An interesting exchange of dynamics emerged as Bill Cosby headlined his first university affiliated appearance since declining invitations to speak at the 2005 and 2006 commencement ceremonies here. The Department of Education hosted the event at McGonigle Hall Sept. 12.
Cosby promoted a PBS documentary titled, “The Boys of Baraka,” before a group of about 200 people. The film intends to educate future teachers and political advocates.
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady use the real-life stories of four youths from Baltimore, to highlight the challenges faced by students in inner-city public schools.
PBS chose Cosby as a leading advocate of education to endorse the film at screenings across the country. Temple was the next stop on the tour.
“This film, I take it and put all the weight on myself, because [when I saw it], I thought of you guys in the School of Education,” Cosby said. “I feel like when you see this, it will change your life drastically.”
The documentary follows Richard, Romesh, Montrey and Devon, 12- and 13-year-old boys, who sign up to spend two years studying at the Baraka School in Kenya. A radical alternative to the Baltimore public school system, the school serves troubled youths from poverty-stricken situations, helping them refine skills in conflict resolution and giving them the one-on-one attention they need to succeed academically.
Cosby said he has seen the film screened 30 or 40 times for children in cities across the country, and regardless of the audience it was played to, the viewers were moved emotionally.
Whether they related with the “Baraka Boys” or not, he said they came away inspired.
Temple students were no different.
“It was life-changing,” said Ariela Rose, a freshman elementary education major. “It makes me want to teach and touch the lives of kids in these situations.”
Rose sat with fellow freshman education majors Reilly Fies and Melissa Marsili during the screening. They all expressed a fresh understanding of the challenges children face in inner-city schools.
Rose said it made her much more aware of the advantage she has.
“For people like us, going to college wasn’t even a decision we had to make,” she said. “I always knew I would go.”
Cosby targeted students like Rose, Fies and Marsili in his address.
“I hope you will study harder, not just to pass, because what kind of teacher would that be?” he said. “You are not to come out of this school frightened.”
Not everyone in the diverse crowd was unexposed to the issues of poverty and educational barriers that face inner-city youth.
Brenda Washington, 42, an employee of the Department of Planning and Design for Facilities Management, said the film touched topics that were familiar to her and actually left her with more questions.
“It was very touching. The program was excellent, effecting a change in the kids,” Washington said. “It was phenomenal. I want to know if there is something comparable for young women.”
Still, she contends that the “Baraka program” has the right idea, focusing their attention on educating young, black men.
“The thrust should be there. Black men are an endangered species,” she said.
As for the relationship between Cosby and the university’s administration, it was light and polite.
Comedic banter kept controversy out of the spotlight, such as the January 2004 allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted a former official of Temple’s women’s basketball program at his Cheltenham home.
In her introductory comments Hart said, “Dr. Cosby has come today to exercise his strong commitment to education in another way.”
Behind her, Cosby rubbed his fingers together, a nonverbal gesture indicating his financial support. The audience laughed.
Hart, shaken but not stirred, responded, “He makes this very difficult. I feel like there is text running behind me or something.”
Cosby then turned his chair, faced his back to the audience and made himself the obligatory kid-in-the-corner.
Still, it did not go unnoticed that when Hart invited Cosby to sit with her for the screening, Cosby declined and waited backstage.
Cheryl Ellis can be reached at email@example.com.