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Lives on the Boundary: Education and Inequality

Posted on Nov 18, 2014

By Mike Rose

For almost 35 years, I’ve been writing about people who have had a hard time of it in school, and this writing has led me to examine our definition of intelligence and measures of academic achievement, the relation of social class and inequality to achievement, and the very purpose of education in a democratic society. These issues are intimate ones for me. I did well enough in school in the elementary grades, but, as is the case with so many kids, I became increasingly disengaged and lackluster as I moved toward and through high school. I survived because I could read well, though I wasn’t an avid reader except for a science fiction jag around the 6th grade. And I could write tolerably well, albeit with a smattering of fragments and run-on sentences. But I never got engaged with science or social studies, and math was an indecipherable puzzle to me—as was the diagramming of sentences, a big deal in my middle grades. My father was chronically ill, and my mother worked double shifts as a waitress to keep us afloat. The sadness and hardship in our house took its toll on school as well. Then in an amazing stroke of luck, as a high school senior I landed in an English class taught by a young man named John McFarland who loved books and had the fire in his belly to teach. I’d had good teachers before, to be sure, but this guy somehow caught my fancy, and I worked like crazy to do well in his class.

Though my parents wanted me to go to college and held it up as an ideal, they didn’t know what I needed to do to get there—my mother had a 6th grade education, my father much less. Because I never got into big trouble in school, my parents had no indication that I was slowly going nowhere. It was Mr. McFarland who helped me get into a local college as a probationary student (all those crummy grades before his class didn’t help) and after stumbling a few times during my freshman year, I found my way and would go on to teach and eventually do research on students who also were having difficulties in school. I wrote about my educational journey and about the many people I’ve taught who have, in some way, had a checkered history in the classroom. A good number of them were, like me, from working-class backgrounds: immigrant children, inner-city kids, veterans wanting to give school a second chance. The book is titled “Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared,” and this fall marked the 25th anniversary of its publication.

“Lives on the Boundary” is a somewhat unusual book, an amalgam of genres: a coming of age memoir, a teacher’s tale, and a collection of stories of students who are not doing well in school but, in a number of cases, do become academically successful. The stories have a purpose beyond their particular events and characters. I use the stories to question educational practices that don’t serve underprepared students well, and, more broadly, to explore the complex relationship between education and social class in our country. Nothing predicts achievement in American schools as strongly as parental income.

The book has had a very fortunate publication history, and sections of it have been widely anthologized, especially a chapter titled “I Just Wanna Be Average,” which portrays my high school woes and my fortuitous encounter with Mr. McFarland in senior English. In some ways, the success of the book is puzzling, for it is, after all, an account of one person’s educational journey, hardly the stuff of a best-seller. In today’s market, it most likely would not get published at all.

Yet, from its publication in 1989 to the present, I have been getting letters and, now, emails about it—or about “I Just Wanna Be Average”—from a wide range of readers: immigrant university students from North Africa and the Middle East, older folks who send reflections of their own hard times in school, people from well-to-do families who were placed in special education courses. A good deal of the correspondence comes from first-generation college students, students who, not without conflict, are trying to find their way in higher education. A number of these first-generation students are in remedial English classes, demonstrating a point I make in “Lives on the Boundary”: If a reading has meaning to students, they will rise to the occasion, regardless of the text’s difficulty.

My world and experience was, in many ways, quite different from an Egyptian Muslim woman in her early 20s or an African-American or Latino guy in a Chicago community college, but something apparently clicks, and for a long while I’ve been thinking about what the source of that click might be. Some things are obvious: the feelings of academic displacement and inadequacy, the struggle to make sense of school. But I’ve come to think there’s something else as well.

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