As a resident of Warren County and a 1974 graduate of John Graham High School, I was particularly struck by a front page article in the Sunday, Feb. 7, edition of the News & Observer entitled “Our Kids Come to Fight Every Day.” The article was part of a series by the N & O that is chronicling the pandemic’s impact on education in North Carolina.
The article was centered around the efforts of the Warren County High School varsity boys basketball team to endure a devastating defeat inflicted by a much more experienced South Granville High School team, a game in which they lost by 103 points. Even though the defeat was one for the record books, what was especially moving about this story was the spirit of the team’s coach, Toriano McRae Jr., who realized the importance of fielding a team and providing his boys with a sense of purpose, belonging and identity during a pandemic that is robbing so many of our youth of their innocence during one of the most important periods in their lives. Coach Toriano is to be commended for his dedication and sincerity in using the current challenges to teach his boys valuable lessons that will stay with them long after the whistle blows, lessons that speak to hard work, perseverance, and family.
The article implies that the trials of Coach Toriano’s team are somewhat reflective of the plight of public school education in Warren County, especially during the pandemic. Too many students are displaced, disconnected from their teachers and classmates, and isolated in areas with little to no access to the technology that is required to pursue a basic education. This has resulted in little student success and continuing unacceptable ratings in key educational matrix. In citing these ratings, observers often note the county’s rural status, poverty level, the inability to recruit and retain teachers, and other socio-economic factors. To be sure, these are real issues that need to be and can be addressed if we expect Coach Toriano’s boys to have a chance on the court and in life.
Yes, the county is predominately rural, but it is also located on a major interstate highway, one hour from Raleigh, Durham and the resource rich Research Triangle Park. These areas have the resources and human capital to provide solutions for many of the problems that are plaguing this county, especially public education. The question may be do we have the will to address these issues. And by “we,” I am referring to families, teachers, principals, administrators, the general community, and especially local government, including school boards and county commissioners. The local government should be invested in tackling these issues that are hindering Coach Toriano’s boys.
There was a time, not long ago, when students who graduated from Warren County’s high schools did not merely dream about going to college; the dream was about which college you woule attend. Becoming a scientist, educator, physician, engineer, mechanic, contractor or whatever you desired was a realistic goal for many. I am an optimist and believe that if the current school administration and the collective will of the citizens can come together and generate the necessary leadership and commitment, that once again the educational enterprise in Warren County will be one that exhumes student success. If this can be done, then Coach Toriano can truly instill in his boys that they, like the 1982 Warren County varsity team, are champions.
Dr. Carlton Wilson is dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at North Carolina Central University in Durham and is a resident of Warrenton.