My Hero

Paul Greenberg

7/2/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Keiara Bell is a 13-year-old eighth grader at Courtis Elementary/Middle School in Detroit, Mich. The school is located in a decaying neighborhood full of the usual urban detritus; there's no shortage of weedy lots and abandoned houses. But the school stands out among its dilapidated surroundings. For one thing, it's got a strict dress code: collared shirts must be tucked into dark pants; jeans aren't allowed. In short, this school's got the outward signs of an inner discipline.

Being disciplined doesn't mean being dull. Or devoid of humor. To open the day, the entire student body recites The Affirmation, which begins: "I am a positive force in this world. I am courteous, kind, respectful and smart. Oh well, I may even be brilliant."

Keiara Bell is one of those courteous, kind, respectful and maybe even brilliant students. She ranks at the top of her class, and she's made a lot of news of late. A panel discussion she participated in - it was sponsored by the Detroit News - now has been called up more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

Folks as far away as Ohio, Georgia and New York have sent her school congratulations on her performance. A state senator presented her with a certificate recognizing her "eloquent oratorical skills." The moderator of the panel, a former chief of staff to the president pro tem of Detroit's city council, says he's told young Miss Bell, "When you get ready to run for office, I'll be managing your first campaign, pro bono."

What did Keiara Bell do to merit all this attention, and admiration? It seems that in her social studies classes, she'd been digging into the latest Detroit-style scandal involving the city's mayor, who by now has been indicted on charges of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Keiara Bell has been keeping up with the details of the scandal, and with local government in general. (Not long ago she stayed up till 10 p.m. compiling a report that cited 88 facts about the local political scene.)

In the course of her studies, young Miss Bell caught the video of a hearing that featured a less than polite exchange between the president of Detroit's city council, Kenneth Cockrel Jr., and Monica Conyers, the council's president pro tem. Mrs. Conyers - she's the wife of the congressman - kept interrupting him while he tried to question a witness. Mr. Cockrel finally resorted to banging his gavel in an attempt to quiet her. At which she shouted at him:

"You're not my daddy, you do that at home, not here. OK? Exactly. So treat me with respect because I'm tired of that. Be respectful. You may not do that at home but you gonna do it up here. Grow up. Control your house and you know how to treat other women better Shrek."

Sure enough, Mr. President Cockrel is bald, just like the green ogre of movie fame known as Shrek. That did it. "Shrek?" he asked. "I will call this to adjourn!" End of the matter.

At least until Mrs. Conyers agreed to appear on a panel at Keiara Bell's school, a panel that would be duly taped and widely circulated. Explaining her behavior at the hearing, President Conyers explained that she'd found Mr. Cockrel's attitude lacking in respect.

"But you didn't have to call him a name," Miss Bell pointed out.

"But now you're telling me what I should have and should not have done," Mrs. Conyer replied.

"You're an adult," said Miss Keiara. "You have that choice."

"I'm what?" asked Mrs. Conyers, as if the term adult were new to her.

"You're an adult," repeated the eighth grader. "You had that choice. Sometimes people need to think before they act."

Out of the mouths of babes.

By now people far and wide have heard that educational exchange - and cheered Miss Bell's little lesson in manners, judgment and self-respect. Civility in politics, it turns out, actually turns people on. Maybe it's the rarity of it.

And what does Keiara's mom think of her child's star turn? A mother of four who sells candy from the trunk of an old gray Cadillac in different Detroit neighborhoods, she says: "That's my baby."

Keiara Bell says "an experience like this can turn a girl into a lady." I'm not so sure. What I suspect is that a 13-year-old with Keiara Bell's poise and gumption, not to mention good sense, was already a lady.