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Jewish World Review / May 11, 1998 / 15 Iyar, 5758

Larry Elder

Larry Elder Stepping up

HAVE YOU BEEN WATCHING the NBA playoffs? Have you noticed the increased intensity of play? Players who seemed lethargic during the regular season suddenly dive for balls, furiously guard opponents and display greater emotion. Coaches call it "stepping up" --- trying harder under pressure, doing the little things that add up to victory.

California recently passed Proposition 209, which outlawed race-and gender-based preferences in college and university admissions. At the more competitive University of California campuses, the numbers of black and Hispanic students admitted declined. (Of the post-209 blacks and Hispanics admitted, however, the percentage of those ultimately graduating will increase. Many pre-209 blacks and Hispanic students failed because preferences placed them on a track too fast and too hard.)

The re-segregation of higher education, cry critics! But few defenders of affirmative action urge children, teachers and parents to do the obvious --- step up.

Remember Proposition 48? Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson fought the measure, which required higher grades and better performance on standardized tests before a student could play collegiate sports. Thompson feared a decline in the percentage of blacks eligible to play, depriving them of the collegiate experience and a chance at a degree. Well, the percentage of NCAA black basketball players did not decline. High schoolers aspiring to play college ball got the message. They stepped up.

Stepping up means doing that which you must to achieve a long-term objective. Stepping up means two good, hard hours of homework each night. Stepping up means sitting at the table in your room, poring over your chemistry book, even as you hear the sound of a dribbling basketball and your friends' laughter in the street outside.

Stepping up means turning 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 and resisting cigarettes, beer, marijuana and reckless sex, because, well, everybody's doing it. Stepping up means resisting the temptation to blame somebody else when the going gets tough.

Stepping up means understanding that academics -- like shooting free throws -- require repetition, drill, repetition, drill. Stepping up means having enough pride and self-respect to say, "Sorry, I can't hang out tonight. Got work to do."

Remember Michael Jordan's brief late-in-life attempt at pro baseball? Many pundits predicted success. After all, name an athlete more gifted, graceful and determined than Jordan. But one crusty old baseball coach predicted disaster. By the time a baseball player reaches Jordan's age, he said, the guy's faced some 300,000 fast balls and 250,000 curve balls. Despite Jordan's impressive work ethic, he explained, there's no way Jordan could catch up and learn that which takes a lifetime to discover and apply. There is no substitute for time put in -- no short cuts.

Whether math, chemistry, English, violin or hitting the open man on the court, excellence demands hard work, patience and, above all, focus. Inevitably, we get bored, indifferent, sloppy. Winners, though, step up.

Stepping up means maintaining a positive outlook when others tell you that forces conspire against you. "They" don't want you to succeed. "They" don't want you to get into good schools. Such is the message of leaders like Jesse Jackson, who once called California's Gov. Pete Wilson the "Susan Smith of politics" because Wilson opposed affirmative action. So, how should "under-represented" minority children respond to the demise of affirmative action? A baseball coach once said, "A negative attitude doesn't affect a team; it infects it." The kids must step up.

Our schools can and must perform better. Our parents can and must understand the necessity of homework. Our children can and must understand that old or missing textbooks and deteriorating buildings do not control one essential thing -- your own effort. You are not a victim. Take off the race-tinted glasses. Step up.

In Barbados, a country with a legacy of slavery, over 50 percent of the public schoolchildren come from single-parent households. Still, students at some Barbadian high schools average 1,300 on their SATs. U.S. education expert Charles Glenn said, "In Barbados, there's no culture saying, 'The schools are racist. The tests are racist. I'm a victim.' In Britain or the United States, many kids are convinced there is nothing they can do to succeed."

Stepping up means maintaining pride and dignity under adverse conditions. The great turn-of-the-century black vaudevillian actor Bert Williams once entered a hostile Boston tavern. "Give me a shot of whiskey," said Williams. The bartender glowered at him, while pouring a shot.

"That'll be $50," barked the bartender. The nattily attired Williams reached into the coat pocket of his expensive suit, pulled out three crisp $100 bills and laid them on the counter. "Gimme six," said Williams. Pride, dignity, integrity. He stepped up.


4/30/98: Who's faking whom?
4/16/98:To spank or not to spank

©1998, Laurence A. Elder