ICE-T SPEAKS WITH NSBA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO VERJEANA McCOTTER-JACOBS.
PHOTO CREDIT: ILIAN RIVERA
Tracy Marrow admits he was surprised to be invited to speak to school board members. “When I first got the call, they said it’s school. I said, oh, I’m talking to some kids. And they said, no. And then I said, I’m talking to some teachers. They said, no, these are the people in charge of the schools. I thought, OK, this is going to be interesting.”
Marrow, the Grammy Award-winning rapper and actor who’s better known by his stage name, Ice-T, was the closing keynote speaker at NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Annual Conference in September in Chicago.
“It’s crazy for me to be talking to you guys,” he joked. “From what I understand, you guys are like the government of school, right?”
While school boards might seem like an unusual audience for the gangster-rap pioneer, he regularly lectures at prisons, libraries, and colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Ice-T talked about his difficult childhood, losing both of his parents before the age of 11, moving across the country to live with relatives, and attending high school in Los Angeles. While he was never a member of a gang, he was, as he said, “gang adjacent,” learning to coexist among rival groups.
His story offers a reminder to never overlook students because of their background or circumstances. “Any one of your students can do anything when they make a decision to make a change,” he said.
Here are some highlights from Ice-T’s address and the question-and-answer session with NSBA Executive Director and CEO Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs:
On the different types of students:
I knew I needed education. But as I got older, I realized a lot about what’s going on is kids are one of three things. You’re either academically inclined, artistically inclined, or athletically inclined.
Everyone in this room is one of the three. For academics, they’re the ones going to space and all that. But that stuff doesn’t register for me. I don’t like the books. That wasn’t me. I was very good in math because I understood I needed to understand money. I was good at math, but I was artistically inclined and athletically inclined. And you can make a living out of any of those three. But you have to know where you fit in.
On what high school should teach students:
Now, you guys, being the government of schools, this is a good time for me to speak on what I’ve learned about what was lacking in school. High school didn’t teach me anything I needed to know other than how to write, read, and speak. I didn’t know how to fill out an application. I didn’t know how to get credit. I didn’t know anything about how to get an apartment, get a house. I didn’t know how to do anything outside of just function and read stop signs and simple things like that.
Kids need high school because you may not go to college. You may not have the money to go to college. College is like advanced individual training. I was in the military. So you go through basic training, then you go through what’s called advanced individual training. But they need to start bringing some of that earlier into high school so that kids can leave high school and know how to fill out a job application.
On what schools need to offer students from disadvantaged backgrounds:
[Young men from urban communities] are very hard, and they’re very aggressive. I’m trying to teach them that you have to be smoother. You have to learn how to talk to people. Kids have to learn that they’re going to have to adapt in a social space differently. This isn’t taught in school. None of this stuff is taught in school. They step out into the world. They don’t know how to talk to their boss. They don’t know how to interact with people. I don’t know what class this is, but it needs to be taught. It needs to be part of the curriculum to teach, to prepare them if they don’t go to college. What life is ahead of you if you choose to be an entrepreneur. You get out of school. You don’t know how to do any of these things. You don’t have the social ability. Social skills are very important. What about a class in school that would teach people social skills and how to deal with other people?
On how he went from a “career criminal” to acting on the longest-running primetime drama in television history:
I weighed out my options as I was hustling. My friends started going to prison. And as they went to prison, they would say, “Ice, don’t come here. You’re too smart for this.” What that means is a lot of the kids in the hood don’t think they have a chance in society. They think they have to take these other alternate routes. They thought that because I had the gift of gab, I had a chance in the game, and they pushed me into it. I played in “New Jack City.” But I found out that if you play the bad guy, you get to be in one episode. If you play the cop, you get to stick around.
At this point, life has gotten serious to me. I have no mother, father, sisters, brothers. I’ve always been about my paper. I’ve always been about getting paid. If I’m not going to get paid, I can’t spend any time at it, you know? I’ve heard that a great percentage of billionaires are orphans, because when you have no one to fall back on, no family, your hustle goes like this. I think the kids don’t understand the importance of education early also because it seems forced on them. My 7-year-old daughter just started second grade. We have to convince her she wants to go to school because it’s fun versus us telling her, you have to go do it. Also, you don’t really understand why you need education because your parents are doing everything for you. Why do I need education? I’m eating. I’m sleeping. I got a roof over my head. I got new Jordans. Why do I need education?
What you find out when you get out of school is that each one of us is learning every single day. You never stop learning.
On negative media coverage:
You have to understand that the media is a business, and they’re just trying to get people to listen, and they can get more people to listen with negative stuff than positive stuff. Unfortunately, that’s human nature. Humans enjoy negativity. That’s why you have shows like ‘TMZ.’ People like seeing bad things happen. It’s weird. That’s probably part of our animal makeup. But you have to teach yourself away from that. I don’t want to hear nothing negative. If you come around me with some gossip, get away.
The media is looking for a soundbite. So, you have to read through the media. Don’t think the media is honest. It’s just trying to get you to look. It’s a business.
If there’s something bad they could say about the school board, that’s going to get way more news than something good they can say about the school board. You just have to stay on your mission. You know what you’re doing. You know what you’re trying to do. It’s difficult for some people because you can get a hundred compliments then some one person will say something, it’ll bother you. That’s human nature.
You guys are making the news, so you don’t need to read the news. I’ll say that again. You’re making it. You don’t need to read it. That’s someone else’s job.
On his message to young people:
The only people I saw around me were the hustlers and the players. When you come out the hood, that’s who got the car, that’s who got the money. So, of course, that’s where I went. But then I saw that there was a big hole out there where everyone was going in. So, who’s Ice-T, really? I’m a cat that was running down this street, this hustler street. I’m going to be the best hustler, the best player to ever live. And I got to the end of the road, and there’s a cliff, and I see everybody going off the cliff. And my career has been me running back up that road yelling to the people. Don’t go that way. It looks cool. Don’t go that way. I’m telling you, don’t go that way.
A lot of the kids say, I’m going to be slicker than you. I’m going to be smarter than you. But I’m telling them the truth. Go to school and get your education. The smartest cat in the room has the advantage on everybody else in that room. Learn how to pick up game. Instead of education, we call it game. Instead of work, we call it a hustle. These kids are connected to these different street terms. It makes it easier for them to accept it, you know? I say, it’s game, man. You know, if I’m sitting in an IT meeting where I do all kinds of internet stuff and I’m sitting there, it’s not necessarily education. It’s game. I’m like, what? Oh, that’s how that works.
What advice would he give his teenage self?
It’s hard for me to answer that question because everything I lived through built who I am. And I wouldn’t be able to talk to the kids if I hadn’t gone down those dark roads. You know what I’m saying? I wouldn’t be able to relate to them, and I wouldn’t be able to understand their mentality so well. I would say: Just pay attention. Just pay attention when someone is giving you information. I wish I had learned a lot more things. I’m studying finance right now. I want to understand the stock market. So yeah, just pay attention and understand the value of education. And I’m not just saying that because I’m here. Our lived experiences ultimately make us who we are.