The Underclass, Part IV: Schools & Mentors
October 1989By Robert Coles
Many days I wonder what real hope, educationally, there is for the poor children I get to see in the course of my work. Earlier this year I spent time every week in an industrial city north of Boston that has a substantial Spanish-speaking and black ghetto. I talked with high school youths and elementary school children. I was trying to learn from them what prospects they felt they had, what hopes and aspirations, what worries or wishes. Often as I sat in the high school cafeteria or library listening to a particular young man or woman talk, I noticed my head dropping, or, more to the point, my spirits sagging. The person before me seemed so grim or doubtful about life, so silent or, indeed, all too powerfully, cynically articulate, and not rarely, rather skeptical of or hostile toward me and my kind. One late morning, over a pizza, I heard this: Dont be worrying about us. [Id obviously given him just cause to conclude that such was my overall attitude, one of apprehension, alarm, perplexity, fear.] Well run in our marathon, and down where you live, folks will be running in theirs. [I was grateful that in the second half of his declaration he stopped just short of arraigning me, personally!] Its two different races, and the teachers, theyre always trying to tell us its all the same. In life, our history teacher keeps saying, and I want to stand up and say, In whose life, buddy? But I wont win him [over], and he sure as hell wont get me put in his pocket.
You want to know why I still come to school? Ill tell you: the company, some friends, and theres a girl Im after, and shes here. She says she wants to be an actress. Can you beat that! Shes already one! She strings us all along! Shes the one whos keeping attendance up! If she left, a hundred of us guys would be on her trail all day. Im not kidding.
In fact, he was kidding. Underneath his callous, wry, ironic, teasing manner I thought I detected a sad and frustrated teenager whose very sardonic repartee indicated that somehow, in some manner, he might be saved. What do I mean, though, when I use such a word saved from what, or for what? I tried to get the answer to such a line of questioning from the student himself, and one February morning the snow covering a drab neighborhood with its temporary blanket of white, a wind stirring things up, and some dogs fighting noisily outside his home I heard this: You hear those animals barking? Its like people. We bark, too. We fight for whats ours, what we want; or we figure theres nothing to fight for, so you just try to stay alive the best you can. In school they tell you the sky is the limit if youd only use your head. Ive tried; when I was a little kid, there was a teacher, and I liked her, I guess because she liked me. Shed get friendly with me; shed ask me about my family. She told me she thought I was smart, and I could be a good student. I tried. I was a good student. She wrote a note to my mother, and I brought it home. But my mother was sick. She was throwing up, and there was blood coming out of her [uterine bleeding]. Besides, my mother is a case [has psychological difficulties: depression]. Maybe I could have said to hell with everyone in my family and become a teachers pet for life. But the next year [in school] the teacher hated every single one of us, me included, and we all knew it. She was an old hag, waiting on retirement. She didnt have to say a bad word; her face told us everything. Thats when I said so long to school. If I hadnt [done so], I dont know; Id be a good student, and maybe go to a college and get a good job. If Id stayed with that teacher, the one who was nice to me, maybe who knows? Id be different. You need someone to help you, if youre going to try living different. You can push on your own so far. Sure, some can push all the way, and they dont need anyones help. But they have confidence in themselves; they must, or theyre just going for broke, and if they win, great, and if they lose well, theyve got nothing to lose. For me, its not been worth the fight. I look at those teachers and their books, and I say: man, youre out in space, and Im where I am, and theres nothing between us nothing, no one. I dont even hear them a lot of days. Im just sitting there, looking at the girls. My mind is on them, or its on after-school: we hang around, and I deliver pizzas. I could do better boy, could I! delivering other stuff [drugs]; but Im not into that yet. Thats another step; I dont know if Ill take it.
He appears to be a youth of above average intelligence who has a conscience, who, in fact, has resisted the various blandishments of the drug culture. Perhaps his intelligence and conscience, plus memories of one teacher who paid him considerate and substantial heed, still keep him in school, for all his sadness and growing skepticism, if not despair. The long and short of my own conversations with him persuaded me to try to connect him with a mentor program college students who become big brothers to youths such as he. I cannot report a glowing miracle, but I can say that a young man who is a junior in a nearby college has, so far, in his talks with this high schooler, gotten well beyond the kinds of discussions I have just set down has heard less truculence and sarcasm, less talk of what might have been, more inquiry about what might be. Not that it has been easy.
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