Edward Pratt: One question made speech worth it

I spoke to some fourth-grade boys on Thursday and they were a hoot. They laughed, asked questions and seemed amused.

Maybe their enthusiasm had been primed by the deal I made with them about gifts I brought: Be attentive or no presents. Genius! The presentation was at my church, so I hope my subtle bribe will not be counted as a sin.

Most of the time, I shy away from giving talks to kids as young as 9 and 10 years old because they will either quickly tune you out or ask uncomfortable personal questions. For example, a few years one boy asked, “Mr. Pratt, why are you so fat?” An interesting question coming from the most calorically challenged student in the room.

I chose to impress upon the group Thursday the value of education. I told them how important reading and writing had been in my life. I told them I was taught to read and write at an early age because my grandmother, who raised me for the most part, could neither read nor write.

I explained that she could not spell or recognize her name and that she signed her official papers with an “X.”

They were stunned. How could this happen? How did she do anything in life? I explained that when she was a little girl in rural Louisiana during the late 1890s and early 1900s, she was not allowed to learn to read and write. And, that her parents, who were freed slaves, couldn’t read or write.

I explained that when a powerful group wants to stay in power, they deprive or make it difficult for the little group to read and get an education. I asked the boys why would someone do that?

After nearly a minute, one boy said “So they (the little people) won’t know what’s going on.” Perfect!

I asked the typical question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Most wanted to be professional athletes.

What if you don’t make it? I asked. There was silence. Don’t give up on your dream, I said, but make sure you are good in your courses at school in case the professional sports career doesn’t happen or you change your mind and want to be something else.

I had dreamed of being a professional baseball player, I said, but it didn’t work out for me. So, I said, working hard in school and going to college had helped me do well at something else.

Unimpressed, a boy asked: So you didn’t have the courage to try out (for a pro team)? Wait, what did he just ask me?

I explained to Mr. Smarty Pants that I realized that there were many players better than me, so I chose to do something else, thank you! When he looked back at me the phrase “what a wimp” was written on his face.

I got in a groove describing how, at their age, reading helped me escape my three-room shotgun house and unlocked my imagination to prairies, waterfalls, mountains, big cities, ocean depths and back in time.

Then I had to catch myself because a couple of them had glazed looks on their faces. They were gracious enough not to say, “Mr. Pratt, isn’t that what the Internet is for?”

Honestly, I had a great time and the young man’s answer to my question about why powerful groups try to deny weaker groups an education made the visit a total success.

Ed Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.