- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - When the boys starting wearing ties on Wednesdays, the reaction from their classmates was a blend of intrigue and middle-school envy.

The ties are not part of the student uniform at M.D. Fox School in Hartford’s South End, the home of a new boys’ troop that seeks dignity and brotherhood in a world that can be chaotic and unkind.

But the ties, mandatory for their meetings, have symbolized their gentlemanly ambitions.

Once he put on a tie, “people started treated me differently,” said sixth-grader Pedro Vazquez, president of the school’s budding chapter of Men Achieving Leadership, Excellence and Success.

Ashon Avent, 36, a behavioral staffer at the school, knew what came next: “They started having more respect for you,” he said.

Avent can relate. The Hartford native was a founding member of the original M.A.L.E.S. organization at Eastern Connecticut State University - a mentoring fraternity meant to help young minority men stay in college, stirring camaraderie that was built on community service, personal pride and dapper ties that set them apart.

It became a network that spread to several other college campuses in the country, from UMass Lowell to Florida International University.

Now, for the first time, a M.A.L.E.S. group has been set up in a middle school, Avent said. Starting this school year, about 15 students have been meeting during their recess on Wednesdays, working on the fortitude to steel themselves against street pressures and immaturity.

Avent likes to say that it is cool to “stand out and do something different.” To be a leader, he tells them.

That starts with the neckwear.

“I feel like this group made me step into my place in the world,” said M.D. Fox sixth-grader Zachary Cruz, 13, wearing a grown-man’s tie with his khakis and sneakers. Avent, seated with the boys in a circle, asked him to elaborate.

“It just seems like there’s more,” Zachary said. He likened their ideals to “somebody pushing you to do better. It’s just like if your conscience is telling you what to do.”

Bryant Padilla, 12, a seventh-grader newly recruited to the group, wore a striped, black-and-gray tie to his first meeting early this month.

Avent asked what motivated him to join.

“The ties,” Bryant answered.

At first, the ties came from Avent’s personal collection. But demand grew. Most of the students at M.D. Fox, a prekindergarten-to-grade 8 neighborhood school, come from low-income homes, and Avent started hearing from parents who were stressed out that their sons were asking them for ties.

About a month ago, Avent, a popular courtside announcer for the Greater Hartford Pro-Am summer basketball league who is nicknamed “Chewy,” put out a request on social media for new or used ties for the mentoring group.

Scores of donations - skinny ties, wide ties, geometric-patterned, slanted stripes - were shipped or dropped off at the school on Maple Avenue. Now there are scores of ties hanging on a rack in Avent’s sunny office.

Students who act out often land in this office on the third floor, where Avent, a former school operations manager who is now a behavior technician, tries to de-escalate conflicts with tough-love talks that the older kids seem to crave. He reminds them, and the M.A.L.E.S. members, that he’s been in their shoes.

Avent and school social worker Thomas Allen, who also helps with the group, are both from inner cities and are among the few minority, male staffers at M.D. Fox who work in an advisory role with students. Avent, a 1997 graduate of Hartford’s Weaver High School, came of age during the city’s drug war.

“I grew up without a dad,” said Avent, who now lives in Norwich. “So to navigate through middle school and deal with those pressures that a boy’s gotta deal with - trying to be tough, trying to hang with people and making friends - is difficult when you don’t have anyone guiding you or giving you that proper support.”

Avent said he didn’t meet his father, who died last May, until he was about 27 years old. It’s a subject that leaves him visibly pained. “I never had a relationship with him, so I never really knew what he liked or disliked. I didn’t know what his favorite TV show was,” he said. “He never taught me how to ride a bike. …

“He never taught me how to tie a tie.”

Avent, a standout basketball player in high school and college, had jobs throughout his time at Eastern Connecticut - in part because he needed to pay child support, he said. He became a father at age 16.

As a business major, Avent scored an internship that called for a collared shirt and tie, and for a while he got by with ties that were already knotted in a loop.

One day, a male adviser at the college, exasperated with Avent’s requests to tie his ties, forced Avent to learn how to do it himself.

“It took me two hours. I almost cried,” said Avent, who would later earn a master’s in business administration from Albertus Magnus College.

But the ties, he had already discovered, brought a newfound level of respect. When he wore ties to class, some of his peers thought he was a university employee. Professors treated him better. When the founding M.A.L.E.S. organization got underway, wearing ties on Wednesdays became the group’s trademark.

It was last fall, after an M.D. Fox student made a low-key plea for conversation, that convinced Avent to begin a middle school chapter.

“‘I just want to talk to a man sometimes and kind of be myself,’” Avent recalled the boy saying. “I was kind of taken aback by that - ‘What do you mean?’ He was like, ‘Sometimes I just want to talk, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. … My teachers are busy teaching. Do you mind if we talk?’”

Teachers recommended boys in sixth, seventh and eighth grades for the M.A.L.E.S. group. The chapter just started welcoming a handful of fifth-graders, too.

Among the chosen were strong, thoughtful students, as well as boys with “borderline” behavior who showed signs of potential, Avent said.

One of them, a shy seventh-grader named Allyn Thompson, is in the school’s alternative program for district students who have struggled in regular education classrooms. Allyn, 12, said he came to M.D. Fox in fifth grade after having behavioral problems at his previous city school.

He joined M.A.L.E.S. in early January and in the past two months has developed “a stronger feeling of acceptance,” said Allen, the program’s social worker. His social orbit has grown. The other boys “see him and say ‘hi’ and hang out with him. … I’m very proud of him,” Allen said.

Minutes later, Allyn, who wants to be an engineer, was asked what brings him happiness. This wasn’t an out-of-the-blue question. When life gets hard, Avent told the boys, “Sometimes you have to remember what makes you happy in order for you to keep on going.”

“What makes me happy is being able to get along with other people,” Allyn said.

The M.D. Fox group conducts its Wednesday meetings during afternoon recess, after lunch, following the structure of Robert’s Rules of Order. The students raise their hands when they want to speak, are silent when others are talking, and take votes on all action items, whether it’s a concession-stand fundraiser or deciding whom to invite to their March 14 leadership conference at the school.

Their very first lesson, however, was on the basics: how to knot their own tie, half-Windsor style.

It happened at their inaugural meeting late last year. Allen taught the boys who were left-handed, while Avent worked with the right-handed students. The boys who learned quickly became instructors themselves, showing others how it was done.

“Leaders lead from the front,” Allen told the boys at a recent meeting. “You want people to follow you as a leader, so you can’t always lead from behind. You lead by example. So I think that a successful leader is someone who can inspire people to follow them and do things the right way.”

Avent estimated that two-thirds of M.D. Fox’s male middle-schoolers have asked if they can join the group. He stresses to students that the ties are not intended as a trendy fashion statement, but as a representation that one is “taking care of business.”

Bryant, the newcomer to the group, assured his comrades that he understood - that wearing the tie meant he must do his homework. “It makes me feel like I’m not just an ordinary student,” he said.

Linda Leyhow, dean of students for M.D. Fox’s middle school grades, was asked if she’s noticed a change in these boys. It was like asking her if the sky is blue.

“In terms of the fact that they’re walking on air and that they’re really proud? Yeah, for sure,” Leyhow said. “I mean, to be a part of something makes kids act in a far more responsible manner. So the days that they’re wearing ties, they’re really sharp.”

With more attention on them, several of the boys said they are mindful that any personal slip-ups, such as tardiness, will reflect poorly on the group. One 12-year-old who was chronically late to school is now among the first to arrive, Allen said.

The M.A.L.E.S. mission is in the oath they recite at the conclusion of their meetings.

“I pledge to develop organizational consistency and commitment, to be honest and loyal, to earn the respect of others and to respect others,” they say in unison. “I pledge to develop and gain trust, and to strengthen brotherhood while striving for academic excellence. I also pledge to hold myself and other members accountable for actions and behaviors detrimental to the organization’s goals.”

President Pedro, who was elected their leader, said he hadn’t been in a leadership role until now.

“We knew that we had some kind of leader in us and that we could show people that we are men, that we’re not kids anymore,” said Pedro, who is 12. “All those things we did in the past - you can just throw them out. We grew up.”

___

Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com

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