If my brother Ennis were alive today, I believe he would have embraced these same issues and values as the teacher he aspired to be.
“Take it easy Dad,” “Take it easy Erika”. That’s the usual sign-off between us-a longstanding inside joke that harks back to my sophomore year in high school. At the time, I was well into my second year of Spanish and I must admit that I’d been slacking off. During holiday break, Dad was channel surfing for a classic black and white movie for us to watch together when he paused on a Spanish-speaking show. My head began to spin upon hearing the rapid-fire, seemingly indecipherable dialogue. This was the test. Dad asked me to quickly tell him what the man in the program had said, and I proclaimed in guilt-ridden exasperation, “I didn’t catch that part, it’s too advanced.” Dad began to laugh and gently informed me that the man said “take it easy”-in English. So utterly focused on every nuance of the repartee, I hadn’t even noticed when the characters switched from speaking Spanish to English. My father is definitely a man who has always inspired my desire to listen, watch, and learn.
In the ’70s, when I was still a child, Dad was one of the first famous personalities to use television in order to educate children through entertainment-a refreshing change from the traditional pedantic format. Just like many people of my generation across the country, I have fond childhood memories of watching Fat Albert on Saturday mornings with my sisters and brother. Now a new generation of children can enjoy the teachings from Little Bill cartoons. Dad always has a special way of turning the fun visual medium of cartoon animation into an educational experience. It’s as if he has an innate sense of how young people think and see the world. It’s no surprise that children far and wide adore him.
And Dad has always had a way with words, be it his yen for observant and compelling storytelling or his powerful words of wisdom. Both of my parents have always advocated the importance of education as a catalyst to self-empowerment and success. They have been leaders in campaigns to financially enhance the endowments of various African-American institutions and have implemented several programs for promising students.
I, too, have been a most fortunate beneficiary of my parents’ continued support of pursuing a solid education. One thing I have learned from them throughout the years is that the learning experience is lifelong and that school is one specific valuable tool to guide you throughout life. An education can help you focus and introduces new and varied ways of thinking about the world at large. I have cursed the dreaded math classes in high school wondering how a trapezoid was going to help me balance a checkbook. But recently, when my 5-year-old niece informed me that she had learned about trapezoids in school, I realized at that moment that I could reciprocate the information with her with the confidence inherent in my prior knowledge. The same is true for my profession as an artist. Who knew I’d be using fractions and multiplication tables on a regular basis to install paintings on the walls? Or that the information gleaned from my chemistry and biology classes would aid my alchemist approaches to mixing various paints and materials? Without the support and encouragement of my parents, I could have easily lost interest in my least favorite subjects. Dad would say, “It’s important for you to be a sponge and absorb everything, because you never know when you’ll need to use it again.”
Achieving a good education in this country has its obstacles, but the educational institutions around the country are constantly revising and amending teaching objectives to accommodate a plethora of comprehension and learning techniques pertinent to each student. The United States is plagued with an epidemic of illiteracy and is below the world average in terms of teaching and learning skills. The results are inextricably linked to low self-esteem, subsequent behavioral problems, and issues that have an effect on our society at large. Dad has always been steadfast in his stance to raise awareness of this dangerous problem. He addresses the urgency of this plight in his latest book, Come on People, co-authored by Dr. Alvin Poussaint. Dad regularly organizes “Call-outs,” based on a town hall model of bringing the community together in order to address issues in a public platform.
If my brother Ennis were alive today, I believe he would have embraced these same issues and values as the teacher he aspired to be. He was winding up his graduate degree at Teacher’s College at Columbia University when he was senselessly murdered 11 years ago at age 27. Though he was taken from us too soon, he lived long enough to discover his passion for teaching, a triumph for him after a lifetime struggle with dyslexia. Ennis eventually discovered, through proper instruction, that he was not slow or incapable of learning, but simply put, he learned and comprehended differently from others. In an excerpt from a paper he wrote titled “Teaching from the Heart,” he states: “How will my experience influence change in the school system? I am soon to be a teacher who can influence change by my experiences as a victim of the system. I believe that if more teachers are aware of the signs of dyslexia and learning disabilities in the class, then fewer students like me will slip through the cracks of the system. I also feel that special education needs to be a combination of one-on-one and group teaching. I believe in fairness within the system. I just want all students to have an equal opportunity. I have a lifetime to devote to making the school system more balanced in any way I can.”
At Hello Friend, the Ennis William Cosby Foundation, founded by my father in 1997 to honor Ennis’s dream (Ennis often greeted people with the exclamation, “Hello friend!”), the goal is to avoid the limitations of the word “disabilities.” We prefer to describe the myriad ways that people learn and comprehend as “differences.” The focus of the foundation is to provide a place for teachers to access resources and information regarding pre-emptive specialized training to teach children with learning differences. In 2000, we formed an education alliance with Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. Graduates from the program, titled “Cosby Scholars,” receive specialized training to help them detect and teach all types of learning differences in children from kindergarten through second grade in New York City public schools. The Hello Friend Foundation also hopes to expand their successful online tutoring program. Our goal is to recreate the same opportunities in an accredited online tutorial program based on our Cosby Scholars program at Fordham University.
As Dad often says, “It’s important for teachers to be able to train, to be equipped to understand that children learn in different ways. Teachers ought to be able to help each child recognize how he or she learns. Once that happens the child will then develop a love for learning.”
The Web site will give clues and enlightening information, and will foster significant connections. In this tech-savvy era, we hope to reach more teachers on a national level. The benefits of good teaching and a prosperous and comprehensive learning experience should not be relegated to the elite and privileged few. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn and every teacher should aspire to do whatever it takes to reach every child. Ennis was a student at a time when dyslexia wasn’t widely known, nor was it easy to detect. For many years, Ennis struggled in school and as a result, he had low self-esteem. When he entered college, Ennis discovered that there was a diagnosis for his struggle and that he wasn’t stupid. He simply had a different way of interpreting information. This was the confidence boosting epiphany that changed the course of his life. He sought out a tutor program and excelled in school with the dream of teaching children like himself. Carolyn Olivier, the education director of The Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, also knew Ennis and tutored him for his dyslexia. “No one understands the importance of early, effective teaching better than Bill and Camille Cosby. When children are taught well, right from the very beginning, they start to become effective contributors to society of tomorrow. Ennis was going somewhere, and he was going to take along with him anyone who was willing to listen, learn, work hard, and join him in the struggle to be an effective student. He inspired and cared deeply about those around him.”
Needless to say, Ennis was a terrific teacher-an informal tradition handed down by our own parents. Ennis always saw the potential in his students, because he knew the struggles first hand and reaped the success of his tenacity and dedication to overcome the obstacles of dyslexia.
A recent article in the New York Times revealed the propensity for many dyslexics to develop acute compensatory skills that lead to success in business and entrepreneurial endeavors. The article goes on to name several leaders in the business world whom have turned their struggles into successes. People like Virgin Atlantic Airways’ Richard Branson and Kinkos creator Paul Orfalea (an honoree at our last fundraiser) found success at a time long before learning differences were a blip on the education radar. Many children were relegated to remedial and special study groups in lower track systems. As a result, they were stultified, stagnated, discouraged, and frustrated during their attempts to read, and, in some instances, eventually gave up on school altogether.
The purpose of our foundation, my brother’s dream and my father’s lifelong aspiration, is to intervene and help children and nurture their individual approaches to learning. Teaching is an important vocation and a great teacher can have a lasting, profound, and sometimes life-changing affect on their students.
Dad points out: “I don’t know of another profession where people start out wanting to save the world without bloodshed, destroying another country, or enslaving people. Teachers start out wanting to save the world. In how many professions can a five-year-old child make an adult feel that they have succeeded or failed? It is okay for teachers to question their abilities as long as they are always willing to improve.”
There is a moment from a videotaped interview with one of the Fordham University Cosby Scholars when a young teacher reflects on her teaching skills before enrolling in the program: “I’ve been teaching for many years, and I’m embarrassed when I think of the children for whom I didn’t have the skills to take to the next level in terms of their reading. They had pain and I have pain-I want to go back and find them. It’s too late for that, but now, when I have a student with learning differences, I will step up to the plate. And it’s enough for them now; I have what they need.”
I am a new teacher myself. The information that I have gathered from numerous testimonials from the teachers that I have met throughout these past 11 years have served as an invaluable sounding-board and resource. Just as my mother and father saw the unique potential in each of us, I’ve learned to see each student as an individual with a special way of navigating and interpreting the world. We teachers have as much to learn as the students; it’s an ongoing venture. As Dad says: “You have to keep going over it, you need that understanding.” And as long as we understand, change can be implemented.
The Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation is launching in Miami with an exclusive star-studded dinner gala, Bill Cosby “Garage Sale,” and celebrity performance at the Forge. Taking place on Friday, April 25, the night will be hosted by Ennis Cosby’s sisters, Erinn, Evin, Ensa, and the author of this article, Erika. The invitation-only event will host 500 of South Florida’s most influential VIPs for a preliminary cocktail reception and silent auction, followed by a five-course dinner. After the delectable meal, the iconic sweaters worn by Bill Cosby when he played Heathcliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show will be auctioned live. The evening will be capped off by a performance by Gladys Knight. Appropriately, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played “Theo” on The Cosby Show, will be the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Funds from the benefit will be earmarked for the establishment of a nationwide training program for teachers through the Ennis William Cosby Foundation. For more information on the evening, visit
www.hellofriend.org or call 877.666.0663.