• Students at Gateway Elementary aim for new school ties

    December 14, 2014
    By Elisa Crouch
    Photos by David Carson
    ST. LOUIS • There’s a ritual to the morning in Jim Triplett’s fifth-grade classroom — a class of all boys at Gateway Elementary School.

    The fifth-graders greet their teacher and shake his hand. They sharpen their pencils. And then they put on their ties.

    Striped ties. Bow ties. Paisley ones. Multi-colored. A few in solid red.

    Not all of the fifth-graders have earned the right to wear one, but those who have go about the task of putting them on immediately.

    “You have to earn it,” Clarence Boykins said, sticking his chest out as he adjusted a solid red tie around the collar of his white polo shirt. “People know you have a certain amount of integrity to wear one.” He adjusted the two ends to make sure the wide end was lower. Then came the twist from behind. “This is how you make a double Windsor knot,” he said, demonstrating.

    Ties symbolize success in Triplett’s classroom, on the second floor of Gateway Elementary, a magnet school of mostly African-American students off of Jefferson Avenue, northwest of downtown.

    The word “integrity” is said often here. It’s defined on a waist-high sheet of paper in the front of the room as, “Doing the right thing when, even if it’s hard to do, and when no one’s looking.”

    But even when it seems as if no one is looking, “I tell them that the world is watching,” Triplett said.

    It’s a message that the 23 fifth-graders understand, even in a world where pre-adolescents find basketball players and rappers cooler than men in suits. And so, they go about their day as if every moment counts. They thank the door holder for holding the door. They cheer when another classmate successfully does a math problem on the interactive white board in the front of the room.

    And they help each other put on neckties.

    Even when tied properly, Ahmad Muhammad’s black-and-beige tie hangs below his waist. After all, it’s a “real” tie and not a little boy’s clip-on. When asked who typically wears neckties, Ahmad listed them without hesitation: “teachers, doctors, businesses, the president.”

    “Many people wear ties to work so they can do a good job,” he said, sitting at his desk.

    This is also the case in Triplett’s classroom. Neckties have become a motivator to learn and to do well on tests. Scoring 80 percent or higher on an end-of-unit test earns the right to wear a regular tie — the ones that come in all patterns, widths and colors.

    The solid red neckties are a different class. These require points — 100 of them. Points can be earned or lost daily depending if a student is in uniform, on time, or participating.

    Devin Davis had 96 points. He’s almost there, he said smiling. “Tomorrow I think I’ll get it,” he said. “I want them to see I have integrity.”

    Triplett has had nearly all of these children since they were in third grade, shortly after Gateway Elementary began experimenting with single-gender classrooms. The school has also begun “looping” a few teachers — keeping them with the same students for several years.

    Triplett knows his fifth-graders well. He knows they thrive on competition. The ties have created a pecking order through a meritocracy that any of them can join, if only they work hard and make the right choices.

    Triplett hopes the lessons stay with them. He came to teaching as a second career, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and then becoming a Teach For America corps member. He remembers growing up in St. Louis, navigating the public school system as an African-American. He went to Clark Elementary, a city school that is now closed, and then went to middle and high school in University City.

    “I know what kind of things they’re going to be dealing with,” Triplett said.

    It’s why he asked fraternity brothers, friends and coworkers in the school district to donate neckties. They sit folded on the students’ desks, waiting for the fifth-graders to come in each morning.

    Joseph Melero has the most points in the class. He earned the right to wear the red integrity tie several weeks ago. “When I put it on it makes me feel like I am a gentleman, a leader and a scholar,” he said.

    The 10-year-old doesn’t have to wear it, but he does.