By now America's accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted "parenting is not going on" in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.
The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took "a rude awakening" for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A "kickoff" moment convinced him "yes, you can do."
His transformation began in the U.S. Navy, where he earned his GED. At Temple University a professor encouraged his talent as a comic writer, reading his work aloud in class to appreciative laughter.
"Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students."
Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, "I was on track with what I wanted to do." He famously returned to complete his bachelor's degree and to earn his master's and Ed.D in education.
He became "a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher." No wonder then he's made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don't make him an expert. He doesn't claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going-off on a rail.
Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he's equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.
To some, he's a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it's clear he's concerned about education. His words carry weight because he's fixed in the collective conscience as America's father from The Cosby Show (1984-1992) and all the family routines he's done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.
So when Cosby proclaims, as he did, "In education, things are broken," you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. "However," he adds, "there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don't cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent."
"And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn," he says. "These people who can teach – and I don't mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what's in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, 'If the student fails, then we fail.'
"In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don't care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that's an embarrassment."
Cosby was just getting started.
"Some people can't teach and don't know how, they don't have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won't embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.
"But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can't forever get away with this.
"I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don't understand how they're ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach."
Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.
"Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don't have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in."
A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.
"It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, 'We want better education, we demand better education for our children'" to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.
He admits he doesn't have "remedies." He does call for "activism" by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.
Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. "You live with them?" asked Cosby. "Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?"
"Because we feel it's our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society," Simone said.
"But what made that a responsibility for you? They're not your children," he pressed.
Tony said, "Mr. Cosby I'll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…" Cosby erupted with, "Oh, really! Now you're starting to tell me stories, you see what I'm talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?" Several boys nodded yes. "The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?" Cosby asked. One boy said, "Helped him out, gave him a place to stay." Another said, "Gave him a second chance."
"Well, more than a second chance," Cosby replied. "it took care of him," a boy offered. "And made him take care of himself…and that's why he's living with you now – he's trying to build you."
Noting "the hard knock life" these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.
"When I was coming up we didn't have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn't have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It's in the home."
Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.
"The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We've got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do."
Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see "the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care."
"It's about showing them the possibilities," Simone told him.
Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher's encouragement can make.
Before seing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, "He pulled us aside and told us, 'You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can't let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.' We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom."
Meeting the legend, she says, "was a remarkable experience," adding, "He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that's magical that they'll hold with them for the rest of their lives."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.