PATERSON, NJ - Rajahn Alston wanted to make his son Raquan feel comfortable on his first day of second grade at John P Holland Charter School. So, like dozens of other fathers, as well as grandfathers, uncles, and other “strong men”, Alston stood by and cheered as the more than 400 students kicked off their new school year Tuesday.
Alston’s father, he told TAPinto Paterson, was only present “here and there” when he was growing up, and while he always had his mother for support, he felt the missing male presence. That’s changed for Raquan, the dedicated father said. “I want him to have better than I did, that’s why I’ll stay active in his education.”
It was mostly smiles as the children entered the school building, and those not quite ready to make the break from their loved ones, some with tears in their eyes, were comforted by teachers and staff who escorted them inside, offering warm welcomes and promises that everything would be alright.
While the focus was on the men present there were almost as many supportive women seeing their children off, including Keaira Banister. A mother of two students at the school, Banister opened up by saying that the father of her children couldn’t be present on the first day because he is currently incarcerated.
“They have the support of their grandfather who is here,” Banister said of Nylah and Kaedyn. “School is important, but they need somebody to look up to.”
Banister struck a positive note saying that while his father’s absence has taken a toll on Kaedyn he will continue to have the support of other men in his life who make sure he “stays on the right path.”
“He made bad decisions but they love their dad,” Banister said, adding that she has also seen a positive change in him over the past three years he has been away, and is confident that upon his release he will resume his important role in his children’s lives.
With the school day officially underway the men present were escorted into the school’s gym where they were met with a continental breakfast and coffee, as well as several speakers who thanked them for being active in their children’s education.
“This is not just about today,” Victor Vilchez, the school’s social worker told those gathered. “We need to see you throughout the year,” he added before calling the gathering of fathers, uncles, brothers, and other mentors “a beautiful thing.”
Dean of Students Heru Keonte spoke right to the message that was being delivered when he said that “we are debunking the myth that there are no strong male models in inner cities.”
“Never underestimate the value of your presence today and everyday,” he urged.
For Freeholder T.J. Best the gathering served to prove that the males present had separated from themselves from other “good men” by showing that they are “great men.”
“Great men, like good men, care for their families,” Best said. “But great men expand their circle, caring not just for their families but for others as well,” he added, praising them for their willingness to be mentors and role models for all children.
Joining the men for a tour of the school was Mayor Andre Sayegh, himself a father of three. “One Paterson starts in our schools,” Sayegh said repeating his often used slogan that he refers to as “a mission not a message.”
“We know that children excel in the classroom when their caregivers are active participants in learning,” Sayegh said. “Today shows that these men want to be a part of giving these scholars a great start, and an even better future.”
At the center of all of the first day of school celebrations were, of course, the students themselves, including Mia, 5, who arrived clutching her mother’s hand. Mia was excited for her first day she said confidently, expressing the most interest in visiting the library and “making lots of friends.”
While too young to understand the value of her learning in the years to come, Mia already has a career goal in mind, to be a police officer.