BY HILLARY VIDERS
SPECIAL TO NORTHERN VALLEY PRESS
ENGLEWOOD, NEW JERSEY —— On Feb. 2, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame rapper D.M.C. rocked the gymnasium at the Janis E. Dismus Middle School in Englewood.
The celebrity performer gave a rousing talk to 61 eighth-grade boys about character building. It was part of an all-night experience, Facing Forward, that included dinner, workshops that teach life lessons, interfacing with top tier community leaders, and a group sleep over.
Principal Lamarr Thomas created Facing Forward for middle school students in 2011.
“At that time, I identified a group of boys that were making bad choices in the way that they were interacting with their peers. So, to be proactive, I put together a program to purposefully engage male students through culturally relevant subject matter to develop integrity, self-discipline and confidence to become leaders in their school culture and community,” said Thomas. “The conversation goes beyond school, and makes them think about how their behavior will affect the brotherhood as well as their academic and professional future.”
To help implement “Facing Forward,” Thomas put together a committee of 15 people. These “contact points” are used to identify potential mentors, partners and sponsors who promote the school’s goals that help students grow into four specific character traits—maturity, consistency, decisiveness and strength—through the overarching theme of “becoming a young man of character.”
A focal point of Facing Forward is personalized, thematic workshops led by experts from Englewood and other towns in a number of fields: finance, family, politics, military, education, sports, religion, business, elected officials, media and entertainment. These workshops provide the platform for the moderators to share the wealth of their experiences, specific strategies and applicable tools that have contributed to their success.
A night to remember
The Facing Forward program at the Janis E. Dismus School on Feb. 2 was sensational. Sixty-one eighth grade boys were joined by dozens of teachers and special guests, including Council President Wayne Hamer, Councilman-at-Large Charles Cobb, the Honorable Judge James Young of Teaneck, Attorney Jason Foy, Attorney Neil Luke, Dr. Henry Pruitt, members of the Englewood Fire Department and Police Department, representatives from the Englewood Board of Education, over eight sports coaches including the coach of the Bergen Community College basketball team and seven of the players, plus many more role models.
After a tasty buffet dinner (that included chicken, meatballs, pasta and salmon entrees) prepared by the school kitchen staff, the group moved into the gymnasium, where iconic rapper D.M.C. gave the keynote address titled, “Characteristics of Success: Becoming A Young Man of Character.”
Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels is a legendary musician. For more than 30 years he’s remained at the forefront of hip-hop history. He is a founding member of Run-D.M.C.; the first rap group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone and the first to appear on MTV. The Grammy nominated artist has changed music, culture, fashion and language.
McDaniels has sold 30 million records, many of which went gold and multiple platinum. His group was the first non-athletic entity to win an endorsement from a major athletic company (Adidas). He won an Emmy Award for the VH1 documentary about his life-changing discovery, “DMC: My Adoption Journey.”
A celebrated author with his novel “King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility and My Life With Run-DMC,” he’s also a philanthropist and co-founder of the nonprofit Felix Organization. He has been invited to the White House by President Obama to address youth groups on responsibility and he’s appeared before Congress in support of adoptees and foster children (when he was 35, he learned that he himself had been adopted at one month of age).
Off stage, McDaniels said, “I want to let teenage boys know that the abusive behavior that they see on TV and the curse-laden lyrics in some rap music is not acceptable in the real world and it is not what they should emulate.”
The students were mesmerized by McDaniels, who was a fireball of energy and emotion. He began by declaring, “I am not here because I am excited about what I have done. I am excited about you and your amazing potential, what YOU are going to do.”
McDaniels spent a full hour dispersing anecdotes about his personal struggles and triumphs throughout his life as well as behavior advice with rhyming raps, such as: “It’s all about education, it’s all about information!”
Some of McDaniels’ salient talking points were, “Your situation does not define you!” and “You were put here in this world for a purpose and your teachers and community leaders are here to help you fulfill that purpose.”
McDaniels encouraged the students to try and not worry if they fail at first, to keep trying, even if they are perceived as nerds, as he was.
“Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I appreciated my teachers and I used to immerse myself in reading comic books that sparked my imagination,” McDaniels said. “As a result, I wound up making my first record at age 17 and changed the world. Now, YOU have the potential to change the world.”
McDaniels stressed that his rap music never uses curse words and never demeans women, an admission that received a hardy round of applause.
He also spoke about the importance of not following negative examples that are all around, such as dealing drugs and joining a gang. He emphasized that his fellow hip-hop singers who, like him, are now famous multimillionaires, achieved success when they left those negative behaviors and realized their true potential.
Following McDaniels’ talk, the students were paired with community leaders who showed them how to tie a necktie, after which each was presented with an official Facing Forward commemorative tee shirt. It was a fun and funny learning exercise enjoyed by all.
The students then rotated between six different 30-minute workshops that were staffed by community leaders:
• Law & Order: This workshop, led by the Hon. Judge James Young, Attorney Jason Foy and Dr. Henry Pruitt, gave students a deeper insight into the ways the law impacts the world around them and “localizes” the reality of knowing their rights and the proper way to interact with the laws that govern their community.
• The Barber Shop: A room was set up as an authentic Barber Shop with real haircuts being offered by Gerald “G” Chavis, Eric Alleyne, Eric Dolphy, Kenneth Barnes and J.P. Peterson. The experience included conversations structured in the format of the “Philosophical Chair” found in community barber shops.
• Roundtable Rap: Samuel Lee, Doug Wilson, Scott Ferguson and Shae Lewis discussed controversial/stereotypical images of black and Latino males in rap and lyrics were presented for group discussion. Students were challenged to think about the culture of hip-hop, power of digital signage, social media and the persistence of these images in mass media, arts and entertainment.
• Men Who Cook: Moderated by Dionisio Cucuta along with Chef Dion and Chef Robert White, this workshop taught students the importance of proper diet, nutrients and being able to know the way around a kitchen. The students made stir fry dishes, salads and enjoyed pastry desserts that had been previously prepared by seventh-graders.
• College Talk: Co-moderated by both current and past college level athletes, this workshop presented the components of a successful student athlete. Students learned about the habits of highly effective student athletes and examined the correlation between the work ethics of successful athletes, academic success and reaching their goals in life.
• Wrestling in Life: This workshop, led by Coach Charles Taylor and Joe Naim, demonstrated the importance of physical fitness and balance. Participants learned wrestling moves and how the disciplines of wrestling can prepare them for the challenges that high school can present.
Following the workshops, students played non-violent video games in the F2 Arcade provided by Original Gamesters that was set up in one section of the gym. Gigantic screens were set up for competition in sports games using different gaming systems (Wii, Atari 2600, PS3, etc.). These video competitions allowed for informal bonding between mentors and students while gaming. Students also played dodgeball, soccer and basketball, all supervised by coaches and teachers.
Finally, at 3 a.m., it was lights out, and students hopped into their sleeping bags in the gym. Eight to 10 teachers kept a watchful eye throughout the night. At 7 a.m., students were up and doing morning exercises, followed by breakfast in the cafeteria and closing remarks by Principal Thomas. By 9 a.m., everyone left, possibly a bit sleepier but much wiser.
The Facing Forward program is so successful that it is has become a template for schools in other towns, such as Hackensack and Teaneck.
Despite the monumental planning and resources involved in this Facing Forward experience, next month Thomas is having a similar all-night program for the school’s eighth grade girls.
Parents are so impressed with Facing Forward that, according to Thomas, “they have requested that similar programs be placed in Englewood’s high school and elementary school.”
PHOTOS BY HILLARY VIDERS