- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

"Life isn't always fair," Glennis Powell-Gill, a former D.C. school principal, told a group of high school honorees the other day. "It's not fair that two students from Wilson High School won't graduate because they were gunned down. It's not fair that eight students from Ballou High School won't graduate because they were murdered."
Indeed, you can substitute practically any urban high school in the USA for the schools named by Mrs. Powell-Gill and arrive at the same conclusion. For many young people, far too many of our young people in urban areas, lives are cut short by drugs and guns.
We can't get rid of the guns, and we can't lock up the thugs until after the fact. So what can we do?
We can start by doing as Mrs. Powell-Gill did, telling young people in stark terms, that "it's not fair that you can make one wrong choice and blow it all." Show them they have choices other than breaking the law.
Sometimes children really and truly do not know the law; thus they break it out of ignorance. Of course, that's no excuse. We're not talking about curfews although our children do make the wrong choice, break curfews we've set for them, and, consequently end up on the wrong side of the law by unwittingly, for example, joy-riding in a stolen car.
I'm talking about those laws we refer to as "zero tolerance," three-strikes-you're-out and Project Exile. All of those latter-day law-enforcement catchalls share a bottom line: One wrong choice and you blow it all. "It," of course, refers to a life of liberty.
In America, liberty is granted in law, not idealism or wishful thinking. For instance in some states, if the law says your 19 year-old daughter, who has never been in trouble with the law, is caught with a gun, well, she must spend at least five years in prison. In some others, your baby boy must spend a mandatory 24-and-a-half years in prison for selling drugs. That's the law. I might not like it and you might not like it. Nonetheless, that's the law and the law says the law must be applied to each and every one of us regardless of race, gender, creed, etc.
Yet, while life isn't always fair, the scales are tilted in our favor, because we are granted equal protection under the law.
Now to different people that means different things. Take college. If the law says all qualified applicants must be permitted to attend State University, then State U. would break the law if its officials limited admissions to 10 black students, five Asians, two Native Americans and one Hispanic. That would be discrimination, singling out certain types of people. Yet, we don't call that discrimination. We call that affirmative action, quotas, and set-asides. We want to dress it up and call it different things in different settings when, in fact, it is discrimination.
Yet, because liberty in America is granted in law, we have the opportunity to correct such flaws, flaws that are rooted in idealism. Those same laws grant parents the opportunity to remind children over and over and over again that the freedom to choose has nothing to do with man's law.
Life isn't fair, as Mrs. Powell-Gill said, but thank goodness we do have choices.
We choose our friends, and we choose our vacation destinations. We choose our spouses, and we choose our neighborhoods. We choose where and how we invest our money, and we choose our professions and places of employment.
Children, especially children who haven't traveled outside the Beltway, let alone to a foreign land, don't always understand how precious the freedom to choose really and truly is. Many of them cannot fathom what it's like to lie on white sands in the Caribbean for five or six days, or barter in Hong Kong or even peer for hours at a Picasso at the National Gallery of Art. They really can't.
Glennis Powell-Gill, who graduated from Anacostia High School alongside me and now works for the National Center on Education and the Economy, understands as much. Her address to those teen-age students for just a few minutes got most of them thinking about choices in life. But Mrs. Powell-Gill cannot do that alone.
Students in the District need to be reminded and shown in many different ways the multitude of roads in life. They must be shown that neither their lives, nor their choices, have to begin or end on the violent streets of the nation's capital.
E-mail: [email protected]

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