School shootings and other issues have combined to shortchange America’s youth, according to an acclaimed educator and author speaking in Mount Airy, who thinks the NAACP can make a difference.
“We have failed our children,” Henry Pankey said Saturday night during the 53rd-annual Freedom Fund Banquet of the Surry County NAACP. “We have failed to make children safe.”
Pankey, a Durham resident who spent 40 years in education, including as a “tough-love urban principal,” and has written a number of books, was appearing at L.H. Jones Auditorium one day after the latest campus massacre, an incident in Texas which claimed 10 lives. He told an audience of about 100 people that 22 school shootings have occurred this year.
“Children shouldn’t see their classmates lying in a pool of blood,” said Pankey, who was passionate at times Saturday night in making his various points.
He further mentioned shootings of youths by police, even when they have been trying to run away and posing no threat.
Aside from school and other violence, Pankey said high school diplomas today are not providing young people with the skills to be successful, and colleges aren’t doing much better in some cases while also saddling graduates with massive student loan debt.
Pankey has worn a number of hats, most recently those of motivational speaker and educational consultant specializing in school improvement. He also has been a karate instructor, Shakespearean and contemporary actor, comedian and impressionist. Pankey’s career has included attending 10 universities, earning 12 licenses in the education-administration field and receiving more than 100 awards.
He is known as one of the chief architects of the “Dress for Success” movement dating to the early 1980s in New York City and duplicated around the country.
But the future didn’t look promising for Henry Pankey, a native of Scotland County, when he was growing up in a rural area.
“I was a plain, simple country boy,” he told Saturday night’s audience that included local office-holders and/or candidates for different positions in November’s election. Pankey was raised in a barn and did not have a bed.
He exhibited behavioral issues and was disenfranchised from the school setting. Such youths today might be referred to as “exceptional,” but at that time the terminology was more blunt, according to Pankey. “They called me retarded.”
Just as Pankey later would be known as an expert in turning poor-performing schools around, he also did so with his own life, saying he was motivated by words of salvation from his dying mother: “Don’t give up on God — God did not give up on you.”
After graduating from Scotland County High School in Laurinburg, he received undergraduate scholarships to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Stockwell College in England. His commitment to being a lifelong learner also led to Pankey garnering graduate scholarships to other institutions including the University of Maryland and Long Island University.
In 1996, Pankey said he returned to the same campus where he had been labeled a problem student years before. “And I was their principal.”
Yet he is perhaps best known for taking the helm at a high school in New York with the reputation of being one of the most violent in the city.
Pankey wasted no time laying down the law to the students, telling them during an assembly that “the party is over.”
“You’re going to do this and you’re going to do that,” the speaker said he also advised the youths, who then stood and cheered. Pankey recalled one girl saying, “we finally got ourselves a principal.”
His message to the thugs at the school was straightforward and no-nonsense: “I’ll be out of jail before you get out of the hospital.”
The emphasis on order and discipline paid dividends. In a year’s time, that school had become one of the safest in New York state.
A love for the children also was built into Pankey’s tough-guy approach, which was evident during his remarks Saturday night.
“My whole career I owe to children,” he said. “We must fight for children — children can’t fight for themselves.”
“The biggest thing he has done is love children,” retired longtime local educator Gloria Lawrence said Saturday night of Pankey. She introduced the special guest to the crowd, saying she’d had the privilege of hearing him speak twice previously.
Just as he proved, any child can succeed if given the right opportunities and support.
“Everybody is a genius in their own way,” Pankey continued, holding up a pair of handcuffs at one juncture. “Take the handcuffs off our children.”
In outlining the problems facing America’s youth, Pankey said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is there to help, using the analogy of rescuing drowning swimmers at a beach.
“The NAACP has strong lifeguards that will pull our children back to shore,” he said. “Since 1909 (when it was formed), the NAACP has saved more people than any superhero you know.”
It largely emerged as a response to lynchings in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and today, as other speakers on Saturday’s program said, the NAACP battles continuing oppression in areas including voting rights and equal pay.
Pankey said such problems seem as formidable as ever, even after the U.S. elected its first black president.
“We went to sleep with Barack Obama — we thought we had it made,” he observed. “If Donald Trump didn’t wake you up, you need embalming fluid.”
The NAACP also needs to reach out to youths for another reason, Pankey believes. “The NAACP must recruit young people,” he said, specifically mentioning millennials.
Saturday night’s Freedom Fund Banquet was the major annual fundraiser for the local branch of the organization which supports various activities, including a legal defense fund. The event’s theme was “Continuing to Fight Injustice.”
“Don’t give up on the NAACP — the NAACP will never give up on you,” Pankey stressed.
After he spoke, Faye Carter, the association’s local president, praised what Pankey had to say.
“We really received a sermon tonight,” Carter said of how he had punctuated his comments with the spirit and vigor of an old-time preacher.
“I hope something was said that you can go back home and ponder,” she told the gathering.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.