ELYRIA — In a sea of blue jeans, sweatshirts and T-shirts, 16 boys at Northwood Junior High School stood out for all the right reasons last week.
As they walked down the hallway, the boys held their heads a little higher, walked a little straighter and projected an air of newfound confidence, as if it wasn’t the time for typical teenage boy antics.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what was driving the change in attitude that day.
As the first teenage boy walked in the door of the media center, carrying books and laughing with friends, his wardrobe was strikingly different from those around him.
He was not dressed in the getup of a boy but in the clothes of a man.
He was wearing a suit.
“This really makes me feel like I’m a successful person,” said 13-year-old Marquise Edwards as he fingered the Winnie the Pooh tie carefully tied around his neck. “For black males, that’s important because it’s a lot harder for us. I know people treat you according to what you wear, but when you’re dressed up, they talk differently to you. They respect you.”
To hear Marquise, a seventh-grader, talk about wanting to receive the respect of his teachers and peers makes teacher Stacie Starr dab at her eyes in a valiant effort to keep the tears at bay. To hear one of her students — her special students — take what she has said to them repeatedly and give it back in such an intelligent way lets her know just how much the simple idea of teaching the boys how to tie ties really means to them.
“I’m just trying to teach life lessons,” she said, her voice cracking.
Starr’s commitment to mentoring at-risk youths started nearly two years ago. At that time, she started a boys-only book club with the idea of strengthening reading skills. To make the group more appealing to boys ages 12, 13 and 14, Starr picked material that spoke to what they were facing as young men.
She was led to “We Beat the Streets,” a book written by three black men who grew up fatherless in a tough neighborhood who all overcame the odds to become doctors. While the book spoke volumes to the struggles of Starr’s students, it was one fact in the book that let Starr know there was more she could do than just pick out books.
“I remember reading how George Jenkins didn’t know how to tie a tie, but when he was in medical school, he had a professor who required shirts and ties from all the male students,” Starr said. “In the book, he talks about that being a very embarrassing moment for him, and at that moment, I knew I was going to teach these boys what it meant to dress for success so they would never face that embarrassment in their lives.”
Marquise, who learned from his father, and 12-year-old Cameron Craighead, who learned from his mother, were the only boys who already had gone through what’s generally a male rite of passage.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I would see people getting dressed up to go to church or parties, and I remember I wanted to do that, too,” Cameron said. “Dressing up — people they just notice you and in a good way.”
Convincing the boys to learn how to tie a tie was not easy.
“I really thought I wasn’t going to wear one,” said Cameron Copeland, 14. “I really thought it wouldn’t fit my style.”
Starr enlisted the help of Anthony Brown, a Westwood Junior High School assistant eighth-grade football coach, and together the two held a tie-tying ceremony, with each of the boys learning on ties donated by teachers and administrators in the district.
“The whole day was like an inspiration for me,” said Keon Neely, 13. “I mean, my own father never took the time to teach me something like that, and to have someone else’s father come teach a whole class of kids was like, ‘Wow.’ It makes me want to do better in school and look better for my peers.”
Dressed in a black and silver vest, white shirt and black pants, Keon was the only boy in the group to accent his look with a bowtie.
Wonders of a new wardrobe
What a difference a little accessorizing can make.
Since holding the tie-tying ceremony earlier in the year, at which the boys draped their necks with strips of material and worked their fingers to tie intricate knots, Starr has instituted weekly dress-up days. And on Tuesdays, Starr holds a tie giveaway for good behavior.
Yet on Thursday, when Starr brought out a bag of ties not previously seen, the boys went into a tie-grabbing frenzy, marveling over ties adorned with stars, colorful stripes, dolphins and cartoon characters.
“Now wearing a tie helps me stay focused, and I really believe that I can get to my goals,” Cameron said.
Not only have the 16 in the mentoring group found a sense of purpose from the wardrobe change, but other students in the school are taking notice and asking Starr if they can dress up, too, even though they are not in the group.
“This is not about a tie. She’s teaching us to be men,” Marquise said. “It’s a blessing to be in the mentoring program. For me, it means I stay out of trouble and my grades have excelled from a 2.25 GPA last year to a 4.0 GPA this year. Like Ms. Starr said, it’s the little things that make the big differences in life.”
To be in Starr’s group, students have to commit not only to participating in the Thursday dress-up days but also to maintaining a GPA of at least 2.5 and good behavior throughout the year. Deviating from the plan could get the boys kicked out.
And with a waiting list that is 12 students long and growing, the boys know there is someone ready to take their spot.
“This is just like real life. If we don’t handle our business, there is someone else out there that will,” 15-year-old DeAnte Thomas. “I know I’m here to handle my business.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at (440) 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.