RALEIGH — About 20 students from Ligon Middle School already have graduated from saggy pants to snappy ties. Tonight, they'll become "Gentlemen of Excellence."
The male students have been mentored once a week since last fall by a group known as Gentlemen of Distinction, a brotherhood of students from Shaw University. Tonight, the Shaw students will hold an induction ceremony at the campus chapel for the middle-schoolers, complete with gospel music, a rose presentation and a fancy reception attended by the university president.
The attention lavished on the young students is meant to inspire them to shape up, study hard and dream big. Some of the students are from low-income families and don't have fathers in their homes. They were recommended for the program by teachers and counselors.
The Shaw gentlemen have lessons to give beyond math and social studies tutoring - lessons such as using good table manners, opening the door for a lady, saying "yes sir" and saying no to profanity.
"It's a good thing," saidDe'Monte Mann, a seventh-grader. "I can have someone to look up to. They're like other brothers to me."
The big event
In a classroom at Ligon on Wednesday, the mentors went over the plans for tonight's big event, which will be attended by relatives, Ligon teachers and community leaders. The Shaw students offered free haircuts for the boys. They instructed the boys to be on time and to wear white shirts and black pants. One Shaw student took off his tie and handed it to a Ligon student who didn't have one.
"We're basically asking you to be on your best behavior and just enjoy yourselves," Garnard Wiggins, a Shaw sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told the boys. "All the light is on you."
Preparations for the event have been extensive. The boys have been told that an unnamed recording artist will be there as a surprise. The boys will be escorted into the ceremony by Shaw sorority women. One will be named "Man of the Year."
"We didn't have this growing up," said Shaw freshman Anthony Battle of Rocky Mount. "We wanted to give them something - a big bang - to keep them motivated."
Every Wednesday afternoon, the Shaw men walk several blocks to Ligon.
Gretta Dula, Ligon principal, glances out the window and sees them coming. "Every time I look up, I'm surprised to see these sharp young men coming into the building," she said.
She's thankful, because sometimes well-intentioned college students agree to volunteer but quit after a visit or two. The Shaw students are committed, she said.
"They come in with a smile, and they're positive," she said. "I love the way they carry themselves."
Antonio Smith, a Shaw freshman from Greensboro, sees himself in some of the Ligon boys. He wants to help them avoid mistakes he made along the way.
"They've transformed before our eyes," said Smith, president of the Shaw group.
There is a new attitude, a new respect. The baggy pants have, for the most part, gone by the wayside. At first, the Ligon boys seemed to think the after-school program was some sort of punishment. But along the way, Smith said, they began to see that it was an opportunity for growth, maturity and change.
Only one student has dropped out of the program, after declaring it boring.
Last week, the men showed the boys how to tie a tie. A few already knew how - for weeks, they had been wearing ties on Wednesday to mimic the sharp dress of their mentors.
Will grades improve?
Ligon teachers say the college men have had an impact. Though it's too soon to tell whether the students' grades have improved, their conduct has, said Jonathan Todd, a math teacher at Ligon.
A few of the students have talked about colleges they'd like to attend, colleges in Georgia and Florida.
"They're thinking outside of Ligon, outside of Raleigh, outside of North Carolina," Todd said. "They're trying to be ambitious."
Titus Hainesworth, an eighth-grader, is a little nervous, a little excited about tonight. The Gentlemen of Distinction are smart, he said, and they've been a good influence.
"They teach us how to be successful in life and how to be a man."
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