When Academic Giants Stumble:What to do when your teenager’s GPA drops and he loses focus


I was running late. What’s new?

It was October  2008 and Ezra was competing in a campus wide spelling bee against upper classmen. He was in the third grade. I walked in the auditorium right on time to hear him spell the winning word: incredulous.

He stepped to the mic and spelled it correctly after a fifth grader made one mistake. The crowd erupted with applause. I stood in the back of the aisle as the principal called him to the front to accept his trophy, “…And our winner of the Afrikan Centered Education campus wide spelling bee—Ezra Barnes!” It was the first time, as a father, that I was able to bare witness to one of my sons being publicly victorious on his own merits. I’ll never forget that day.

From that point on, expectations have been high for Pretty Boy McCoy. They always have been. He’s been reading ever since he was three. When he was in the first grade, he memorized and presented Malcolm X’s eulogy. He’s a voracious reader, even now, which I thank God for.

If you follow me on Instagram, FB or Twitter, you are more than aware of how long I’ve been posting pics of my guys, sharing with you their accomplishments, especially Ezra’s. The thing I’ve been most proud of is how he’s been able to maintain a minimum 3.5  GPA for the entirety of his academic career, and being a permanent resident on the honor roll. That is, until he hit the eighth grade. Something happened. He’d begin his school year on a slow start; missed assignments, not properly preparing for tests or quizzes, or not putting a complete effort on mini projects. There were many factors to consider that may have attributed to his hiccups: being in a new city, at a new school, girls (there’s always girls), etc. The thing is, dude is so smart, he has always recovered, ending the school year right where he always has—3.5.


back in the day 143Every year, E has won some sort of medal or award for achievement, excellence, a science fair,  or a spelling bee. He has always been the beacon, academically, for the other Barnes brothers. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have the highest GPA in the house—until the first semester of freshmen year in high school. Silas and Solo had a look of horror, confusion on their faces when we calculatedtheir GPAs:




They couldn’t believe it. Had Big Brother Almighty tangled his locks in mediocrity, bumped his noggin and fallen from grace? He made a ‘C’ in honors math. A ‘C’, yo!!!

Say it ain’t so, big bro!

back in the day 063


His mother and I grew up in damn near poverty. We were ‘hungry’ and knew that we wanted better lives. Hell, I knew what I wanted to become when I was seven years old, and so did Tink. We were some of the first in our immediate families to graduate from college. There hasn’t been that kind of ‘hunger’, drive from E.

He has been content, protected, coddled and nestled in Black, middle/upper-middle class safety. He doesn’t understand that that whole paradigm is a myth. He doesn’t understand that there is competition, global competition for his  future.

There are kids from every walk of life that are already masterfully driven to snatch his meaningful, productive future right from underneath him. Now, the expectations about his life should be high, more so for him. Life will and always does demand more of us. We should demand more from ourselves.

I’m not expecting him to have it all figured out at fifteen, but I would like some sense of what he imagines his future to be. I’ll even accept something a little idyllic. I want to see a fire, a passion about something beyond high school, college. I’d like to hear him espouse from time to time where he envisions himself ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. But that’s almost never the case with him. He has done a lot and achieved a lot, but most of every activity, event or competition that he has been in was from my urging. Although I can say that once he is nudged in a direction, he excels. Always has. But what I want to see now is something organic. Something from his own grandiose house of dreams. I want him to really see the connection between his academic success, his drive, his work ethic and any dreams or aspirations that he may have. I want him to take everything that he has acquired in his young life up until this point, bundle it all up, and now plan to go out into the world and make it his own, or at least carve out his own significant place in it.

Getting back to that Honors Math ‘C’— we had a nice, long, man-to-man talk about how fast life is moving by, and about self expectations. He has reached the stage in his life where the application of the things that he’s learned has to now be applied. He could fill his wall and mantles with certificates, medals and trophies, but it doesn’t mean Jack Squat if he can’t communicate, if he stops dreaming, or if he doesn’t have a real interest  in his own future, in his life. We don’t do slow starts. We can’t afford them.


So at the end of our conversation, I took his ‘life line’, his phone and he damn near cried. Said I’d be keeping it for the next four days, no video games, and he could only get on his computer to do two of the projects that I came up with (I’ll detail them both in a second). He argued that the punishment was too harsh. He said that his math teacher, an African gentleman, was a good teacher but the course was challenging, there is a language barrier, he received a ‘D’ on a test early on in the semester, and that he didn’t receive a good foundation to propel him into ninth grade honors math. All of those we’re valid points, but still unacceptable. Effort is all I’ve ever ask for from the boys. Waiting until your report card comes out to announce that you’ve dropped your math grade to a C shows lack of effort. He said he didn’t want to tell me about the low grade on that early test, but he should have. There’s tutoring. There’s ME! There were a multitude of resources that he could have sought out, but he didn’t.

He also said that sometimes, he felt uncomfortable coming to me when he needed help. He thought that I would look down on him because he’s always done so well. I have been more focused on the other three little guys; making sure Solo doesn’t stumble in his academics (…and he hasn’t! He has really come around in middle school. That’s my next  column) and that Nnmadi has all of the foundation that he needs at age four. Silas does extremely well academically. His only issues have been going over his work to minimize any mistakes that he refuses to admit making (that’s another column as well). But for the most part of the last three years, E has been on cruise control. I give him supplemental work in math and language arts  just like I do for the other guys. I also check in on his grades through PowerSchool (I keep an open line of communication with ALL of their instructors, via phone, email and face-to-face conversation). I’ve trusted his body of work and his understanding of how important it is to stay at the top of his class. That was a mistake.

What I’ve learned is, you can never do enough to make sure that your kids are on track. We recently went to New Orleans to celebrate my wife’s birthday, and I chopped it up with my man, Mardi Gras Indian chief, Shaka Zulu (it’s important to have mentors and senses’ from all walks of life). He and his wife, Naimah, have a brilliant beautiful daughter that has just entered college and she is an outstanding student and young woman. I shared with him, as we picked up shrimp and oyster po-boys, how I worry that maybe I’ve done too much for E. I worry that he is comfortable and maybe he wont have the skills to go out into the world and make a way for himself. He told me that you can NEVER do enough, especially when they’re about to embark on their own young adult lives. I told him how I have to set up a lot of E’s activities, events, training, constantly remind him to go above and beyond, etc. He looked at me and plainly said, “If not you, then who?” and he was right.

Sometimes I think we expect exceptional behavior, and decision making ability from our children to just appear via osmosis.  I wish it was that easy.

I decided to stop assuming with E, continue to push him in regards to his future, more consistently, and expose him to as many opportunities and resources that I possibly can. Also, I understand that my childhood is nothing like his, and he is not me. What pushed me as a teen does not exist in his world at all. Sometimes I felt embarrassed that I’d have to light a fuse beneath him, to spur him. His mom’s a physician. His dad is a published author. He’s brilliant, but where is that animal-like intensity to be something the world has never seen? It’ll come. I’m certain of it. And I am most certain that I will do my job to motivate and push them wherever and whenever needed. Even when they leave our home, their mother and I will still be there, spurring, poking, prodding, providing sage wisdom and inspiration for these young brothers.


So to get him back on track, to help him press the reset button, in addition to kidnapping his phone, I did a few things. First, I came up with a fourteen page paper he’d have to complete that consisted of six careers that he might be interested in. I wanted background, which universities produced the most graduates in that field, which companies, globally, that hired those graduates the most, and the average salary. Second, a four page research project where he had to find at least thirty scholarships for STEM students that fit his description and qualifications. And if he didn’t have these done within a certain amount of time, I’d have his ‘life line’ under lock and key a little longer. Also, we added two PSAT and SAT apps on his phone that he’d have to do every day. He even added the KHAN Academy math/SAT app without my suggestion.

He recently joined a robotics/engineering team at his school, which is kind of a big deal, headed by an engineer at Bosch Rexroth here in Charlotte, a global leader in drive and control technologies. Plus,  and he doesnt know this yet, but he’ll be volunteering at a nursing home next month. I don’t want to overwhelm him, or push him to exhaustion, but I will push him. Someday, and someday soon, he’ll have no one to push him on a daily basis but himself.

E is super organized, which is something I envy about him. One activity that he has scheduled, four days out of the week, is exercise. He’ll hit the gym, and go run without me saying a mumbling word. I love that. I always say, raising productive young adults is centered around creating positive habits; habits that they’ll have programmed in their psyche when you are long gone. He picks up on things fast, he isn’t hard headed, he listens, he’s not a thrill seeker, he’s competitive, he has a snapshot memory, and he prays. Those things bring me comfort. We pray for him and his brothers several times throughout the day. That’s why I won’t worry about him. I will not, not one bit.

This is a formula for him to ‘Reset’. He will need it through out his life. I am certain. i am also certain that he will grow to be an insightful, thoughtful, traqnsformative man in every facet of his beautIiful life. I also believe with all of my heart, in Ezra Barnes.



The RTM Joint of the week is the first hip hop song that E memorized the lyrics to, Get By from Talib Kweli. He was five. His choice in hip-hop these days , and I use that term loosely,  is a little suspect. But deep in the recesses of his mind, he is extremely cautious of the gems that came from the golden era of hip-hop. He’ll come back around. Trap (crap) music is temporary.  A Tribe Called Quest is forever.

1 Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing your Life with us. As a single mother with to sons now grown, one a US Army Sargeant the other a Doctor in Residency at Howard, I understand that each child is unique in the own lives. Each child will grow through their uniques hiccups in life. What we as parents must continue to do is BE THERE for them no matter what. It is clear tht you and his mother have done a great job with raising him. He will not forget!

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