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Bill Cosby Enchants, Entertains and Educates Teachers College Crowd

A lone red vinyl cushioned chair stood in the center of the chancel at the front of the Riverside Church nave on a rainy day in late September. It was reserved for the sixth Virginia and Leonard Marx lecturer-actor, writer, comedian Bill Cosby.

An audience of more than 2,000 people filled the nave almost to capacity in spite of the torrential rain they had to endure to get there. When Cosby at last appeared in the company of TC President Arthur Levine and the two Marx Professors, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Sharon Lynn Kagan, the crowd let out a cheer.

Levine approached the podium as Cosby draped a Teachers College sweatshirt on the back of the chair. Cosby, whose son Ennis was a student in Special Education at TC prior to his death, has been presented every award the College could bestow, Levine said, adding, "No one has done more to make parenting and teaching more heroic."

Prior to Cosby's address, Professors Brooks-Gunn and Kagan made brief remarks. Brooks-Gunn noted that as the Director of the Center for Children and Families, her dream is to develop a center at TC to advance policy education. This center would produce cutting edge research, analysis and provision of information to the public, as well as provide training for future leaders, scholars and policy makers to do what will have a positive impact on children today.

Kagan, a TC alumnus joined the Teachers College faculty in the Fall 2000 semester after 20 years at Yale University Child Study Center and The Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. "It is wonderful to be here," she said. "For many years I had a dream of being part of the TC community."

In the years since she received her doctorate, Kagan has made a name for herself as a premier researcher in the area of early childhood education and day care. She's looked at support systems for children and families, leadership, quality and social policy and the role of government in early childcare. Most recently, she has been assessing the change in young children's learning environments as a result of welfare reform.

In honor of her new role as a Marx Professor, she was asked to introduce this year's speaker. But before she did, she told the audience. "I pledge my hand, my heart and my head to honor this institution and the spirit of the entire Marx family."

"I am not alone in my love for TC," Kagan said. "I am joined by our talented sixth Virginia and Leonard Marx lecturer, Bill Cosby."

Cosby, in his remarks, did not disappoint his fans. He provided a two-hour combination of humor, memories, and serious commentary about teachers, their students and the often atrocious conditions they endure in the attempt to make education possible.

His reverence for the teaching profession was more than apparent. "I don't think there is one person here who doesn't have the teacher in mind and the name of that person who made you do your work and kept saying you can," Cosby said. "You said you can't; you knew you could but you didn't want to. This person is very important because they loved you and knew you could do it."

Going out to the center aisle amid his audience, sometimes responding to their commentary, Cosby adamantly insisted that it is insulting to grade teachers on their performance when there are no lights or windows in the classroom, or books to teach with. "I know there are school teachers who spend more money on other people's children than they spend on their own," he said.

"How dare they give you no books and say 'Teach,' and say, 'We are going to grade you,'" he added. "What will it take for you to become-not angry-but controlled in telling the system what you need?"

Teachers, he said, teach because they love it, not because they are looking for salaries and promotions. But then, the system lets them down. "These people care and they work for a system that ties their legs and says, 'Run'; puts their hands behind their back and says, 'Defend yourself,'" Cosby remarked. He then charged those in the audience who teach to "realize who you are and stop the system from grading you until someone begins to grade the system."

Next on Cosby's agenda was the challenge of dealing with learning differences that children have in the classroom. Teachers, he said, need to know their students and their parents and what is happening at home, especially in the child's diet. Before recommending that a parent request drug therapy from a doctor, Cosby said teachers should find out what the children are eating. Are they eating at all?

To illustrate his concerns, Cosby brought along video clips of an interview with a mother whose son, Joe-Joe, was a guest on "Kids Say the Darndest Things," a television show that Cosby had hosted. Clips of eight-year-old Joe-Joe on the show indicated that he was quick, articulate, and confident. However, he was failing and acting out in school. According to his mother, they had tried drug therapy to help improve his behavior and academic performance, but it wasn't until his diet was changed to include a better balance of carbohydrates and protein that he began to succeed. His reading ability went from the kindergarten level to third grade level in less than one year, and he was able to sit quietly, focus and retain information in the classroom.

"You see the children come to school and they are loaded with food that is making them nervous, making their thinking more difficult, because things are going on inside of them. And, all you can see is a disruptive child," Cosby remarked. "Our colleges have to work with the students to put teachers into these rooms so that they are fully aware and know how to recognize the problems."

Before he left Riverside Church, Cosby told the audience, "I have a present for you." That present was a documentary film, "The Crisis," which chronicled the events surrounding the entry in the 1960s of two black students to desegregate the University of Alabama and the controversy that ensued between the Kennedy Administration and then Governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

"This film," Cosby explained, "told me about the importance of education."

President Levine returned the gesture by presenting Cosby with a Teachers College baseball jacket and a sweatshirt bearing the words "Hello Friend," in honor of the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation that supports teacher training and special education programs for people with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities. Levine also announced the establishment of a scholarship in the name of William Cosby to be awarded next year to a Teachers College student studying to become a teacher.

Donning the jacket, Cosby left to a standing ovation.

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