This is Part 1 of a series about the stories we tell ourselves. Except, the phrase “we tell ourselves” understates their monstrosity. As if we can just choose to tell them. As if we can choose to not tell them, just like that. As if we can always see them for what they are – or ever. Part 1. Reflections on This American Life Episode 550: Three Miles.
The episode is about students from two different high schools in the Bronx. One, University Heights High School, is a public school located in one of the poorest congressional district in the country, a three story building, sharing some facilities with another school, no frills. Another, Fieldston, is one of the New York’s elite private schools, beautiful campus up on a hill, lots of frills. The schools were just three miles from each other, but very different in the socioeconomic background of the kids who went there, and in the resources. It all started about 10 years ago. Two teachers from these schools thought it would be a good idea to bring their students together, to connect them across the divide or something like that. At first the students wrote to each other, and then they went to visit and spend a day at a time at the other school. The reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, mentions, 7-8 minutes into the program, the idea that such programs could spark education reforms in the future through the privileged kids and provide “exposure” for the kids from the poorer school, so they can see what’s possible (simplified summary). Now, 10 years later, Chana went to investigate what happened to some of those kids. Toward the end, she questions her “American pathological optimism” and wonders whether what happened “happens all the time”. Stories of three kids, all from the poor school, moved me and inspired this post. I’ll be copying chunks of the episode transcript, when I gets to the monsters. You can hear the show here.
The very first time the kids from the public school went to visit the fancy private school, one girl, Melanie, had a singularly strong reaction. As soon as they got off the bus, Melanie got upset, and started screaming and crying: “This is unfair. I don’t want to be here. I’m leaving. I’m leaving right now. I’m going home.” The teachers managed to calm her down, and she went about the day with the rest of the students. The Fieldston student whom Melanie shadowed remembers Melanie as someone exceptionally bright, “the smartest person in the room”. Others do as well, her classmates, her teachers. They saw that she was “full of potential”. (For the purposes of this post I will assume that a measure of realized potential would be a college graduation; that seemed to have been the reporter’s assumption anyway.) A few people remembered that Melanie was accepted, with full scholarship, to Middlebury (a fancy private college, I gather). But then she graduated high school early and disappeared. Even her best friend couldn’t get a hold of her. Chana managed to track down Melanie, not without somewhat dramatic difficulties. Turns out, Melanie was still in the Bronx. She told about what led to the episode at Fieldston field trip, and what followed. The story began…
…with her first day of high school. She says she was just one of those kids who always loved school. She got good grades, and she’d been anticipating high school years before she got there. She had a clear image in her mind of how exciting it would be. She’d become a better writer, read, read, and read, and go to games, maybe join the dance team. And her first day of freshman year–
Melanie: Well I remember going in. And I was just like, what is this? Like, this has got to be a joke. <…> I was sitting in a classroom with seniors when I was a freshman. They didn’t even have a Math B course. <…> It’s like the second level to Math A– I would say prior to taking trigonometry or even statistics or something like that. They don’t offer any AP classes. You know, another thing that was really tormenting to me was that we didn’t have a library, and I love books. This is like, wow. We’re really in a poor part of the Bronx where we’re not being considered.
Now, about that first trip to Fieldston, the elite private school, when Melanie got so upset…
Melanie: I felt like I didn’t belong there. I just felt like– you know, I had no business in this building. I don’t remember them. They were just a sea of white, blonde, blue-green eyes. I couldn’t possibly bring myself into my body to actually engage with these kids. I didn’t want to engage with them. <about what Fieldston was like> This was what I envisioned as high school, what these kids are experiencing. This is what I wanted to see myself going through as a high school experience. <…> And it was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.
And this is what happened after that, Chana Joffe tells:
<…> all the teachers at <Melanie’s> school, knew their job was to fill in the gaps, make up for the fact that Melanie did not get to be a Fieldston kid and get her to college anyway. So a few months before graduation, the high school guidance counselor nominated Melanie for something called a Posse Scholarship. The Posse Foundation sends kids from 10 cities to private, elite colleges, full scholarship– schools like Cornell, Dartmouth, and Middlebury. Melanie had her eyes set on Middlebury <…>. And the thing that could get her there was the Posse Scholarship. <…> Posse sends groups of kids to college together, a posse. And they’re trying to choose kids who would otherwise be missed because their test scores aren’t great or because they go to bad schools. After the first round, half the students get called back. The next round, half the remaining students. Then that group gets cut again. <…> Melanie did not get in. She made it to the very last round, but in the end, she did not get it.
Melanie: <…> it’s a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that’s the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I’d say, why didn’t I get it? What was wrong with me? <…> You know, maybe you were just somebody exceptional because of the environment you were in, not necessarily because you are exceptional. People are like, oh, you’re so smart. You’re going to be this, you’re going to be that, you’re going to be somebody, you’re going to change the world. And it’s like, be realistic. <…> This is not happening for me. I don’t think anything is going to change that.
She graduated high school as soon as she could. Haven’t tried applying to any other schools, checked out on everyone who had believed in her. She works at a supermarket and is angry with herself for basically accepting her monstrous story. She takes some college classes, but she sounds like she trusts her strength even less now. To me, this shows how hard it can be to not believe in the story, even for a strong-minded, intelligent person, with so many people caring about her potential.
Chana Joffe then proceeds to tell stories of two more University Heights High School students who were part of the “exchange program” with Fieldston. Both of them made it to college. Jonathan, on a Posse scholarship. This is how he tells his story:
Jonathan: I didn’t have a drive to go to college. <…> It was never– what I thought of myself in the future was being a janitor, because I was waking up Saturday mornings mopping the house, cleaning ceiling fans, sweeping the floor, washing dishes, what have you. That was what I was experienced in. So college was like, I don’t know what I would do there. And I had the blessing to have a girlfriend that was into the books.
(His girlfriend is Raquel, of the next story.) At home, Jonathan was made feel low sometimes, but Raquel, the story goes, encouraged him by telling him how special and talented he was and that was his motivation. They both applied for Posse scholarship. Jonathan made it all the way through the interviews and got into Wheaton in Massachusetts (sounds fancy). Here is how he remembers getting the acceptance letter:
Jonathan: I think it was a Friday. I had the letter in the mail from Wheaton. My main thing was, who am I to be accepted into a college? <…> I was scared. <…> There was no real excitement. I was just like, all right. So now what? <…> At the core, I still didn’t feel like I was worthy. And when I got to college, it showed.
Jonathan was expelled after a couple of years or so. At first, he couldn’t afford the textbooks, he didn’t realize he could get them at the library. Then he was ashamed to go to the classes without homework, because he didn’t want to be that one black guy who doesn’t do the homework. He spoke with Raquel on the phone, and they figured out a lot together – she told him about the library, for instance. He must have been at a huge disadvantage, simply because the college dynamics were set to work for the privileged kids, nurtured in environments with more resources, so they’d naturally know what’s available, and he wouldn’t. He never asked anyone else for help, even though help was available: he had Posse training before he started college and a special mentor on campus. He probably could have pulled through, if not for his story that he wasn’t worthy.
Raquel’s first impressions of Fieldston were different from Melanie’s. Like Melanie, Raquel was into books and studies, but it doesn’t sound like she spent much time imagining a different life. She says that everyone felt bad seeing Fieldston, but for her it was motivational, as if she saw what freedom and not being scared would look like. Raquel didn’t make it past the first round of Posse interviews, but she went on to apply to lots of other schools and got into (fancy? private?) Bard College with a scholarship.
Being there wasn’t easy for her. For the first few semesters, she was getting Bs and Cs, after being an A+ student at high school. But when she realized she couldn’t afford the books, she went to the student center, and learned about the library and interlibrary loan system. Unlike many of her high school peers who started college, Raquel graduated. Still, here is her story:
<…> The entire project of Raquel’s life has been trying to convince herself she does belong. In this regard, she is a mental gladiator because this project did not end when she got into the prestigious college, it did not end when she graduated from that college, or when after college she landed an excellent job interview at a law firm to be a paralegal.
Raquel: Even though I got my foot in the door by having a good resume and maybe giving a good phone interview, when I get in there, I’m like, I don’t deserve this. The pay grade salary was above what I deserved, and this is more money than either of my parents have ever made probably. And those things go through my mind came when I’m walking into a place that I’m trying to apply for work. And so how could you convince somebody that you deserve it when you don’t even believe it yourself? It’s a reoccurring theme in my life. You know, I have to tell myself that I deserve this, because I work really hard for it.
Another person who figures in this episode is Pablo, a history teacher from the University Heights High School whom all the kids from this story remembered and loved. He grew up in the Bronx, in project, he graduated college, went to graduate school, traveled the world, so he knew what the kids went through, but also could be an example for them. Chana Joffe told Pablo how Raquel still felt like she didn’t belong, how she had to convince herself every day that she deserved to be where she was.
Pablo: I’m going to be very sincere with you. I am 36 years old, and I have two masters degrees. And I’m all but dissertation at this point. I’m working on my dissertation now. And I still feel that way. It is something that will never leave.
I don’t know about education reforms or “exposure”. The divides between us seem to cultivate monsters more treacherous than a simple fix here and there could fix, and the monsters hatch early and grow insidiously. But the stories are sometimes overcome by magical people, with extraordinary mettle, so perhaps, little by little, they can be.