Lives on the Boundary: Education and Inequality
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.Based on what readers tell me, I think that “Lives on the Boundary” makes particular and palpable the feeling of struggling in school, or not getting it, of feeling out of place, but conveys that welter of feeling within an overall narrative of possibility. This possibility is actualized through one’s own perseverance and wit, but also through certain kinds of instruction, through meaningful relationships with adults, and though a particular set of beliefs about learning and teaching. The book conveys the sense that a difficult life in school is not unique to you, not odd or freakish, that there are reasons for such a life, that though difficult, the difficulty is not necessarily of your making. You are a legitimate member of this place, and your struggles and successes are important. Your efforts and your mind are taken seriously. There are, apparently, few accounts of education in popular or academic culture that convey this message to the students who most need to hear it.
These observations lead me to a related topic, and that is the way working-class people’s academic lives are portrayed in our media. Some portrayals are fraught with stereotypes and deficiency-laden assumptions about intelligence and motivation. But even some of the best portrayals exhibit a problem of a different kind.
Right before Christmas 2012, there was a powerful story in The New York Times by welfare reporter Jason DeParle, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” The story was built around three young women who excelled at a low-performing high school in Texas and then went off to college with big dreams. All three had had a series of difficulties, and four years after high school, only one was close to getting a degree. DeParle is a nuanced writer, and he accurately illustrated the widening economic inequality, institutional barriers and the women’s lack of institutional savvy.
But reading the story, I was struck by how many of these kinds of accounts we read about poor people and school, stories of insurmountable obstacles and dashed dreams. There is occasionally another kind of story, the polar opposite: the kid from the South Bronx or South Central Los Angeles who is studying something like robotics at Harvard. These stories are a variation of the rags to riches narrative, perennially popular in our country.
There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately, they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic and don’t end up in print. But they are hugely important. They are stories of students who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but who succeed. Not infrequently, these students have benefited from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of students who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.
If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We have to have stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements — the rise from mean streets to a robotics lab. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life. All of us need to read these stories, but especially the students who are living them.