17:47
TEDxMidAtlantic

Colin Powell: Kids need structure

Filmed:

How can you help kids get a good start? In this heartfelt and personal talk, Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State, asks parents, friends and relatives to support children from before they even get to primary school, through community and a strong sense of responsibility. (Filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic.)

- Former U.S. Secretary of State
General Colin Powell was the first African-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Full bio

What I want to do this afternoon
00:16
is something a little different than what's scheduled.
00:18
Foreign policy, you can figure that out
00:21
by watching, I don't know, Rachel Maddow or somebody,
00:23
but — (Laughter) —
00:26
I want to talk about young people and structure,
00:27
young people and structure.
00:31
This was last Wednesday afternoon
00:33
at a school in Brooklyn, New York,
00:35
at Cristo Rey High School, run by the Jesuits.
00:38
And I was talking to this group of students, and take a look at them.
00:41
They were around me in three directions.
00:45
You'll noticed that almost all of them are minority.
00:47
You'll notice that the building is rather austere.
00:50
It's an old New York school building, nothing fancy.
00:52
They still have old blackboards and whatnot.
00:56
And there are about 300 kids in this school,
00:58
and the school's been going now for four years,
01:01
and they're about to graduate their first class.
01:04
Twenty-two people are graduating,
01:07
and all 22 are going to college.
01:09
They all come from homes where there is, for the most part,
01:11
just one person in the home,
01:14
usually the mother or the grandmother, and that's it,
01:16
and they come here for their education
01:19
and for their structure.
01:21
Now I had this picture taken, and it was put up
01:23
on my Facebook page last week,
01:26
and somebody wrote in,
01:28
"Huh, why does he have him standing at attention like that?"
01:30
And then they said, "But he looks good." (Laughter)
01:35
He does look good, because kids need structure,
01:39
and the trick I play in all of my school appearances
01:42
is that when I get through with my little homily to the kids,
01:45
I then invite them to ask questions,
01:48
and when they raise their hands, I say, "Come up,"
01:50
and I make them come up and stand in front of me.
01:52
I make them stand at attention like a soldier.
01:55
Put your arms straight down at your side,
01:57
look up, open your eyes, stare straight ahead,
01:59
and speak out your question loudly so everybody can hear.
02:02
No slouching, no pants hanging down, none of that stuff.
02:05
(Laughter)
02:09
And this young man, his name is -- his last name Cruz --
02:10
he loved it. That's all over his Facebook page and it's gone viral.
02:13
(Laughter)
02:17
So people think I'm being unkind to this kid.
02:19
No, we're having a little fun.
02:22
And the thing about it, I've done this for years,
02:24
the younger they are, the more fun it is.
02:26
When I get six- and seven-year-olds in a group,
02:29
I have to figure out how to keep them quiet.
02:32
You know that they'll always start yakking.
02:34
And so I play a little game with them
02:36
before I make them stand at attention.
02:38
I say, "Now listen. In the army,
02:39
when we want you to pay attention,
02:42
we have a command. It's called 'at ease.'
02:44
It means everybody be quiet and pay attention. Listen up.
02:47
Do you understand?"
02:51
"Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.""Let's practice. Everybody start chatting."
02:52
And I let them go for about 10 seconds, then I go, "At ease!"
02:57
"Huh!" (Laughter)
03:00
"Yes, General. Yes, General."
03:04
Try it with your kids. See if it works. (Laughter)
03:06
I don't think so.
03:08
But anyway, it's a game I play, and it comes obviously
03:11
from my military experience.
03:15
Because for the majority of my adult life,
03:16
I worked with young kids, teenagers with guns, I call them.
03:20
And we would bring them into the army,
03:24
and the first thing we would do is to put them
03:26
in an environment of structure, put them in ranks,
03:29
make them all wear the same clothes,
03:33
cut all their hair off so they look alike,
03:34
make sure that they are standing in ranks.
03:37
We teach them how to go right face, left face,
03:39
so they can obey instructions and know
03:41
the consequences of not obeying instructions.
03:43
It gives them structure.
03:45
And then we introduce them to somebody who they come to hate immediately, the drill sergeant.
03:47
And they hate him.
03:51
And the drill sergeant starts screaming at them,
03:53
and telling them to do all kinds of awful things.
03:55
But then the most amazing thing happens over time.
03:59
Once that structure is developed,
04:02
once they understand the reason for something,
04:05
once they understand, "Mama ain't here, son.
04:08
I'm your worst nightmare. I'm your daddy and your mommy.
04:12
And that's just the way it is. You got that, son?
04:16
Yeah, and then when I ask you a question, there are only three possible answers:
04:19
yes, sir; no, sir; and no excuse, sir.
04:22
Don't start telling me why you didn't do something.
04:24
It's yes, sir; no, sir; no excuse, sir."
04:26
"You didn't shave.""But sir —"
04:29
"No, don't tell me how often you scraped your face this morning.
04:30
I'm telling you you didn't shave."
04:33
"No excuse, sir.""Attaboy, you're learning fast."
04:35
But you'd be amazed at what you can do with them
04:38
once you put them in that structure.
04:41
In 18 weeks, they have a skill. They are mature.
04:43
And you know what, they come to admire the drill sergeant
04:48
and they never forget the drill sergeant.
04:51
They come to respect him.
04:53
And so we need more of this kind of structure and respect
04:56
in the lives of our children.
04:59
I spend a lot of time with youth groups,
05:02
and I say to people, "When does the education process begin?"
05:03
We're always talking about, "Let's fix the schools.
05:07
Let's do more for our teachers. Let's put more computers in our schools.
05:08
Let's get it all online."
05:12
That isn't the whole answer. It's part of the answer.
05:15
But the real answer begins with bringing a child to the school
05:18
with structure in that child's heart and soul to begin with.
05:22
When does the learning process begin? Does it begin in first grade?
05:26
No, no, it begins the first time
05:29
a child in a mother's arms
05:31
looks up at the mother
05:34
and says, "Oh, this must be my mother.
05:37
She's the one who feeds me.
05:40
Oh yeah, when I don't feel so good down there,
05:43
she takes care of me.
05:45
It's her language I will learn."
05:47
And at that moment they shut out all the other languages
05:50
that they could be learning at that age,
05:53
but by three months, that's her.
05:55
And if the person doing it, whether it's the mother
05:58
or grandmother, whoever's doing it,
06:01
that is when the education process begins.
06:03
That's when language begins.
06:05
That's when love begins. That's when structure begins.
06:07
That's when you start to imprint on the child
06:09
that "you are special,
06:11
you are different from every other child in the world.
06:14
And we're going to read to you."
06:17
A child who has not been read to
06:19
is in danger when that child gets to school.
06:21
A child who doesn't know his or her colors
06:23
or doesn't know how to tell time, doesn't know how to tie shoes,
06:25
doesn't know how to do those things,
06:28
and doesn't know how to do something that
06:30
goes by a word that was drilled into me as a kid: mind.
06:32
Mind your manners! Mind your adults! Mind what you're saying!
06:35
This is the way children are raised properly.
06:39
And I watched my own young grandchildren now come along
06:42
and they're, much to the distress of my children,
06:45
they are acting just like we did. You know? You imprint them.
06:49
And that's what you have to do to prepare children for education and for school.
06:54
And I'm working at all the energy I have
06:59
to sort of communicate this message that
07:02
we need preschool, we need Head Start,
07:04
we need prenatal care.
07:08
The education process begins even before the child is born,
07:10
and if you don't do that, you're going to have difficulty.
07:14
And we are having difficulties in so many of our communities
07:17
and so many of our schools where kids are coming
07:20
to first grade and their eyes are blazing,
07:23
they've got their little knapsack on and they're ready to go,
07:25
and then they realize they're not like the other first graders
07:29
who know books, have been read to, can do their alphabet.
07:32
And by the third grade, the kids who didn't have
07:36
that structure and minding in the beginning
07:39
start to realize they're behind, and what do they do?
07:43
They act it out. They act it out, and they're on their way
07:45
to jail or they're on their way to being dropouts.
07:49
It's predictable.
07:52
If you're not at the right reading level at third grade,
07:53
you are a candidate for jail at age 18,
07:56
and we have the highest incarceration rate
08:00
because we're not getting our kids the proper start in life.
08:03
The last chapter in my book is called
08:06
"The Gift of a Good Start."
08:08
The gift of a good start. Every child ought to have a good start in life.
08:11
I was privileged to have that kind of good start.
08:14
I was not a great student.
08:17
I was a public school kid in New York City,
08:19
and I didn't do well at all.
08:22
I have my entire New York City Board of Education transcript
08:24
from kindergarten through college.
08:28
I wanted it when I was writing my first book.
08:31
I wanted to see if my memory was correct,
08:33
and, my God, it was. (Laughter)
08:35
Straight C everywhere.
08:38
And I finally bounced through high school,
08:41
got into the City College of New York
08:43
with a 78.3 average, which I shouldn't have been allowed in with,
08:46
and then I started out in engineering,
08:49
and that only lasted six months. (Laughter)
08:52
And then I went into geology, "rocks for jocks." This is easy.
08:54
And then I found ROTC.
08:58
I found something that I did well and something that I loved doing,
09:00
and I found a group of youngsters like me who felt the same way.
09:04
And so my whole life then was dedicated to ROTC and the military.
09:08
And I say to young kids everywhere, as you're growing up
09:12
and as this structure is being developed inside of you,
09:15
always be looking for that which you do well and that which you love doing,
09:18
and when you find those two things together, man, you got it.
09:21
That's what's going on. And that's what I found.
09:24
Now the authorities at CCNY were getting tired of me being there.
09:26
I'd been there four and a half going on five years,
09:29
and my grades were not doing particularly well,
09:31
and I was in occasional difficulties with the administration.
09:35
And so they said, "But he does so well in ROTC.
09:38
Look, he gets straight A's in that but not in anything else."
09:41
And so they said, "Look, let's take his ROTC grades
09:44
and roll them into his overall GPA and see what happens."
09:49
And they did, and it brought me up to 2.0. (Laughter)
09:52
Yep. (Laughter) (Applause)
09:59
They said, "It's good enough for government work.
10:03
Give him to the army. We'll never see him again. We'll never see him again."
10:06
So they shipped me off to the army,
10:09
and lo and behold, many years later,
10:11
I'm considered one of the greatest sons the City College of New York has ever had. (Laughter)
10:15
So, I tell young people everywhere,
10:19
it ain't where you start in life, it's what you do with life
10:22
that determines where you end up in life,
10:26
and you are blessed to be living in a country that,
10:30
no matter where you start, you have opportunities
10:33
so long as you believe in yourself,
10:36
you believe in the society and the country,
10:39
and you believe that you can self-improve
10:42
and educate yourself as you go along.
10:45
And that's the key to success.
10:47
But it begins with the gift of a good start.
10:50
If we don't give that gift to each and every one of our kids,
10:53
if we don't invest at the earliest age,
10:55
we're going to be running into difficulties.
10:59
It's why we have a dropout rate of roughly 25 percent overall
11:02
and almost 50 percent of our minority population
11:06
living in low-income areas,
11:09
because they're not getting the gift of a good start.
11:12
My gift of a good start was not only being in a nice family,
11:15
a good family, but having a family that said to me,
11:19
"Now listen, we came to this country in banana boats
11:23
in 1920 and 1924.
11:27
We worked like dogs down in the garment industry every single day.
11:30
We're not doing it so that you can stick something up your nose
11:34
or get in trouble. And don't even think about dropping out."
11:38
If I had ever gone home and told those immigrant people
11:42
that, "You know, I'm tired of school and I'm dropping out,"
11:45
they'd said, "We're dropping you out. We'll get another kid."
11:48
(Laughter)
11:50
They had expectations for all of the cousins
11:57
and the extended family of immigrants that lived in the South Bronx,
11:59
but they had more than just expectations for us.
12:03
They stuck into our hearts like a dagger
12:06
a sense of shame: "Don't you shame this family."
12:10
Sometimes I would get in trouble,
12:15
and my parents were coming home,
12:16
and I was in my room waiting for what's going to happen,
12:18
and I would sit there saying to myself, "Okay, look,
12:22
take the belt and hit me, but, God, don't give me that 'shame the family' bit again."
12:24
It devastated me when my mother did that to me.
12:29
And I also had this extended network.
12:31
Children need a network. Children need to be part of a tribe,
12:34
a family, a community.
12:36
In my case it was aunts who lived in all of these tenement buildings.
12:38
I don't know how many of you are New Yorkers,
12:43
but there were these tenement buildings,
12:44
and these women were always hanging out one of the windows,
12:46
leaning on a pillow.
12:50
They never left. (Laughter)
12:51
I, so help me God, I grew up walking those streets,
12:54
and they were always there.
12:57
They never went to the bathroom. They never cooked. (Laughter)
12:58
They never did anything.
13:01
But what they did was keep us in play.
13:04
They kept us in play.
13:07
And they didn't care
13:09
whether you became a doctor or a lawyer or a general,
13:11
and they never expected any generals in the family,
13:16
as long as you got an education and then you got a job.
13:19
"Don't give us any of that self-actualization stuff.
13:23
You get a job and get out of the house.
13:25
We don't have time to waste for that.
13:28
And then you can support us. That's the role of you guys."
13:30
And so, it's so essential that we kind of put this culture
13:34
back into our families, all families.
13:39
And it is so important that all of you here today
13:44
who are successful people,
13:47
and I'm sure have wonderful families and children and grandchildren,
13:50
it's not enough. You've got to reach out and back
13:54
and find kids like Mr. Cruz
13:56
who can make it if you give them the structure,
13:58
if you reach back and help, if you mentor,
14:02
if you invest in boys and girls clubs,
14:04
if you work with your school system,
14:06
make sure it's the best school system,
14:08
and not just your kid's school, but the school uptown in Harlem,
14:09
not just downtown Montessori on the West Side.
14:14
All of us have to have a commitment to do that.
14:17
And we're not just investing in the kids.
14:21
We're investing in our future.
14:24
We're going to be a minority-majority country
14:26
in one more generation.
14:29
Those that we call minorities now are going to be the majority.
14:31
And we have to make sure that they are ready to be the majority.
14:34
We have to make sure they're ready to be the leaders
14:37
of this great country of ours,
14:39
a country that is like no other,
14:42
a country that amazes me every single day,
14:45
a country that's fractious. We're always arguing with each other.
14:47
That's how the system's supposed to work.
14:50
It's a country of such contrasts, but it's a nation of nations.
14:53
We touch every nation. Every nation touches us.
14:56
We are a nation of immigrants.
15:00
That's why we need sound immigration policy.
15:02
It's ridiculous not to have a sound immigration policy
15:05
to welcome those who want to come here and be part of this great nation,
15:08
or we can send back home with an education
15:11
to help their people rise up out of poverty.
15:13
One of the great stories I love to tell is about my love
15:17
of going to my hometown of New York
15:21
and walking up Park Avenue on a beautiful day
15:22
and admiring everything and seeing all the people go by
15:24
from all over the world.
15:26
But what I always have to do is stop at one of the corners
15:28
and get a hot dog from the immigrant pushcart peddler.
15:31
Gotta have a dirty water dog. (Laughter)
15:35
And no matter where I am or what I'm doing,
15:38
I've got to do that.
15:41
I even did it when I was Secretary of State.
15:42
I'd come out of my suite at the Waldorf Astoria
15:45
— (Laughter) —
15:48
be walking up the street, and I would hit around 55th Street
15:51
looking for the immigrant pushcart peddler.
15:54
In those days, I had five bodyguards around me
15:57
and three New York City police cars would roll alongside
15:59
to make sure nobody whacked me while I was going up Park Avenue. (Laughter)
16:02
And I would order the hot dog from the guy,
16:06
and he'd start to fix it, and then he'd look around
16:08
at the bodyguards and the police cars --
16:11
"I've got a green card! I've got a green card!" (Laughter)
16:12
"It's okay, it's okay."
16:14
But now I'm alone. I'm alone.
16:19
I've got no bodyguards, I've got no police cars. I've got nothing.
16:21
But I gotta have my hot dog.
16:24
I did it just last week. It was on a Tuesday evening
16:27
down by Columbus Circle.
16:30
And the scene repeats itself so often.
16:33
I'll go up and ask for my hot dog,
16:35
and the guy will fix it, and as he's finishing,
16:39
he'll say, "I know you. I see you on television.
16:41
You're, well, you're General Powell."
16:44
"Yes, yes.""Oh ... "
16:46
I hand him the money.
16:48
"No, General. You can't pay me. I've been paid.
16:50
America has paid me. I never forget where I came from.
16:55
But now I'm an American. Sir, thank you."
16:58
I accept the generosity, continue up the street,
17:01
and it washes over me, my God,
17:04
it's the same country that greeted my parents this way 90 years ago.
17:06
So we are still that magnificent country,
17:10
but we are fueled by young people coming up
17:12
from every land in the world,
17:15
and it is our obligation as contributing citizens
17:18
to this wonderful country of ours
17:21
to make sure that no child gets left behind.
17:23
Thank you very much.
17:26
(Applause)
17:28
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Colin Powell - Former U.S. Secretary of State
General Colin Powell was the first African-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.

Why you should listen

Four-star General Colin Powell was the first African-American U.S. Secretary of State, serving under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Prior to his service Powell was also the first African-American to serve as Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an office he held from 1989 to 1993. But how did young Powell, a C student from the Bronx and a child of Jamaican immigrants, reach the highest military position in the Department of Defense?

While Powell was attending university at City College of New York, he found his calling in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated to become an Army second lieutenant and later went on to serve two tours in the Vietnam War. In 1989 under President George H. W. Bush, Powell was made a full general, before being named 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Powell is the Founding Chairman of America's Promise Alliance, an organization which supports children through volunteer networks.

More profile about the speaker
Colin Powell | Speaker | TED.com