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I Teach People to Be Better Dads

Derrick Philson on life as a fatherhood skills instructor in Washington, DC — as told to Luke Mullins

Is being a good dad something that can be taught? The Obama administration thinks so, and has spent more than $500 million trying to help men become better fathers in communities where a missing father — often because of prison time or gun violence — can perpetuate a cycle of poverty. Though financial resources are by no means a qualification for being a great dad (as the recent Steve Jobs biopic makes clear), “Strong fathers can be the first and best step toward fixing these communities and helping our children reach their goals,” President Obama said last year while promoting the curriculum. The how of it all is left to instructors like 47-year-old Derrick Philson, who in three short months attempts to develop fathers capable of providing for their children both financially and emotionally.

I never set out to become a fatherhood skills teacher, but life certainly prepared me for it. I grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., the same rough section of the city where my students live. Like many of them, I wasn’t raised by my father. After high school, I became a professional boxer — a welterweight with a career record of 0–3 — until diabetes-related complications forced me to retire. By then I had children of my own, and I’d split up with their mother.

I was lucky, though; a family friend took an interest in me and became my mentor. He brought me to the courthouse to show me how to fill out the correct child-support forms. He connected me with a support group for parents in my situation. And with his guidance, I became a tutor and mentor to students in nearby public schools. Today, I have healthy relationships with all five of my children, four of whom are adults, the other of whom is in high school.

The Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, a D.C. nonprofit, hired me about three years ago to teach a fatherhood skills class. It’s the first part of a three-step, yearlong program designed to strengthen young, underprivileged fathers so they can enrich the lives of their children. After students complete my 13-week course, they take an employment readiness class, where they learn how to build a resume and interview for a job. When that’s finished, they move on to vocational training; we place students with local businesses to learn specific skills — pipe fitting, floor refurbishing, commercial truck driving — that make them more attractive to employers.

Although employment assistance is the primary reason most students enroll in the program, there’s more to being a good father than having a job. My class follows a curriculum called “Quenching the Father Thirst,” which focuses on the problem of absentee fathers. The main lesson I try to instill in my students is that their responsibility isn’t just to provide food, clothing and shelter. They also need to be actively engaged with their children so they can offer emotional support and teach strong morals. There are many fathers who might physically live in the home with their kids, but they’re still absentee fathers because they don’t have social involvement with them.

We don’t just follow a lesson plan, though. I’ll have anywhere from five to twenty students in a given class, and we spend a lot of time discussing the challenges they face as young fathers — challenges I know personally.

My own father was shot and killed when I was five. My biological parents didn’t raise me; they were still in their early teens when I was born, and I was their second child. Instead, my great aunt and uncle took care of me; my father would stop by and see me occasionally. I don’t have many memories of him, but I remember how sad I used to get when he left after a visit. I would cry, and he would tell me not to be sad because I would always be in his heart.

I remember his funeral, too. I dressed in the identical outfit that he wore in the casket: same suit, same shirt, same everything.

Telling my story in class is helpful. It makes the students more comfortable discussing their own experiences, and it builds trust. I also use it to explain to them that even if they don’t live with their children, they don’t have to be an absentee father. Call your child on the phone and visit them as much as possible. It’s what I did with my kids.

Our group discussions can get intense. But there’s three rules all students have to follow no matter what. First, no cross-talking or sidebar conversations. Second, no using the “n word” or the “b word.” Finally, and this is my favorite rule, the guys aren’t allowed to turn their cell phones off during class. That’s because their biggest responsibility is to their child. And when you’re in the group, you might get a call from your child — or your wife or your grandmother — and you need to be able to support your child. You need to take the call and step out. I don’t want anyone going home saying: “Oh, honey, I couldn’t answer your call because Derrick was talking.”

Just like my mentor did for me, I take my students to the courthouse to teach them how to utilize the resources available to them. If a student is struggling financially and has fallen behind on child support, I’ll show him how to fill out the child-support modification form to see if he can get a reduced payment. If a student wants to file for legal custody of his child, I’ll teach him how to do that, too. I’m good at finding out what the students’ needs are and addressing them — whatever they are.

For example, I got a call one night at 10 p.m. from a student who had missed that evening’s class. “Mr. Philson, I’m sorry I didn’t make the class,” the student said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Ah man,” he said. “I’ve been struggling with something all day. I’ve been trying to think of somebody to call, and you’re the only person who I thought could help me with this.”

“What’s going on?” I said.

“I picked up my daughter from school today, and her teacher gave her a math assignment,” he said. “I usually help her with homework, but I just can’t do this assignment. I don’t know how.”

The assignment had to do with fractions. I hadn’t done fractions in maybe 10 years. But we went through the problems together over the phone. It took a while, but we finished them and he was able to help his daughter complete the assignment.

I couldn’t have been prouder of him because he extended himself to say, “I need some help.” And when you get a father that walks through the door and says, “I’m ready for help,” then you get a sense that they’re ready.

One thing I do in class is to challenge the students to teach what they’ve learned here to someone else. Discuss with someone else the changes they’ve made. For me, that’s the most rewarding part of the job — especially when I can sit there and listen to them share with some brothers what they did with their lives.

You know, there’s a story my older cousins tell about the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My grandmother was upset at my mom and dad because they had me at such a young age. She thought they needed to be in school and not at home caring for another child. My grandmother told them that they couldn’t keep bringing kids into her house and expecting her to take care of them. My great aunt overheard the conversation and interjected: “Just give him to me.”

From then on, my great aunt took care of me. I was with her from when I was a kid until her death in 1989. And that phrase still touches me: “Just give him to me.” She didn’t have to do that; she already had a daughter of her own. But the love and compassion she had for me, that’s what I owe to this community. That’s what I owe to these fathers, to their kids, to my kids and to your kids.

It’s who I am and who I’ve become.