Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Boy Who Didn't Make It

Tom Gibbon, a proud member of "Teach For America," waxes unphilosophical about a triumph of human spirit:

He continued, telling me that “all that stuff is true.” He was left at an orphanage by his mother, who was 15 or 16 when she had him. For the first two years of his life, he was passed to three different orphanages. By an act of God, his grandmother found him when he was moved to a shelter in the inner city. He’s lived with his grandmother ever since. His mother also now lives there. He said it took a long time for him to forgive her for what she did early in his life. He said he’ll never trust her or anyone else in the world. The last person he trusted was his 4th grade teacher, who said she’d do anything to help him. He loved her, he said. But then she up and quit her job.

Though he was an infant when he was passed around like that and he can’t remember any details, he said there’s always been an unsettled feeling in him like he didn’t belong where he was and that no one wanted him. On the day he was telling me this, he said he had met with a lawyer, who is sent by the state to check up with him twice a year. He also meets with a case manager once a month. “I’m sick of it,” he said.

Later that week, he was accepted to a small rural college about an hour outside of the city. Again, he came into my room after school with a hesitant smile to tell me this great news. I couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s a kid who has not had help. He’s attended a crap high school in a crap school system and has been tracked by the state since birth. His father was out of jail long enough last year to get himself in trouble with the law and put away again. No one from his family has ever been to one of his track or cross country meets.

Still, there’s a spirit that makes this kid trust himself. I see it in him when he runs the mile race on the track. I know he’s hungry and doesn’t have a good diet at home, but he plugs away at this grueling event, and can almost break five minutes. He isn’t entirely sure where he’s going or what he’s going to do with his life. But he knows that he’s sick of what he’s grown up seeing in his family, school and city. I take no credit for his success, nor should anyone else. This is a kid who is pulling himself up in spite of a society that’s been passing him around since the day he was born.

With a few changes, I was that kid once upon a time, and I can tell Mr. Gibbon with certainty that for that kid, the struggle is only beginning, that to maintain his "success" will require a never ending battle against a world he doesn't understand very well, and one that doesn't understand him at all. That, however much effort he puts into his running, he'll need to put even more effort into understanding himself, and the mores of a world that is, in the fullest sense of the word, alien to him, and the payoff -- whatever payoff might be there -- for that effort will be both elusive and ephemeral. Maybe he'll get to a point, many years down the road, where he thinks he's figured it all out, and then he'll puncture his own disappointment with a mental, "So that's all there is to this white middle class stuff?"

Somerby has been whacking on that "Teach For America" thing for awhile now, and as good as his arguments are, something about this piece -- about its utter pointlessness -- does more than all the stuff he can write to poison my attitude about the program. Those people aren't heroes in some kind of morality tale, they aren't specimens under a microscope, and they shouldn't be fodder for somebody's dim political agenda. They're people, living lives the likes of which Mr. Gibbon can't really imagine, no matter how much he thinks his year or two teaching in those schools lets him imagine, any more than someone can look inside a goldfish bowl and imagine what life is like for the fish trapped within. I can't blame Mr. Gibbon for not understanding that, because his is the mirror image of the same problem I've lived with for most of my life: we're both on the outside looking in. But I can blame him for the pretence that his brief experience there has given him the right to write these stories, which are going to end up being used by people even more ignorant than he is in pursuit of an agenda that is not friendly to people like that kid Mr. Gibbon just spent so much time lionizing.