well as their social environment. At its heart is a strengthening of the bonds among families, schools and neighborhoods—relationships that were crucial to Comer during his youth in industrial northern Indiana. No school stands alone, Comer believes, and in order to succeed, each school needs to work with other community institutions.

In his book Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s World, published last summer, Comer tells the story of his program, how it started, how it nearly failed and how, ultimately, it succeeded. In this excerpt, Comer describes the values he and his siblings learned from his church, his neighbors and, most of all, his parents.

I went off to kindergarten with three black friends who were as bright as anybody in my family and anyone in our school. They went on a downhill course in school and in life despite the fact that our parents had the same level of education and similar jobs and we were in the same good school. My siblings and I went on to earn a collective total of 13 university degrees. Eventually I realized that the only difference between my siblings and me and our three friends was the quality of the child-rearing and developmental experience that we received at home and in our primary social network of friends, kin and organizations in which our family felt a sense of belonging—namely, our church.

My siblings and I were born into a family in which we were very much wanted and valued, and our parents were skillful child-rearers. This was the case despite my mother’s own difficult upbringing and the limited school time of both. My mother was born into extreme poverty in rural Mississippi. She was the third of five children, and her father had two children from a previous marriage. Her father was a good man who loved and provided for his family. But when she was 6 years of age, in 1910, he was killed by lightning. Because the children were too small to help with the work, a cruel stepfather came into their lives. There were two more children from this marriage, nine in all. They moved from place to place, living in one shack after another; and he unexpectedly abandoned the family from time to time. Also, he was abusive in many ways and would not let the children go to school.

When my mother, Maggie, was 8 years of age, it occurred to her that the way to a better life was through education. When she was 16, she ran away to a sister in East Chicago, Ind., with the hope of going to school. But her sister could see no benefit in a “colored girl getting an education” and was not supportive. After several months, she had to drop out of school. She began to do domestic work. When she left school she declared, “If I ever have children, I’m going to make certain that every one of them gets a good education!” Then she set out to very carefully find a like-minded husband.

He was 12 years older. They met in Sunday school—my father as teacher, my mother as student. He had been married once before and had a child, a reason for great caution given my mother’s childhood experience. She only agreed to go out with him after his ex-mother-in-law wrote a letter of support. They were married two years later.

My father, Hugh, was from rural Alabama, the son of a minister. He had about a sixth-grade rural Alabama education. His family was poor but well-functioning and in the process of buying their farm from the former slave master’s heirs. To save the farm after boll weevils destroyed the crop in 1918, he left Alabama and worked in the steel mills in East Chicago. He, too, felt that the only way to a better life was through education.

They set out to have a family and to provide us with what they had not been able to acquire for themselves. But they were not in a hurry. It was 12 years before I was born. During that time my parents reared my older sister, Louise, my father’s daughter. They were enmeshed in a church-based culture and community. And my mother continued to do domestic work for some of the most successful families in town. My father worked as a steel mill laborer, and they built their home with their own hands. Then we came, four of us—I was the oldest of three boys and a girl—almost one year apart over a five-year period.

A rich culture

As I describe our childhood, keep in mind the fertile ground in which we sank our roots—an emotionally rich church culture, exposure to and participation in the mainstream culture, parental ambition and a belief in the American dream of better opportunity for all, and just enough income to keep hope alive. And our parents had an understanding that children had to be prepared for a better future, and they delighted in doing so. As a result we received a great deal of nurturance from the very beginning.

In the summer, after work or on weekends, my mother and father would take us to Lake Front Park, where they would play with us, or sit and talk while we played. I still remember sitting on the front porch eating popcorn and drinking malted milks on warm summer evenings. Also, we were served icepops from the freezer. All of the snacks were homemade because it was less expensive, more fun and more personal.

Every Sunday evening my mother would read us the “Sunday funnies.” Two of us would sit on her lap and two down in front. We would squeeze in as close to her as we could get. Each of us had a favorite column that we would ask her to read again until she had read the paper two or three times.

The funnies were not great literature, and my mother read at a second-grade level or less. But that was not important. The nurturance, emotional warmth and closeness that we received provided us with the beginnings of a powerful sense of belonging and security; again, the most important of human needs. And in the process, reading was given a powerful, positive emotional charge.

A reasonable sense of security and belonging fosters confidence and prepares children to take on the challenges of their environment and, with help and approval, gain competencies that enable them to successfully manage the challenges of their world. As they succeed they begin to feel, “I am somebody of worth, value and competence. I am. I can. I will.” These conditions, combined with the need for self-expression, are the foundation of motivation. Caretaker guidance helps make the process constructive.

A philosophical father and a pragmatic mother

We received the guidance, skills and values needed for appropriate social functioning and self-expression through many casual interactions, interactions that reflected our parents’ attitudes, beliefs and ways of approaching life. From my more philosophical father we often heard:

“If you can’t be the best, be among the best”—be competitive, excellent.

“Nothing beats a failure but a try”—initiative, effort, chance taking.

“A man’s word is his bond”—be responsible, show trustworthy behavior.

“The measure of a man is the way he treats his fellow man”—respectful relationships.

“Never let your race stop you from doing anything you want to do”—and much more.

And from my pragmatic mother:

“Be reasonable.”

“A procrastinator’s work is never done.”

“Never mind the teacher, you get it upstairs. They can’t take that away from you.”

“If you are on time, you are five minutes late.”

“Recognize trouble, and stay away from it.”

One of the places such mental and moral morsels were frequently served was at the dinner table. But dinner time was more than messages. We ate at the same time every evening—regularity. We were expected to talk about the things that went on during the day that might be of interest to everyone—reflection and reporting. Through subtle clues, sometimes insistent suggestions, we were asked not to talk too long, to give others a chance to speak, to listen to what they had to say—skills of conversation. Spontaneous discussions were encouraged, even strong emotions, but we were expected to keep emotions under reasonable control—free expression within limits and with self-control. Teasing was fine and fun, but you could not hurt anybody’s feelings too much—a family value. Pretending you were hurt to get sympathy was frowned upon—no victims here.

My mother prepared everyone’s favorite dish from time to time—collard greens, cherry pie, German chocolate cake, hot rolls, cube steak. Each child received special recognition on the day his or her favorite food was prepared and on birthdays—you are special and we celebrate each other. Sharing, cooperating and enjoying the success of brothers and sisters were encouraged. These practices discouraged jealousy. The product of all of this was a family environment of warmth, trust and mutual respect and appreciation.

Our parents, and sometimes friends, took us to the museums in Chicago, the zoo, the circus, Marshall Field department store during the Christmas season, the Chicago Cubs park and on other trips. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s caravan came through town, we were there. There was much discussion about what was going on during these “field trips.” And before all such occasions, my mother gave us social interaction “suggestions.” “Talk enough to be interesting, but don’t tell all of your business.” And wisdom to reflect on: “If you talk too much, people will find out how big a fool you are.”

Solving problems by listening and watching

I learned effective ways of solving problems by listening to and watching my parents. Once I listened to my mother talking on the telephone with my principal, Ms. McFeely. A bully had knocked my brother Norman down and sat on him.

Norman bit the bully, through his pants, on the butt. During the conversation my mother never raised her voice. Initially I could hear the sound of the principal’s voice, but she gradually quieted down. My mother’s responses went something like this: “No, I don’t approve of my children fighting.” (Pause while listening.)

“But you said that the boy was a bully, bigger, and that he started the fight.” (Listening.) “While I don’t expect them to fight, I do tell them that they are not to let anybody walk over them (or sit on them)! Fight back if necessary!” (Listening.)

“Now, if there’s a medical bill we will pay for it.” (Listening.)

“Thank you for calling, and please let me know whenever there’s a problem.”

When I was about 3 or 4 years of age, our family doctor was called to treat me. When he left I said, “I’m going to be a doctor when I get to be a big man!” My parents responded by buying me a doctor’s kit and playing doctor with me—reminding me that the candy pills were for the patient, not the doctor.

A neighbor asked, “Why are you encouraging him to be a doctor? We’re poor people. You know he will never be a doctor!” My mother told her that if she said that again she would have to leave. These neighbors were African-Americans. Their comments reflect the high level of group- and self-deprecation and the low level of aspiration and hope that existed, and still exists, among many.

Self-doubt-producing experiences were and are even more common outside the family network. In the middle of my fourth-grade year, a student transferred into our class. She told me that she knew my mother. The reason turned out to be that my mother had worked as a domestic for her mother years before. By age 10 or 11, social status is an identity issue. Although children don’t think “social status,” they make observations and ask questions that help them place themselves in the scheme of things—how they are valued, where they stand as reflected by their house, car, race, religion, occupation of their parents, and so on. Their conclusions can influence their aspirations and effort. My mother noted that I was a little troubled by knowledge of that previous relationship. The knowledge was a threat to my quest for a sense of adequacy, belonging and security.

She stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t let that bother you none. You’re just as clean as she is. You’re just as smart as she is. And you can do just as well in school.” She paused and with a no-nonsense facial expression said, “And you had better!” Fortified by the positive sanction of one of the two most powerful people in my young world, I did well.

All of these experiences helped me grow along all the developmental pathways. Growth in the social-interactive, psychological-emotional and ethical areas or pathways is particularly important in complex social systems, but these are all but ignored by educators and policymakers. The often subtle, challenging social situation can have huge negative consequences for any student, and for minority students in particular because they face them more often. Without good preparation, such environments can become hurtful and limiting. With adequate preparation, young people can turn the negative to positive support, or at least not be harmed.

A problem I encountered in the 11th grade comes to mind. Grades were given at the end of 10 weeks and a final grade at the end of 20. At the end of the first 10 weeks, I was one and two points, respectively, behind the two white students who received As in our language arts course. I was almost 30 points ahead of the next-closest student, but I received a B. After being told that a B was a good grade and other palliative things, my teacher eventually said kindly, “I just don’t think you’re capable of making an A.” That was the end of the discussion. I knew exactly what that meant. The grade she gave me was an expression of her racial stereotyping.

I did not raise my voice. I did not even tell my parents. I worked very hard that next semester and earned all As, and the top score in her class. But I did not take a chance. Her class was my first in the morning. I told her that I had forgotten my grade book. I collected all my grades, all As, and went back to her at the end of the day. She gave me an A without comment.

During my senior year, when I was no longer in her class, she asked my advice about how she might help an African-American student whom she was concerned about. He was very smart but not working up to his potential. Perhaps our discussion the year before, and the way the incident was managed, helped her confront her bias. Let me hasten to add that almost all of my white teachers were just. Some went out of their way to make certain that I was treated fairly. I did not have a black teacher until I went to medical school.

Learning values in church

Our family was enmeshed in a church culture that generated and reinforced the set of attitudes, values and behaviors we lived by. Our church culture was in sync with the mainstream culture—personal excellence, hard work, a delayed reward, good relationships. The church-based culture affirmed our value when society did not do so at the necessary level.

My experiences at home and in our primary social network prepared me for school. They enabled me to elicit a positive response from school people, to attach and bond with them and with the program of the school. Doing well academically and doing well socially were our prime family and social-network values. And being involved in sports, the arts and student government could be expected because our family supported participation in any activities that were believed to be educational. In fact, at one point, all four of us were student council representatives from our respective classes.

As a result of the care that had been given to nurturing us in our early years, before we started school, and our resultant ability to elicit positive responses, our family, school staff, classmates and community all supported our growth along all the developmental pathways. My three friends mentioned above were not so well-prepared for school, did not elicit positive responses and began a downward course almost from the beginning.

An incident many years later provided me with support for my notion that student-staff attachment and bonding are important. When my mother was a patient in the hospital in 1990, Ms. Walsh, my first-grade teacher, was then a spry 80-plus-year-old hospital volunteer. When she saw me, she threw her arms around my neck and said, “Oh, my little James!” (I was 55 years old at the time, but you are always 6 years old to your first-grade teacher.) She then stepped back, looked me over and said, “Oh, we just loved the Comer children. You were so bright, so eager to learn, got along so well with other children,” and on and on.

She was describing the outcome of dedicated, skilled child-rearing interactions; good development; and a genetically determined potential that was at least at or above the modest threshold level necessary for school and life success. It was “all of the above,” not intelligence alone, that made our academic success possible. Good development and a supportive family and church-based primary social network made it possible to manage the environment of the schools we attended and the world beyond. YM

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