Hopes And Dreams For Sending That First Child Off To College

Aug 21, 2015

Jean Christian Barry tosses his cap and sports his gown shortly before graduating from Durham School of the Arts.
Credit Leoneda Inge

Thousands of college freshmen have been settling in to their dorm rooms and classrooms across the state this week.  The drop-off can be especially emotional for parents sending their first child off into the world. 

I have been planning and dreaming of this day since my sons's birth.  But as all parents find out, plans don’t always come out as you expect.

It seems like Jean Christian Barry has been washing clothes, towels and sheets for weeks. Every time I turn around, he’s folding or packing something.

“In the last crate, that’s my big reversible comforter and my memory foam mattress topper. Whoa, yeah! I had to stuff that in there," said Jean Christian, with a serious look on his face.

Mind you, I have never seen the boy wash his sheets.  I just hope his dorm room won’t be as messy as his awful room at home. 

“Have a little faith! I won’t make it as messy," said Jean Christian with a smirk.  "I have to share it with somebody.”

Yep, my first born is on his way outta here! Seriously, it’s really a joyous time. More African American boys are graduating from high school today, but the achievement gap between black and white males continues to grow. 

So, I’m sure you would understand my excitement way back in 2006 when Jean Christian talked about being a doctor one day or a pharmacist, like his grandfather.  We quickly gave him that best-selling book about three African American men from New Jersey who made a pact in high school they would become doctors. Their book is titled “The Pact:  Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream.” 

Because I’m a journalist, I helped arrange for Jean Christian to interview “The Three Doctors” when they visited North Carolina Central University.

"Hello, I’m Jean Christian, I’m in third grade. Can you introduce yourselves?" he asked.

The doctors replied, "Hi, I’m Dr. Samson Davis. I’m Dr. Rameck Hunt and I’m Dr. George Jenkins.”

Look at that!  My son and “The Three Doctors.”  Who wouldn't want to be a doctor after this interview?

"Did you want to be doctors when you were in third grade?" Jean Christian asked.

"I think for me, I definitely didn’t want to be a doctor in the third grade, I wanted to latch onto something positive," said Davis.

It seemed like Jean Christian had latched on to being a doctor.

“And I did want to be a doctor in the third grade, fourth grade, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and most of the ninth grade," said Jean Christian, in a very mature tone.

Doing well in math, science and other STEM fields is a good path to success, but studies show a small percentage of African American boys is proficient in math by middle school.  My son was more than proficient. He was actually ahead by ninth grade.

What happened?

“I grew up a little bit.  The doctor thing is something that I really admired, but I found that what I loved to do and what I was recognized for being pretty good at was singing and acting a little bit more," he said.

I know it’s not that simple. And I’m sure a stew of factors helped make that shift.  But singing?  I would not have expected it based on an audition for the Durham Children’s Choir.   Jean Christian was 7-years-old.

I told him, "I saw you going la, la, la like you didn’t even know the words to ‘My Country Tis of Thee!"

"I didn’t!" he yelled.

"Are you going to do better?" I tried to ask in a motherly tone.  "Tell me how important it is to be a part of this choir and why you love to sing so much."

"Cause my voice is the most interesting instrument to me and because I like to see the smile on so many people’s faces after me doing something special," said Jean Christian.

Karolyn Tyson is a Professor of Sociology at UNC Chapel Hill and studies African American students.  She understands where this mother is coming from. 

“There’s a lot of anxiety around children’s educational success, because you’re worried about his future, so that’s typical.  I think it’s even more so for black parents and particularly of black boys," said Tyson.

Tyson says with so many obstacles to black boys’ success, it’s great to know Jean Christian has found diverse talents and chose one that makes him happy.

Last summer Jean Christian’s hard work officially paid off.  He was selected for Governor’s School, not for his math or science skills, but for his classical tenor skills.

Laura Sam was his Choral Music instructor.  I told her, "I see his passion. But I just wonder, what do you see?"

"I definitely see in Jean Christian a passion. His eyes light up when he sings," said Sam.  “He leaves rehearsal singing, he enters rehearsal singing.  He talks about music on the way out of rehearsals. I see in him a great desire to make music through singing.”

In February of this year, we found ourselves at East Carolina University for Jean Christian’s third college audition. I wasn’t the only parent in the room who had doubts. Lisa Potts of Raleigh read my mind.  Her son Jayland was also auditioning.

“So when he got to high school, he decides, I didn’t want to play football anymore.  There are other things in life I can do. So I’m like, theatre, dance?  What is that going to do for you, we need scholarship money, blah, blah, blah!” said Potts, while nearby parents laughed, like me, in agreement.

Jean Christian wasn’t a football player. He was a swimmer who quit cross-country because it was getting in the way of theatre rehearsals.

“Yep, fingers crossed!" Jean Christian said with a smile, after his ECU audition. 

"Yeah, you kind of like it here don’t you?" I said.

"I do. I really do.  I know you don’t but I do," he said. 

I didn’t say that. That’s not on tape. Good thing, because we’ll be on the road to ECU today.

I have questioned my parenting skills many, many times over these past 18 years.  One mistake I thought I made was not red-shirting Jean Christian, holding him back a year to give him an edge in sports and academics.  And to make sure he wouldn’t leave for college at 17, like he’s doing now. 

We’ve both matured. It’s not as easy letting you go as I thought.