Volume > Issue > The Underclass, Part IV: Schools & Mentors

The Underclass, Part IV: Schools & Mentors


By Robert Coles | October 1989

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: “Don’t be worrying about us. [I’d obviously given him just cause to conclude that such was my overall attitude, one of apprehen­sion, alarm, perplexity, fear.] We’ll 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!] It’s two different races, and the teachers, they’re always trying to tell us it’s all the same. ‘In life,’ our history teacher keeps saying, and I want to stand up and say, ‘In whose life, buddy?’ But I won’t win him [over], and he sure as hell won’t get me put in his pocket.

“You want to know why I still come to school? I’ll tell you: the company, some friends, and there’s a girl I’m after, and she’s here. She says she wants to be an actress. Can you beat that! She’s already one! She strings us all along! She’s the one who’s keeping attendance up! If she left, a hundred of us guys would be on her trail all day. I’m 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? It’s like people. We bark, too. We fight for what’s ours, what we want; or we figure there’s 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 you’d only use your head. I’ve tried; when I was a little kid, there was a teacher, and I liked her, I guess because she liked me. She’d get friendly with me; she’d 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 ‘teacher’s 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 didn’t have to say a bad word; her face told us everything. That’s when I said so long to school. If I hadn’t [done so], I don’t know; I’d be a good student, and maybe go to a college and get a good job. If I’d stayed with that teacher, the one who was nice to me, maybe — who knows? — I’d be different. You need someone to help you, if you’re going to try living different. You can push on your own so far. Sure, some can push all the way, and they don’t need anyone’s help. But they have confidence in themselves; they must, or they’re just going for broke, and if they win, great, and if they lose — well, they’ve got nothing to lose. For me, it’s not been worth the fight. I look at those teachers and their books, and I say: man, you’re out in space, and I’m where I am, and there’s nothing between us — nothing, no one. I don’t even hear them a lot of days. I’m just sitting there, looking at the girls. My mind is on them, or it’s on after-school: we hang around, and I deliver pizzas. I could do better — boy, could I! — delivering other stuff [drugs]; but I’m not into that yet. That’s another step; I don’t know if I’ll 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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