Everthing you need to know is in the first doc, both texts are from pages 9-27
English 151 Reader: spring 2022
Professor Nora O’Connor
On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic
BY JESMYN WARD, VAnity Fair: September 2020
My Beloved died in January. He was a foot taller than me and had large, beautiful dark eyes and dexterous, kind hands. He fixed me breakfast and pots of loose-leaf tea every morning. He cried at both of our children’s births, silently, tears glazing his face. Before I drove our children to school in the pale dawn light, he would put both hands on the top of his head and dance in the driveway to make the kids laugh. He was funny, quick-witted, and could inspire the kind of laughter that cramped my whole torso. Last fall, he decided it would be best for him and our family if he went back to school. His primary job in our household was to shore us up, to take care of the children, to be a househusband. He traveled with me often on business trips, carried our children in the back of lecture halls, watchful and quietly proud as I spoke to audiences, as I met readers and shook hands and signed books. He indulged my penchant for Christmas movies, for meandering trips through museums, even though he would have much preferred to be in a stadium somewhere, watching football. One of my favorite places in the world was beside him, under his warm arm, the color of deep, dark river water.
In early January, we became ill with what we thought was flu. Five days into our illness, we went to a local urgent care center, where the doctor swabbed us and listened to our chests. The kids and I were diagnosed with flu; my Beloved’s test was inconclusive. At home, I doled out medicine to all of us: Tamiflu and Promethazine. My children and I immediately began to feel better, but my Beloved did not. He burned with fever. He slept and woke to complain that he thought the medicine wasn’t working, that he was in pain. And then he took more medicine and slept again.
Two days after our family doctor visit, I walked into my son’s room where my Beloved lay, and he panted: Can’t. Breathe. I brought him to the emergency room, where after an hour in the waiting room, he was sedated and put on a ventilator. His organs failed: first his kidneys, then his liver. He had a massive infection in his lungs, developed sepsis, and in the end, his great strong heart could no longer support a body that had turned on him. He coded eight times. I witnessed the doctors perform CPR and bring him back four. Within 15 hours of walking into the emergency room of that hospital, he was dead. The official reason: acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was 33 years old.
Without his hold to drape around my shoulders, to shore me up, I sank into hot, wordless grief.
Two months later, I squinted at a video of a gleeful Cardi B chanting in a singsong voice: Coronavirus, she cackled. Coronavirus. I stayed silent while people around me made jokes about COVID, rolled their eyes at the threat of pandemic. Weeks later, my kids’ school was closed. Universities were telling students to vacate the dorms while professors were scrambling to move classes online. There was no bleach, no toilet paper, no paper towels for purchase anywhere. I snagged the last of the disinfectant spray off a pharmacy shelf; the clerk ringing up my purchases asking me wistfully: Where did you find that at, and for one moment, I thought she would challenge me for it, tell me there was some policy in place to prevent my buying it.
Days became weeks, and the weather was strange for south Mississippi, for the swampy, water-ridden part of the state I call home: low humidity, cool temperatures, clear, sun-lanced skies. My children and I awoke at noon to complete homeschooling lessons. As the spring days lengthened into summer, my children ran wild, exploring the forest around my house, picking blackberries, riding bikes and four-wheelers in their underwear. They clung to me, rubbed their faces into my stomach, and cried hysterically: I miss Daddy, they said. Their hair grew tangled and dense. I didn’t eat, except when I did, and then it was tortillas, queso, and tequila.
The absence of my Beloved echoed in every room of our house. Him folding me and the children in his arms on our monstrous fake-suede sofa. Him shredding chicken for enchiladas in the kitchen. Him holding our daughter by the hands and pulling her upwards, higher and higher, so she floated at the top of her leap in a long bed-jumping marathon. Him shaving the walls of the children’s playroom with a sander after an internet recipe for homemade chalkboard paint went wrong: green dust everywhere.
During the pandemic, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house, terrified I would find myself standing in the doorway of an ICU room, watching the doctors press their whole weight on the chest of my mother, my sisters, my children, terrified of the lurch of their feet, the lurch that accompanies each press that restarts the heart, the jerk of their pale, tender soles, terrified of the frantic prayer without intention that keens through the mind, the prayer for life that one says in the doorway, the prayer I never want to say again, the prayer that dissolves midair when the hush-click-hush-click of the ventilator drowns it, terrified of the terrible commitment at the heart of me that reasons that if the person I love has to endure this, then the least I can do is stand there, the least I can do is witness, the least I can do is tell them over and over again, aloud, I love you. We love you. We ain’t going nowhere.
As the pandemic settled in and stretched, I set my alarms to wake early, and on mornings after nights where I actually slept, I woke and worked on my novel in progress. The novel is about a woman who is even more intimately acquainted with grief than I am, an enslaved woman whose mother is stolen from her and sold south to New Orleans, whose lover is stolen from her and sold south, who herself is sold south and descends into the hell of chattel slavery in the mid-1800s. My loss was a tender second skin. I shrugged against it as I wrote, haltingly, about this woman who speaks to spirits and fights her way across rivers.
My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor. My grief bloomed as depression, just as it had after my brother died at 19, and I saw little sense, little purpose in this work, this solitary vocation. Me, sightless, wandering the wild, head thrown back, mouth wide open, singing to a star-drenched sky. Like all the speaking, singing women of old, a maligned figure in the wilderness. Few listened in the night.
What resonated back to me: the emptiness between the stars. Dark matter. Cold.
Did you see it? My cousin asked me.
No. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, I said. Her words began to flicker, to fade in and out. Grief sometimes makes it hard for me to hear. Sound came in snatches.
His knee, she said.
On his neck, she said.
Couldn’t breathe, she said.
He cried for his mama, she said.
I read about Ahmaud, I said. I read about Breonna.
I don’t say, but I thought it: I know their beloveds’ wail. I know their beloveds’ wail. I know their beloveds wander their pandemic rooms, pass through their sudden ghosts. I know their loss burns their beloveds’ throats like acid. Their families will speak, I thought. Ask for justice. And no one will answer, I thought. I know this story: Trayvon, Tamir, Sandra.
Cuz, I said, I think you told me this story before.
I think I wrote it.
I swallowed sour.
In the days after my conversation with my cousin, I woke to people in the streets. I woke to Minneapolis burning. I woke to protests in America’s heartland, Black people blocking the highways. I woke to people doing the haka in New Zealand. I woke to hoodie-wearing teens, to John Boyega raising a fist in the air in London, even as he was afraid he would sink his career, but still, he raised his fist. I woke to droves of people, masses of people in Paris, sidewalk to sidewalk, moving like a river down the boulevards. I knew the Mississippi. I knew the plantations on its shores, the movement of enslaved and cotton up and down its eddies. The people marched, and I had never known that there could be rivers such as this, and as protesters chanted and stomped, as they grimaced and shouted and groaned, tears burned my eyes. They glazed my face.
I sat in my stuffy pandemic bedroom and thought I might never stop crying. The revelation that Black Americans were not alone in this, that others around the world believed that Black Lives Matter broke something in me, some immutable belief I’d carried with me my whole life. This belief beat like another heart—thump—in my chest from the moment I took my first breath as an underweight, two-pound infant after my mother, ravaged by stress, delivered me at 24 weeks. It beat from the moment the doctor told my Black mother her Black baby would die. Thump.
That belief was infused with fresh blood during the girlhood I’d spent in underfunded public school classrooms, cavities eating away at my teeth from government-issued block cheese, powdered milk, and corn flakes. Thump. Fresh blood in the moment I heard the story of how a group of white men, revenue agents, had shot and killed my great-great-grandfather, left him to bleed to death in the woods like an animal, from the second I learned no one was ever held accountable for his death. Thump. Fresh blood in the moment I found out the white drunk driver who killed my brother wouldn’t be charged for my brother’s death, only for leaving the scene of the car accident, the scene of the crime. Thump.
This is the belief that America fed fresh blood into for centuries, this belief that Black lives have the same value as a plow horse or a grizzled donkey. I knew this. My family knew this. My people knew this, and we fought it, but we were convinced we would fight this reality alone, fight until we could no more, until we were in the ground, bones moldering, headstones overgrown above in the world where our children and children’s children still fought, still yanked against the noose, the forearm, the starvation and redlining and rape and enslavement and murder and choked out: I can’t breathe. They would say: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
I cried in wonder each time I saw protest around the world because I recognized the people. I recognized the way they zip their hoodies, the way they raised their fists, the way they walked, the way they shouted. I recognized their action for what it was: witness. Even now, each day, they witness.
They witness injustice.
They witness this America, this country that gaslit us for 400 fucking years.
Witness that my state, Mississippi, waited until 2013 to ratify the 13th Amendment.
Witness that Mississippi didn’t remove the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag until 2020.
Witness Black people, Indigenous people, so many poor brown people, lying on beds in frigid hospitals, gasping our last breaths with COVID-riddled lungs, rendered flat by undiagnosed underlying conditions, triggered by years of food deserts, stress, and poverty, lives spent snatching sweets so we could eat one delicious morsel, savor some sugar on the tongue, oh Lord, because the flavor of our lives is so often bitter.
They witness our fight too, the quick jerk of our feet, see our hearts lurch to beat again in our art and music and work and joy. How revelatory that others witness our battles and stand up. They go out in the middle of a pandemic, and they march.
I sob, and the rivers of people run in the streets.
When my Beloved died, a doctor told me: The last sense to go is hearing. When someone is dying, they lose sight and smell and taste and touch. They even forget who they are. But in the end, they hear you.
I hear you.
I hear you.
I love you.
We love you.
We ain’t going nowhere.
I hear you say:
What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?Top of Form
Bottom of Form
By Paul Tough, NY Times Magazine
Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.
Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.
For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”
The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.
Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished: “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,”a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”
It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.
In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.
Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?
Levin had believed in the importance of character since KIPP’s inception. But on the day of his trip to see Seligman, he was feeling a new urgency about the subject. Six years earlier, in 1999, the first group of students to enter KIPP Academy middle school, which Levin founded and ran in the South Bronx, triumphed on the eighth-grade citywide achievement test, graduating with the highest scores in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City. Every morning of middle school they passed a giant sign in the stairwell reminding them of their mission: “Climb the Mountain to College.” And as they left KIPP for high school, they seemed poised to do just that: not only did they have outstanding academic results, but most of them also won admission to highly selective private and Catholic schools, often with full scholarships.
But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn’t go as planned. “We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.
As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.
What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students “middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”
Still, neither Levin nor Dominic Randolph had a clear vision of how to turn an 800-page psychology text into a practical program. After that first meeting in Seligman’s office, Levin and Randolph kept in touch, calling and e-mailing, swapping articles and Web links, and they soon discovered that they shared a lot of ideas and interests, despite the very different school environments in which they worked. They decided to join forces, to try to tackle the mysteries of character together, and they turned for help to Angela Duckworth, who at the time was a graduate student in Seligman’s department (she is now an assistant professor). Duckworth came to Penn in 2002 at the age of 32, after working for a decade as a teacher and a charter-school consultant. When she applied to the Ph.D. program at Penn, she wrote in her application essay that her experiences in schools had given her “a distinctly different view of school reform” than the one she started out with in her 20s. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
Duckworth’s early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.”
She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.
Levin and Randolph asked Duckworth to use the new methods and tools she was developing to help them investigate the question of character at KIPP and Riverdale, and she and a handful of Penn graduate students began making regular treks from Philadelphia to New York. The first question Duckworth addressed, again, was the relative importance of I.Q. and self-control. She and her team of researchers gave middle-school students at Riverdale and KIPP a variety of psychological and I.Q. tests. They found that at both schools, I.Q. was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades.
Duckworth’s research convinced Levin and Randolph that they should try to foster self-control and grit in their students. Yet those didn’t seem like the only character strengths that mattered. The full list of 24, on the other hand, felt too unwieldy. So they asked Peterson if he could narrow the list down to a more manageable handful, and he identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments (Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favor of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.
Over the course of the next year and a half, Duckworth worked with Levin and Randolph to turn the list of seven strengths into a two-page evaluation, a questionnaire that could be completed by teachers or parents, or by students themselves. For each strength, teachers suggested a variety of “indicators,” much like the questions Duckworth asked people to respond to on her grit questionnaire, and she road-tested several dozen of them at Riverdale and KIPP. She eventually settled on the 24 most statistically reliable ones, from “This student is eager to explore new things” (an indicator of curiosity) to “This student believes that effort will improve his or her future” (optimism).
For Levin, the next step was clear. Wouldn’t it be cool, he mused, if each student graduated from school with not only a G.P.A. but also a C.P.A., for character-point average? If you were a college-admissions director or a corporate human-resources manager selecting entry-level employees, wouldn’t you like to know which ones scored highest in grit or optimism or zest? And if you were a parent of a KIPP student, wouldn’t you want to know how your son or daughter stacked up next to the rest of the class in character as well as in reading ability? As soon as he got the final list of indicators from Duckworth and Peterson, Levin started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year: the first-ever character report card.
Back at Riverdale, though, the idea of a character report card made Randolph nervous. “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” he explained to me one afternoon. “With my school’s specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I don’t want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed. I would hate it if that’s where we ended up.”
Still, he did think that the inventory Duckworth and Peterson developed could be a useful tool in communicating with students about character. And so he has been taking what one Riverdale teacher described as a “viral approach” to spreading the idea of this new method of assessing character throughout the Riverdale community. He talks about character at parent nights, asks pointed questions in staff meetings, connects like-minded members of his faculty and instructs them to come up with new programs. Last winter, Riverdale students in the fifth and sixth grades took the 24-indicator survey, and their teachers rated them as well. The results were discussed by teachers and administrators, but they weren’t shared with students or parents, and they certainly weren’t labeled a “report card.”
As I spent time at Riverdale last year, it became apparent to me that the debate over character at the school wasn’t just about how best to evaluate and improve students’ character. It went deeper, to the question of what “character” really meant. When Randolph arrived at Riverdale, the school already had in place a character-education program, of a sort. Called CARE, for Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics, the program was adopted in 1989 in the lower school, which at Riverdale means prekindergarten through fifth grade. It is a blueprint for niceness, mandating that students “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be aware of other people’s feelings and find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.” Posters in the hallway remind students of the virtues related to CARE (“Practice Good Manners . . . Avoid Gossiping . . . Help Others”). In the lower school, many teachers describe it as a proud and essential part of what makes Riverdale the school that it is.
When I asked Randolph last winter about CARE, he was diplomatic. “I see the character strengths as CARE 2.0,” he explained. “I’d basically like to take all of this new character language and say that we’re in the next generation of CARE.”
In fact, though, the character-strength approach of Seligman and Peterson isn’t an expansion of programs like CARE; if anything, it is a repudiation of them. In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance. The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.
The two teachers Randolph has chosen to oversee the school’s character initiative are K.C. Cohen, the guidance counselor for the middle and upper schools, and Karen Fierst, a learning specialist in the lower school. Cohen is friendly and thoughtful, in her mid-30s, a graduate of Fieldston, the private school just down the road from Riverdale. She is intensely interested in character development, and like Randolph, she is worried about the character of Riverdale students. But she is not yet entirely convinced by the seven character strengths that Riverdale has ostensibly chosen. “When I think of good character, I think: Are you fair? Are you honest in dealings with other people? Are you a cheater?” she told me. “I don’t think so much about: Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker? I think, Are you a good person?”
Cohen’s vision of character is much closer to “moral character” than “performance character,” and so far, that vision remains the dominant one at Riverdale. When I spent a day at the school in March, sitting in on a variety of classes and meetings, messages about behavior and values permeated the day, but those messages stayed almost entirely in the moral dimension. It was a hectic day at the middle school — it was pajama day, plus there was a morning assembly, and then on top of that, the kids in French class who were going on the two-week trip to Bordeaux for spring break had to leave early in order to make their overnight flight to Paris. The topic for the assembly was heroes, and a half-dozen students stood up in front of their classmates — about 350 kids, in all — and each made a brief presentation about a particular hero he or she had chosen: Ruby Nell Bridges, the African-American girl who was part of the first group to integrate the schools in New Orleans in 1960; Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the recent revolt in that country; the actor and activist Paul Robeson.
In the assembly, in classes and in conversations with different students, I heard a lot of talk about values and ethics, and the values that were emphasized tended to be social values: inclusion, tolerance, diversity. (I heard a lot more about black history at Riverdale than I did at the KIPP schools I visited.) One eighth-grade girl I asked about character said that for her and her friends, the biggest issue was inclusion — who was invited to whose bat mitzvah; who was being shunned on Facebook. Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people — or at least not hurting their feelings.
Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence — this will help you collaborate more effectively — then it seems a bit more tangible.”
When I spoke to Karen Fierst, the teacher who was overseeing the character project for the Riverdale lower school, she said she was worried that it would be a challenge to convince the students and their parents that there was anything in the 24 character strengths that might actually benefit them. For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. “It will just happen,” Fierst explained. “It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea. For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.”
At KIPP Infinity middle school, which occupies one floor of a school on West 133rd Street, across from the M.T.A.’s giant Manhattanville bus depot, report-card night last winter fell on a cold Thursday at the beginning of February. Report-card night is always a big deal at KIPP schools — parents are strongly urged to attend, and at Infinity, almost all of them do — but this particular evening carried an extra level of anxiety for both the administrators and the parents, because students were receiving their very first character report cards, and no one knew quite what to expect.
Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character. I sat for a while with Mike Witter, a 31-year-old eighth-grade English teacher, as he talked through the character report card with Faith Flemister and her son Juaquin Bennett, a tall, hefty eighth grader in a gray hooded sweatshirt.
“For the past few years we’ve been working on a project to create a clearer picture for parents about the character of your child,” Witter explained to Flemister. “The categories that we ended up putting together represent qualities that have been studied and determined to be indicators of success. They mean you’re more likely to go to college. More likely to find a good job. Even surprising things, like they mean you’re more likely to get married, or more likely to have a family. So we think these are really important.”
Flemister nodded, and Witter began to work his way down the scores on Juaquin’s character report card, starting with the good news: every teacher had scored him as a perfect 5 on “Is polite to adults and peers,” and he did almost as well on “Keeps temper in check.” They were both indicators for interpersonal self-control.
“I can tell this is a real strength for you,” Witter said, turning to Juaquin. “This kind of self-control is something you’ve developed incredibly well. So that makes me think we need to start looking at: What’s something we can target? And the first thing that jumps out at me is this.” Witter pulled out a green felt-tip marker and circled one indicator on Juaquin’s report card. “ ‘Pays attention and resists distraction,’ ” Witter read aloud, an indicator for academic self-control. “That’s a little lower than some of the other numbers. Why do you think that is?”
“I talk too much in class,” Juaquin said, a little sheepishly, looking down at his black sneakers. “I sometimes stare off into space and don’t pay attention.”
The three of them talked over a few strategies to help Juaquin focus more in class, and by the end of the 15-minute conversation, Flemister seemed convinced by the new approach. “The strong points are not a surprise,” she said to Witter as he got up to talk to another family. “That’s just the type of person Juaquin is. But it’s good how you pinpoint what he can do to make things easier on himself. Then maybe his grades will pick up.”
A month later, I returned to KIPP to visit Witter’s classroom. By that point in the school year, character language had permeated Infinity. Kids wore T-shirts with the slogan “Infinite Character” and Seligman’s 24 character strengths listed on the back. The walls were covered with signs that read “Got self-control?” and “I actively participate!” (one indicator for zest). There was a bulletin board in the hallway topped with the words “Character Counts,” where students filled out and posted “Spotted!” cards when they saw a fellow student performing actions that demonstrate character. (Jasmine R. cited William N. for zest: “William was in math class and he raised his hand for every problem.”)
I came to Witter’s class to observe something that Levin was calling “dual-purpose instruction,” the practice of deliberately working explicit talk about character strengths into every lesson. Levin wanted math teachers to use the strengths in word problems; he explained that history teachers could use them to orient a class discussion about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. And when I arrived in Witter’s class at 7:45 on a Thursday morning in March, he was leading a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” Above Witter’s head, at the front of the class, the seven character strengths were stenciled in four-inch-high letters, white on blue, from optimism to social intelligence. He asked his students to rank Okonkwo, the protagonist, on his various character strengths. There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end, most students agreed that Okonkwo rated highest on grit and lowest on self-control. Then a student named Yantzee raised his hand. “Can’t a trait backfire at you?” he asked.
“Sure, a trait can backfire,” Witter said. “Too much grit, like Okonkwo, you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people. If you’re so gritty that you don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about how hard things are, because nothing’s hard for you, because you’re Mr. Grit, then you’re going to have a hard time being kind. Even love — being too loving might make you the kind of person who can get played.” There was a ripple of knowing laughter from the students. “So, yes, character is something you have to be careful about. Character strengths can become character weaknesses.”
Though the seven character strengths aren’t included in every lesson at KIPP, they do make it into most conversations about discipline. One day last winter, I was speaking with Sayuri Stabrowski, a 30-year-old seventh-and-eighth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity, and she mentioned that she caught a girl chewing gum in her class earlier that day. “She denied it,” Stabrowski told me. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m chewing my tongue.’ ” Stabrowski rolled her eyes as she told me the story. “I said, ‘O.K. fine.’ Then later in the class, I saw her chewing again, and I said: ‘You’re chewing gum! I see you.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not, see?’ and she moved the gum over in her mouth in this really obvious way, and we all saw what she was doing. Now, a couple of years ago, I probably would have blown my top and screamed. But this time, I was able to say: ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.”
Stabrowski was worried that the girl, who often struggled with her behavior, might have a mini-meltdown — a “baby attack,” in KIPP jargon — in the middle of the class, but in fact, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of the class and then afterward came up to her teacher with tears in her eyes. “We had a long conversation,” Stabrowski told me. “She said: ‘I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!’ And I said: ‘Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.’ ”
To Tom Brunzell, who as the dean of students at KIPP Infinity oversaw the implementation of the character report card, what is going on in character conversations like that one isn’t academic instruction at all, or even discipline; it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk” — putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding yourself of the larger context. “The kids who succeed at KIPP are the ones who can C.B.T. themselves in the moment,” Brunzell told me. Part of the point of the character initiative, as he saw it, was to give their students the tools to do that. “All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day,” he said. “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’ ”
For Randolph, the experience that Brunzell was describing — the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools like Riverdale. And perhaps surprisingly, it may turn out to be an area where the students at KIPP have a real advantage over Riverdale kids. On the professional development day in February when I visited Riverdale, Randolph had arranged a screening for his entire faculty of “Race to Nowhere,” a movie about the stresses facing mostly privileged American high-school students that has become an underground hit in many wealthy suburbs, where one-time showings at schools, churches and community centers bring out hundreds of concerned parents. The movie paints a grim portrait of contemporary adolescence, rising in an emotional crescendo to the story of an overachieving teenage girl who committed suicide, apparently because of the ever-increasing pressure to succeed that she felt both at school and at home. At Riverdale, the film seemed to have a powerful effect on many of the staff; one teacher who came up to Randolph afterward had tears in her eyes.
“Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children.
Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”
Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”
This is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.
And it’s that problem that Randolph is up against as he tries to push forward this new kind of conversation about character at Riverdale. When you work at a public school, whether it’s a charter or a traditional public school, you’re paid by the state, responsible, on some level, to your fellow citizens for the job you do preparing your students to join the adult world. When you work at a private school like Riverdale, though, even one with a long waiting list, you are always conscious that you’re working for the parents who pay the tuition fees. Which makes a campaign like the one that Randolph is trying to embark on all the more complicated. If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.
When I asked Randolph to explain just what he thought Riverdale students were missing out on, he told me the story of his own scholastic career. He did well in boarding school and was admitted to Harvard, but when he got to college, he felt lost, out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s. After two years at Harvard, Randolph left for a year to work in a low-paying manual job, as a carpenter’s helper, trying to find himself. After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has were not built in his years at Harvard or at the boarding schools he attended; they came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net. And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.
“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”
Most Riverdale students can see before them a clear path to a certain type of success. They’ll go to college, they’ll graduate, they’ll get well-paying jobs — and if they fall along the way, their families will almost certainly catch them, often well into their 20s or even 30s, if necessary. But despite their many advantages, Randolph isn’t yet convinced that the education they currently receive at Riverdale, or the support they receive at home, will provide them with the skills to negotiate the path toward the deeper success that Seligman and Peterson hold up as the ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life. Randolph wants his students to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.
How public education cripples our kids, and why Harper’s Magazine, 2003
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainly not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable student. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of this trap.
The empire struck back, of course; childish adults regularly conflate opposition with disloyalty. I once returned from a medical leave to discover that all evidence of my having been granted the leave had been purposely destroyed, that my job had been terminated, and that I no longer possessed even a teaching license. After nine months of tormented effort I was able to retrieve the license when a school secretary testified to witnessing the plot unfold. In the meantime my family suffered more than I care to remember. By the time I finally retired in 1991, I had more than enough reason to think of our schools – with their long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students and teachers – as virtual factories of childishness. Yet I honestly could not see why they had to be that way. My own experience had revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: if we wanted to we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight – simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
But we don’t do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted in thinking about the “problem” of schooling as an engineer might, the more I missed the point: What if there is no “problem” with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would “leave no child behind”? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them ever really grows up?
Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.
We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think of “success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, “schooling,” but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:
These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not
to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim.. . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else.
Because of Mencken’s reputation as a satirist, we might be tempted to dismiss this passage as a bit of hyperbolic sarcasm. His article, however, goes on to trace the template for our own educational system back to the now vanished, though never to be forgotten, military state of Prussia. And although he was certainly aware of the irony that we had recently been at war with Germany, the heir to Prussian thought and culture, Mencken was being perfectly serious here. Our educational system really is Prussian in origin, and that really is cause for concern.
The odd fact of a Prussian provenance for our schools pops up again and again once you know to look for it. William James alluded to it many times at the turn of the century. Orestes Brownson, the hero of Christopher Lasch’s 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven, was publicly denouncing the Prussianization of American schools back in the 1840s. Horace Mann’s “Seventh Annual Report” to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1843 is essentially a paean to the land of Frederick the Great and a call for its schooling to be brought here. That Prussian culture loomed large in America is hardly surprising, given our early association with that utopian state. A Prussian served as Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, and so many German- speaking people had settled here by 1795 that Congress considered publishing a German-language edition of the federal laws. But what shocks is that we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens – all in order to render the populace “manageable.”
It was from James Bryant Conant – president of Harvard for twenty years, WWI poison-gas specialist, WWII executive on the atomic-bomb project, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII, and truly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century – that I first got wind of the real purposes of American schooling. Without Conant, we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at a time, like the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant’s 1959 book-length essay, The Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a “revolution” engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis’s 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, in which “one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary.”
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education in this country. And lest you take Inglis for an isolated crank with a rather too cynical take on the educational enterprise, you should know that he was hardly alone in championing these ideas. Conant himself, building on the ideas of Horace Mann and others, campaigned tirelessly for an American school system designed along the same lines. Men like George Peabody, who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout the South, surely understood that the Prussian system was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among them Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
There you have it. Now you know. We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform. Class may frame the proposition, as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be class-based at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that “efficiency” is the paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they can stem from simple greed.
There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to favor the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modem era – marketing.
Now, you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up. In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley – who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard – had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration: “Our schools are . . . factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned.. . . And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”
It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-upmaterial, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
** 09/2003 Harper’s Magazine.
* John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History of American Education. He was a participant in the Harper’s Magazine forum “School on a Hill,” which appeared in the September 2001 issue. You can find his web site here.
Teens in Covid Isolation: ‘I Felt Like I Was Suffocating’
By Emma Goldberg, the NY Times, October 2021
Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety and depression among adolescents, and heightened concerns about their mental health.
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Aya Raji’s days were jam-packed. She woke up at 6:30 a.m. and took the subway to school. At night, she practiced kick-flips with her skateboarding club and hosted “Twilight” movie nights for friends.
Once her school in Brooklyn turned to remote learning, starting last spring and continuing this fall, the days grew long and lonely. Nothing could distract her from the bleak news, as she stared at her laptop for hours during virtual class. She couldn’t sleep, up until 4 a.m., her mind racing with anxiety.
“I felt like I was trapped in my own little house and everyone was far away,” Aya, 14, said. “When you’re with friends, you’re completely distracted and you don’t think about the bad stuff going on. During the beginning of quarantine, I was so alone. All the sad things I used to brush off, I realized I couldn’t brush them off anymore.”
Students like Aya felt some relief earlier this fall, when their schools opened with a blend of remote and in-person learning, although the rigid rules and social distancing required during the pandemic still made it rough to connect. And now, with coronavirus caseloads at record levels across the country, many schools are returning to remote classes, at least temporarily through part of the winter.
The social isolation of the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many Americans. But the impact has been especially severe on teenagers, who rely on their friends to navigate the maze and pressures of high school life.
Research shows that adolescents depend on their friendships to maintain a sense of self-worth and to manage anxiety and depression. A recent study of 3,300 high school students found that nearly one-third reported feeling unhappy or depressed in recent months. And while it might seem counterintuitive for a generation used to bonding with friends via texts, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, more than a quarter of those students said they did not feel connected to teachers, classmates or their school community.
“A lot of adults assume teens have it easy,” Aya said. “But it’s hitting us the hardest.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has heard from many young adults experiencing anxiety and depression, which the organization attributes partly to social isolation. The group has cautioned parents and teachers to look for warning signs, including severe risk-taking behavior, significant weight loss, excessive use of drugs or alcohol and drastic changes in mood.
The proportion of children’s emergency room visits related to mental health has increased significantly during the pandemic, highlighting concerns about the psychological effects that lockdowns and social distancing have had on youth, according to a new analysis released on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Emma Children’s Hospital released a study on the mental health of adolescents in the Netherlands, which found that young people reported a significant increase in severe anxiety and sleeping problems during the country’s lockdown period. Children were more likely to report mental health problems if they had a parent who lost work or personally knew someone infected with coronavirus.
Granted, for some students, the beginning of quarantine brought a measure of relief. They no longer had cliques to impress or bullies to ward off. But that “honeymoon phase” passed quickly, according to Dr. Cora Breuner, a pediatrician. As stressful as adolescent relationships can be, they are also essential for the formation of personal identity.
“Individuation and development of independence is thwarted or slowed way down when they’re sitting at home all day with parents in the next room,” said Dr. Breuner, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
An important part of teenage development is the realization that peers, not just parents, can be a source of emotional support. The twin crises of the pandemic and the economic downturn have imposed new personal hardships on students. Some are taking care of family members who have fallen sick with Covid-19; others have been thrust into dealing with their parents’ unemployment or financial strain. Being holed up at home makes it tough to lean on friends.
When school turned remote last spring, Catherine Khella, a health teacher in Brooklyn, asked her students to keep journals, which she read for signs of mental distress. Many were struggling but hesitant to reach out. One student wrote about feeling unmotivated to do schoolwork, getting frustrated with family members and experiencing emotions “like no other I have ever felt.” Another student, Adolfo Jeronimo, wrote about living in a home with 15 people and becoming nocturnal to find some peace and quiet.
“I’d sleep all day because my sister was up crying and there was barely any food,” said Adolfo, 15, a classmate of Aya’s whose father was hospitalized with Covid-19 and was unable to work for four months. “Usually my friends would’ve helped me, but I didn’t have them, so it was harder to deal with. I felt like I was suffocating.”
The activities that young people previously relied on for stability and joy have been disrupted. Extracurricular clubs and birthday parties are mostly canceled. So are rites of passage like prom and homecoming. Students spend vast portions of their weeks staring at Zoom screens. Without school events and traditions to anticipate, many say they are struggling to get out of bed in the morning.
“Everything is stagnant now,” said Ayden Hufford, 15, a high school sophomore in Rye, a suburban area north of New York City, whose school now has blended in-person and remote learning. “There’s nothing to look forward to. On virtual days I sit on the computer for three hours, eat lunch, walk around a bit, sit for three hours, then end my day. It’s all just a cycle.”
Ayden identifies as an avid “theater kid,” and was looking forward to his school play and science Olympiad. With those out of the question now, he turned to a recent online meeting for student leadership council for inspiration. But that proved demoralizing because he had trouble staying engaged with the Zoom conversation.
“I laid down with my camera off and waited for it to be over,” he said. “It’s sad and somewhat lonely.” And he added that forming new connections with classmates is nearly impossible in a virtual setting: “Unless you try extremely hard, there’s no chance to make new friends this year.”
The isolation has been particularly challenging for young adults who struggle with chronic anxiety or depression, and who would typically rely on their social circles for comfort. Nicole DiMaio, who recently turned 19, developed techniques to manage her anxiety over the years. She talks to friends, hugs her mom, exercises and reads books — so many that her family calls her Princess Belle, like the “Beauty and the Beast” protagonist. But nothing seemed to work during the early months of the pandemic.
Nicole’s mother fell sick with Covid in late March after caring for a patient with coronavirus at Coney Island Hospital, where she works as a nurse. Nicole became her mother’s caretaker, and her family’s. She woke up daily at 5 a.m. to clean the house, watch over her younger sister and cook protein-rich foods, which she deposited outside her mother’s bedroom door, while squeezing in schoolwork. Her mother did not want to be ventilated if her lungs failed, so each time she went to the emergency room seeking treatment, Nicole feared she might never come back.
Normally, Nicole would turn to her friends. But she couldn’t see them in person, so instead she had to vent to them on Instagram and Snapchat. “Being 18 and taking it all in is a lot,” she said.
“My chest would get really heavy and everything inside my body would be jumping,” she said. “The tears would start coming. I would hyperventilate and pace the house until my sister brought me back to reality and said, ‘Hey you’re here, relax.’ She’s stronger than I am.”
Researchers have begun investigating how today’s high school students will bear the long-term consequences of the pandemic, in terms of their education and economic futures. Some psychologists speculate that socially, too, this young adult cohort could be stunted by the amount of time they have been forced to spend alone. Children typically learn the basics of making friends at a young age, but high school is a crucial period for developing nuanced communication skills.
“Learning how to navigate the inner webs of relationships happens in high school,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “When you retreat behind a computer, you lose some of those social skills.”
High school counselors and teenagers are exploring a few creative coping strategies. Nandini Ahuja, a social worker at Leadership and Public Service High School in New York, asked her students to write letters to someone or something they are grieving, whether a family member or a concept like senior prom. Ayden said his mental health improved when he got a pet hamster, which he named Astrid.
Teenagers said the opportunity to confide in their teachers and school counselors has been essential, particularly because their parents might be more likely to dismiss mental health symptoms as standard adolescent mood swings. Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families, recommended that schools put in place lessons to teach students how to share their emotions.
And whenever possible, teenagers need to see their friends. “Kids need time to be kids again without thinking about all the worries going on in the world,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
As the months wear on, Aya is rebuilding healthy habits — spending time with friends outside, getting to sleep at a reasonable hour so she can feel energized for school. She has started meditating and listening to indie rock songs to calm her nerves. But she still wrestles with the amount of time she spends alone in her thoughts.
“Being in another person’s presence makes you feel OK,” she said. “When I can’t see my friends, I feel like the world is caving in.”
How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off
Adam Grant JAN. 30, 2016, NY Times
THEY learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8. Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery. But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, called the Super Bowl of science by one American president. From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes. For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.
Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.
What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.
In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”
Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.
So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.
Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.
When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.
Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.
Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers. When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.
SINCE Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice, debate has raged about how the hours necessary to become an expert vary by field and person. In arguing about that, we’ve overlooked two questions that matter just as much.
First, can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.
Second, what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion — discovered through natural curiosity or nurtured through early enjoyable experiences with an activity or many activities.
Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
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No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight. “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.
Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.
By Kate Manne
I happen to be both a millennial and, for the past two years, an assistant professor of philosophy. I’ve been using trigger warnings in my teaching — in cases when they seem appropriate — since I began to lecture.
Trigger warnings are nothing new. The practice originated in Internet communities, primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma, like military combat, child abuse, incest and sexual violence. People could then choose whether or not to engage with this material.
But trigger warnings have been adapted to serve a subtly different purpose within universities. Increasingly, professors like me simply give students notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments. The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions. The evidence suggests that at least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence. So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.
Criticisms of trigger warnings are often based on the idea that college is a time for intellectual growth and emotional development. In order for this to happen, students must be challenged. And they need to learn to engage rationally with ideas, arguments and views they find difficult, upsetting or even repulsive. On this count, I agree with the critics, and it is in fact the main reason that I do issue warnings.
In philosophy, we often draw a distinction between responses based on reasons and those that are merely caused. In the first case, our response has a basis in rational reflection. We can cite reasons that we think justify our opinion. But in the latter case, we find ourselves involuntarily caused — or triggered — to have a certain reaction.
Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.
For someone who has experienced major trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind that are rationally eclipsing in much the same manner. A common symptom of PTSD is panic attacks. Those undergoing these attacks may be flooded with anxiety to the point of struggling to draw breath, and feeling disoriented, dizzy and nauseated. Under conditions such as these, it’s impossible to think straight.
The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.
As teachers, we can’t foresee every instance of potentially triggering material; some triggers are unpredictable. But others are easy enough to anticipate, specifically, depictions or discussions of the very kinds of experiences that often result in post-traumatic stress and even, for some, a clinical disorder. With appropriate warnings in place, vulnerable students may be able to employ effective anxiety management techniques, by meditating or taking prescribed medication.
To me, there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings. As a professor, it merely requires my including one extra line in a routine email to the class, such as: “A quick heads-up. The reading for this week contains a graphic depiction of sexual assault.” These warnings are not unlike the advisory notices given before films and TV shows; those who want to ignore them can do so without a second thought. The cost to students who don’t need trigger warnings is, I think, equally minimal. It may even help sensitize them to the fact that some of their classmates will find the material hard going. The idea, suggested by Professor Haidt and others, that this considerate and reasonable practice feeds into a “culture of victimhood” seems alarmist, if not completely implausible.
Mr. Lukianoff and Professor Haidt also argue in their article that we shouldn’t give trigger warnings, based on the efficacy of exposure therapy — where you are gradually exposed to the object of a phobia, under the guidance of a trained psychotherapist. But the analogy works poorly. Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.
Of course, all this still leaves the questions of how and when to give trigger warnings, and where to draw the line to avoid their overuse. There is no formula for this, just as there is no formula for designing classes, for successful teaching and meaningful communication with students. As teachers we use our judgment and experience to guide our words and actions in the entire act of teaching. We should be trusted, without legislation from college administrators, to decide, ideally in dialogue with our students — whose voices are eerily silent in these discussions in the media — when (and when not) to use these warnings.
Common sense should tell us that material that is merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities wouldn’t merit a warning. True, politics and religion can make people irrationally angry. But unlike a state of panic, anger is a state we are able to rein in rationally — or at least we should be able to.
There are several difficult issues that still need to be hashed out. For example, although I see a willingness to use trigger warnings as part of pedagogical best practices, I don’t believe their use should be mandatory. There is already too much threat to academic freedom at the moment because of top-down interference from overreaching administrators. But when it comes to the bottom-up pressure from students on professors to adopt practices like giving trigger warnings, I am sympathetic. It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.
Kate Manne is an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University.
byKate Delany November 10, 2021, Dismantle Mag
For better or worse, the phrase “trigger warning” has become a politicized one. Trigger warnings are mocked by the right, defended by the left. For both ends of the political spectrum, trigger warnings are bound up in differing views of history and identity. But having such a politicized understanding of what it means to be triggered can be limiting. Rather than simply deriding or enforcing trigger warnings, we should also be considering the power of a story or a work of art. To learn more about the world and about ourselves, we need to stay open — stay vulnerable even. Sometimes truth catches us by surprise. In certain cases, we may be better off with the lessons we weren’t quite looking to learn.
If you’ve spent any time in a creative writing workshop, you’re likely to have come across the often-assigned tome “The Triggering Town” by Richard Hugo. In it, Hugo makes a vigorous case for the essential place held by triggers in the writer’s life. Hugo’s goal was to move creatives away from clinging on to the particulars of their own lived experiences and to get more deeply in touch with the emotions that those lived experiences churn up. According to Hugo, we are defined by our triggers, by those deep-seated emotions of intense life experiences. The artist should get to know those triggers, hold them close, and revisit them often in order to make powerful art.
This was my first encounter with the idea of triggers: as a writer. On the nature of the triggers themselves, Hugo is fairly neutral. He just wants writers to know our triggers well and see our indebtedness to them. Since we are going to be lugging our triggers around with us for a lifetime, we might as well make the most of them, make them into art.
The next time I had occasion to think about triggers was as an educator. I was teaching Gothic Lit to first-year college students. After reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we were going to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both to discuss themes in the book and to talk about issues of adaptation. I hadn’t anticipated any blowback to multiple class periods spent watching a movie and was caught off guard when a student told me she felt triggered by my requirement that she watch this film. She objected on the grounds of sexual content and nudity in the movie.
I had a hard time finding sympathy. Yes, there are some bare-chested conjoined female vampires who writhe around in what could maybe be considered simulated fellatio; however, there’s isn’t any actual onscreen sex. The nudity is not of humans but of fantastical creatures (because that’s all Bram Stoker was comfortable with!). Surely, I thought, if straight-laced Victorians could stomach sexuality in Dracula, then so could this undergrad. But my commitment to making her analyze the film with her peers dissolved in the face of her threat to go to the department chair. I was only a TA. It wasn’t worth the hassle. I gave her an alternate assignment and moved on.
Because my first reflections on triggers were as a writer, rather than an educator or consumer, I was a little late to the party when it came to seeing their highly politicized nature. It didn’t take long to catch up, though. Conservative pundits and politicians have made it clear that they are opposed to trigger warnings and offering them to students or consumers is just coddling and censorship. Donald Trump, Jr., has even written a book ostensibly exploring the subject of triggers. According to The Right, trigger warnings dumb down intellectual discussion and muzzle real opinion. Political correctness, trigger warnings, cancel culture: these are all buzzwords in the right-wing arsenal of truly loathsome public trends. The expression “trigger the libs” even exists as a far-Right battle cry to destroy their opponents by pelting them with shocking and offensive views on sensitive subjects.
Given my own left-of-center political affiliation, I decided I was pro trigger warnings though I never actually prefaced class assignments or lectures with a CW or TW. I wondered once if I should, when a student hung back after class to tell me that the story we had just read had been intense. “It could have used a trigger warning,” she said. The story involved an unplanned pregnancy and the student proceeded to tell me she was grappling with the same issue: that her family would be scandalized and angry, that she had no one she could turn to. After the conversation, I wondered: if she knew the assigned story was about this subject would she still have read it? If I had prefaced it with a trigger warning, would she be more or less likely to confide in me? I wasn’t sure.
Still, given their highly politicized nature, I remained pro trigger warning. This seemed undoubtedly to be the right stance after the murder of George Floyd. So many incidents of police brutality have been captured via amateur video. These citizens who bear witness are providing a vital public service — but at what mental health cost? Some news outlets have weighed the pros and cons of continuing to share these videos, even with trigger warnings. Some BIPOC writers have suggested the right thing to do, to avoid making individuals re-live race based trauma, is to stop showing these videos. Given the extreme content of those videos and the possible psychological damage that could be inflicted especially on younger viewers, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable view.
All my thinking on triggering up to this point had been centered around me being the creator (as writer) or curator (as educator) of potentially triggering content. I never imagined myself on the receiving end. I had no reason to think I would be triggered when tuning in to the season 3 finale of The Crown. I knew the storyline well enough to see Princess Margaret’s suicide attempt coming. The season features Margaret’s gradual unraveling. I watched the episode as an average viewer up until the penultimate scene. When Margaret comes to from being treated for her overdose, Queen Elizabeth confronts her with a mixture of love, anger, concern and sadness, delivered in her customary understated way. Out of nowhere, the story is not about the messiness of the royals but about an older sister grappling with the multi-faceted pain of her younger sister’s suicide attempt. I watched till the end like a person set aflame, then hauled myself upstairs to curl up in a fetal position and weep in my bed.
When I was 21, my younger sister attempted suicide. My family apparently made the same exact call as the royal family and labelled the incident a result of exhaustion (at best) and a cry for help or attention (at worst). Maybe the intention to end her life was real; maybe it wasn’t. However, it was real enough for me, having already spent a lifetime worried about my younger sister succumbing to Cystic Fibrosis (CF), the genetic disease she was born with. My younger sister’s physical health was rocky during my college career. My undergraduate years ended with this suicide attempt and had begun with my father being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Compounding all of this, during my junior year of college, one of my best friends in high school was diagnosed with leukemia and she died shortly after I graduated.
I never talked with my sister about her suicide attempt. Time and especially the demands of CF marched on too swiftly. That episode of The Crown put words to all the emotions I’d never spoken aloud. Queen Elizabeth addresses her sister’s pain but she also addresses her own. Grabbing hold of her sister’s hand, she says, “Of all the people everywhere you are the closest and most important to me. And if by doing this you wanted to let me imagine for one minute what life would be like without you, you succeeded. It would be unbearable.” Watching the two sisters face this incident in the context of their relationship made me realize how deep my pain was, and how much I’d buried it over the years.
But that wasn’t the end of TV triggers about this incident. When I watchedMare of Easttown, I expected to find glimpses of relatable life since the show is set not far from where I live. I was ready to encounter that DelVal accent I know so well. I did not expect the final episode of the first season to dredge up a variation of the same buried angst I’d confronted via The Crown. “What’s happening to you?” my husband asked gently as I fell apart, watching the show’s last episode. Once again, courtesy of television, I was hurting all over.
My intense feelings had nothing to do with the main police procedural drama of the show but rather a secondary plotline in which Mare’s daughter’s, Siobhan, spends years of her life emotionally stuck on her brother’s suicide. She struggles setting boundaries. A high school senior, she cannot envision a future for herself outside of the electric fence of her family’s grief. A tightly-packed powder keg of sadness, shame and anger, she eventually detonates in the final episode, yelling at her mother, shoving her, demanding that she deal with the suicide. Mare finally does. Siobhan, released from her family’s emotional paralysis, is able to go away to school.
In both of these instances, TV characters provided the script for an exchange I’ve never had in my own family. The dialogue put words to feelings I’ve never been comfortable owning, boundaries I’ve never been able to set. Because of my younger sister’s disease, my family has been through years of trauma. Our general family motto amounts to something like: “If you made it through, keep moving.” While this is a helpful attitude to have when coping with years of successive crises, it is not an attitude that leads to reflection on past events or any processing of them. This need to keep moving, coupled with a not uncommon mistrust of therapy among the working class, has prompted me to look beyond my family for outlets of catharsis and insight. I can easily identify my own writing process as one of those outlets. Apparently another one is TV!
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Numerous critics have weighed in on the phenomenon of the Ted Lasso and why watching it feels therapeutic for so many. We need stories that make us feel deeply, that connect us to what it means to be human. Would I have watched these shows if they came with a trigger warning alerting me to traumatic content? I’m not sure. But I do firmly believe that being caught with my guard down was essential to the revelations I had as a viewer.
I don’t believe we should dispense with trigger warnings altogether. We need them to keep people safe, especially to not impede those in the process of healing or to inflict further harm on historically disadvantaged groups. But there are things we can learn only when we let ourselves be vulnerable.
BY JANE E. BRODY
JULY 6, 2015 6:00 AM July 6, 2015 NY Times
Excessive use of computer games among young people in China appears to be taking an alarming turn and may have particular relevance for American parents whose children spend many hours a day focused on electronic screens. The documentary “Web Junkie,” to be shown next Monday on PBS, highlights the tragic effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing for dozens of hours at a time often without breaks to eat, sleep or even use the bathroom. Many come to view the real world as fake.
Chinese doctors consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder and have established rehabilitation centers where afflicted youngsters are confined for months of sometimes draconian therapy, completely isolated from all media, the effectiveness of which remains to be demonstrated.
While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.
In its 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media,” the American Academy of Pediatrics cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but computers, tablets and cellphones are gradually taking over.
“Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media.
Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.
“We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”
Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play,” the academy recommends.
Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Those who watch a lot of simulated violence, common in many popular video games, can become immune to it, more inclined to act violently themselves and less likely to behave empathetically, said Dimitri A. Christakis of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
In preparing an honors thesis at the University of Rhode Island, Kristina E. Hatch asked children about their favorite video games. A fourth-grader cited “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” because “there’s zombies in it, and you get to kill them with guns and there’s violence … I like blood and violence.”
Teenagers who spend a lot of time playing violent video games or watching violent shows on television have been found to be more aggressive and more likely to fight with their peers and argue with their teachers, according to a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
Schoolwork can suffer when media time infringes on reading and studying. And the sedentary nature of most electronic involvement — along with televised ads for high-calorie fare — can foster the unhealthy weights already epidemic among the nation’s youth.
Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.
“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”
Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.
Out in public, Dr. Steiner-Adair added, “children have to know that life is fine off the screen. It’s interesting and good to be curious about other people, to learn how to listen. It teaches them social and emotional intelligence, which is critical for success in life.”
Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important, a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed for many jobs and other endeavors later in life.
Texting looms as the next national epidemic, with half of children aged 12 to 17 sending and receiving 60 or more text messages a day, Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center found in a study released in 2012. An earlier study by researchers at JFK Medical Center found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts a night after they get into bed, adding to the sleep deprivation so common and harmful to them. And as Ms. Hatch pointed out, “as children have more of their communication through electronic media, and less of it face to face, they begin to feel more lonely and depressed.”
There can be physical consequences, too. Children can develop pain in their fingers and wrists, narrowed blood vessels in their eyes (the long-term consequences of which are unknown), and neck and back pain from being slumped over their phones, tablets and computers.
Split Image by Kate Fagan
ESPN, May 2015
ON THE MORNING of Jan. 17, 2014, Madison Holleran awoke in her dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. She had spent the previous night watching the movie The Parent Trap with her good friend Ingrid Hung. Madison went to class. She took a test. She told a few friends she would meet them later that night at the dining hall. She went to the Penn bookstore and bought gifts for her family.
While she was there, her dad called. “Maddy, have you found a therapist down there yet?” he asked.
“No, but don’t worry, Daddy, I’ll find one,” she told him.
But she had no intention of finding one. In fact, she was, at that exact moment, buying the items she would leave for her family at the top of a parking garage. Godiva chocolates for her dad. Two necklaces for her mom. Gingersnaps for her grandparents, who always had those cookies in their home. Outfits for her nephew, Hayes, who had been born two weeks earlier. The Happiness Project for Ingrid, with a note scribbled inside. And a picture of herself as a young kid, holding a tennis racket. Over winter break she had told her dad that she was borrowing that picture, that she needed it for something.
She didn’t say what.
Then, on the evening of Jan. 17, just after dusk settled on the city, Madison took a running leap off the ninth level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia.
She was 19 years old.
MADISON LOVED QUOTES. Sometimes she took a picture of the words, spotted in a magazine, and posted the image on social media. Other times she wrote down the quote — in beautiful script, to be framed — so she could revisit the sentiment anytime she wanted.
She loved to draw, write in her journal and read. She enjoyed long runs, singing in the car, sushi, and bananas with peanut butter.
She also loved her big New Jersey family. She was especially close with her dad, whom she called “Big Jimbo.” He was her biggest fan. He came to her soccer games and track meets, always wrapping her in a hug afterward. He believed she could do anything.
Family and friends used to joke that whenever they opened the Bergen Record, they saw a picture of Madison, another athletic feat captured in print: so many goals scored, so many track meets won.
Life seemed good; life was good.
Then Madison left for college. She had decided to run track at Penn, only two hours from home, but it felt like a foreign land to her. Everything seemed to change. Running had once made her feel alive, but at Penn she couldn’t breathe. Her friends had once made everything better; now they just couldn’t understand.
EVERYONE IN MADISON’S LIFE holds a piece of her story, possesses a clue: a text message, a vacant look, a deleted Instagram post. In the days after she died, the people who knew her best converged on Allendale, New Jersey, her hometown; siblings (one brother, three sisters), parents (Jim and Stacy), high school friends, college classmates — all offered their shattered piece to see whether they could rebuild Madison.
It was as if they hoped she might be breathed back to life. As if they might then do and say the things they hadn’t known she needed.
Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.
THE LIFE MADISON projected on her own Instagram feed was filled with shots that seemed to confirm everyone’s expectations: Of course she was loving her first year of college. Of course she enjoyed running. Her mom remembers looking at a photo on her feed and saying, “Madison, you look like you’re so happy at this party.”
“Mom,” Madison said. “It’s just a picture.”
Everyone presents an edited version of life on social media. People share moments that reflect an ideal life, an ideal self. Hundreds of years ago, we sent letters by horseback, containing only what we wanted the recipient to read. Fifty years ago, we spoke via the telephone, sharing only the details that constructed the self we wanted reflected.
With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered. In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74 percent of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look “cooler than they are” on social networking sites.
No image captures the paradoxes of Madison’s Instagram account more than the one she posted just an hour before jumping off the parking garage. Holiday lights are twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square, and Madison put a filter on the image that produced an ethereal quality, almost as if the night is underwater.
She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others. Before going home for winter break, she asked Ingrid, who was also struggling at Penn, “What are you going to say when you go home to all your friends? I feel like all my friends are having so much fun at school.”
She and Ashley Montgomery, a friend and track teammate, followed a group of Penn upperclassmen on Instagram. They would scroll through pictures and say to each other, “This is what college is supposed to be like; this is what we want our life to be like.”
Madison’s high school friends had told her they were also struggling. Emma Sullivan was running track at Boston College and having a hard time. Another friend, Jackie Reyneke, was playing basketball at Princeton and feeling overwhelmed. They had all shared some form of their struggles with Madison, yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing.
This confused them, and it still does.
Checking Instagram is like opening a magazine to see a fashion advertisement. Except an ad is branded as what it is: a staged image on glossy paper.
Instagram is passed off as real life.
Yes, people filter their photos to make them prettier. People are also often encouraged to put filters on their sadness, to brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them. The myth still exists that happiness is a choice, which perpetuates the notion of depression as weakness.
Life must be Instagrammed — in more ways than one.
MADISON ONCE POSTED a picture collage of her dad on Instagram with the caption, “Happy Father’s Day to Big Jimbo, the greatest man I’ve ever known and ever will know. Love you with all my heart Daddio.”
Every summer they attended the U.S. Open, the last of the tennis grand slams. Madison loved watching the best female players, occasionally wondering aloud whether she could have played tennis at the highest level.
“Of course you could,” Jim said.
The first inkling he had that his daughter wasn’t doing well at Penn was when she refused to come with him to Flushing Meadows, site of the U.S. Open, just after the start of her freshman year. She said she was too swamped with schoolwork and practice. He offered to drive down to Philly from Allendale, a four-hour round trip, just so she could get a break from what he sensed had become a high-pressure environment.
But Jim didn’t press her. “I should have just driven down there and gotten her,” he says, letting the sentence trail off.
Madison’s older sister Ashley had started college at Penn State just two years before. She was unhappy, so she transferred to Alabama, where life improved. Jim and Stacy thought Madison must be going through something similar. A change of scenery was what she needed. An easy fix like that and Madison would continue her upward trajectory.
“This is normal,” her sister Carli told her. “People leave home, they’re unhappy, they transfer — they figure it out.”
Madison shook her head: “It’s not normal. It’s not normal to feel like this.”
She started seeing a therapist during Thanksgiving break and would continue seeing the woman through winter break. The closest Madison came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety.”
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that happened when she was younger, growing up, that makes sense of the decision she made,” Stacy says. “Am I angry at her? Yes, of course I am.”
Everyone now agrees that Madison was depressed, though she had never previously exhibited symptoms. (Depression exists on Jim’s side of the family.) Something had changed with her brain chemistry. She was not seeing the world in the same way she had before. She had lost weight too, had become so thin as to appear sick.
The day before Madison returned to Penn for spring semester, she had a session with her therapist that Jim also attended. She admitted to having suicidal thoughts. “If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t act them out,” her doctor said. “Either call me or call someone in your family.”
As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”
Jim feared that speaking about suicide would make its likelihood greater. He didn’t raise the subject as he and Madison drove back to Philadelphia.
Bill Schmitz Jr., former president of the American Association of Suicidology, points out that depression does not have a one-size-fits-all prognosis. “The course varies,” he says. “In a way, it’s the same as cancer. For some, we might prolong life for months, for years. For others, it can be very sudden.”
Jim drove Madison back to Philadelphia on Jan. 11. As they approached the exit off I-95, he offered to keep driving, to put Philly in the rearview mirror, to drive south, to the University of North Carolina or Vanderbilt University — to somewhere, anywhere. She could enroll at a new school, start over.
“Let’s just keep driving,” he said. “Let’s enroll you somewhere else.”
She shook her head. She had promised to meet friends at a Penn basketball game.
As he left his daughter that evening, Jim remembers looking at Madison and thinking, She’s still not happy; that’s not a happy kid I’m walking away from.
A few days later, at the start of the spring semester, Stacy and Mackenzie, Madison’s youngest sister, drove to Philadelphia to join Madison for a meeting with Steve Dolan, the head track coach at Penn. Madison had told Ingrid she was planning to quit the team.
The three Hollerans walked into Dolan’s office. Madison pulled out a letter she had written outlining why she wanted to quit.
“I need to figure out if track is making me unhappy, or Penn, or if it’s something else,” she read from the letter. She also spoke of struggling with the training (at that point, she was being coached by an assistant, not Dolan) and with the dorm she was in. She talked about wanting to join a sorority.
Dolan listened patiently, but the news surprised him. Madison seemed to have lost perspective, was seeing through a blurred lens, like some kind of dysmorphia. She had excelled in school (GPA of 3.5) and in track during the first semester, despite her constant fears that she was failing at both. To Dolan, she had appeared happy and content.
“I support you, and I want you to be happy and healthy,” Dolan said. “The decision is yours. Do you not want to keep training, keep running?”
Ivy League track is demanding. Madison wasn’t the first runner to tell Dolan she might quit. He saw a college freshman in transition, struggling to find her place.
Madison folded the letter and put it away.
“Yes, I do,” she said after a pause. “I want to keep running.”
Later that week, Madison heard that another member of the track team had quit. “I can’t believe that,” she said longingly. “I really can’t.”
As they walked out of Dolan’s office, Stacy said, “He is one fabulous coach.” They walked to Ingrid’s dorm room, where Madison told her friend about the meeting, her voice lighter than anyone had heard in months.
“I drove home feeling pretty good,” Stacy says. “I thought she was actually getting better, or starting to. She seemed better, in my mind anyway. But now I know that she was putting on an act that week.”
MADISON SPENT WINTER break at home, in Allendale.
Over the holiday, she went to her friend Emma Sullivan’s house. Emma was one of her best friends; the two spoke more intimately, more deeply, than they did with others, sharing the fears they had about growing up and leaving home.
She sat at the kitchen table with Emma and her mom. Snow fell heavily outside, sheets of white streaming outside the window. The three women sat there for hours.
“Why are you not as happy as you used to be?” Emma asked.
“Tell us how you’re feeling,” Emma’s mom urged.
Madison was unable to identify exactly what had cast her adrift. Was it the disappointment with Penn, once her dream school? Was she homesick? Was track overwhelming her?
And the most pressing thought of all: If she quit, wasn’t she just a failure? Wouldn’t that be the first in what would become a lifetime of letdowns?
Madison had always struggled to handle even garden-variety failure. She chased perfection. Once, when a track result wasn’t what she expected, she broke down in tears. Outsiders thought she was so gifted she could just show up and run faster than everyone, not knowing how hard she prepared and trained.
Madison kept her eyes down while sitting at the kitchen table. Emma remembers feeling that her best friend was lost — just so lost.
Like everyone in Madison’s life, Emma urged her to transfer from Penn.
“Yeah, it’s kind of too late,” Madison told Emma. “I’m already at Penn.”
She said this as if she were locked in a room, the key thrown away.
That winter break, Madison wanted to keep her circle of seven friends close. They watched movies together. They slept over at one another’s houses. And on the final night of break, they got together for a potluck dinner. (Madison brought store-bought sugar cookies; typically, she would have baked.) They called the night “The Last Supper” because, in the morning, the first among them would leave for the start of spring semester.
As the evening ended, Madison said, “Love you, see you soon!” as if they’d all see one another in a few weeks, maybe over spring break, maybe sooner.
Later, she sent a text message to Ingrid, a picture of the seven high school friends, arms around one another. “These are the types of friends we need to find at Penn,” she said.
THE NIGHT OF Jan. 17 was chilly, but not unseasonably so. Madison walked the streets of the city, wearing jeans, a sweater and a coat. She carried a shopping bag filled with the goodbye gifts for her family. For a while, she responded to friends on iMessage. Then she stopped.
Just after the sun went down, Madison began walking toward the parking garage at the corner of 15th Street and Spruce.
“Madison?” came a voice from across the street.
Lehigh soccer coach Eric Lambinus was standing on the street with assistant coach Amy Hough. The pair had recruited Madison out of high school, but at the last minute she chose Penn. The coaches were standing outside a restaurant. Eric waved to Madison, and she crossed the street toward them.
“How are you?” he asked.
Madison mentioned that she was cutting back on track but said otherwise everything was fine. Eric had heard through mutual friends that she was unhappy at Penn, but nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked.
“Some presents for my family,” she said.
After a few minutes, Eric told Madison: “Just know there are doors open for you still. There are opportunities.”
The coach needed to be careful with his words. He didn’t want to appear to be poaching another school’s student-athlete, but he also wanted to convey to Madison that if she wanted to start the transfer process, to play soccer at Lehigh as she had considered doing out of high school, that option was available. Madison had been one of the best prep soccer players in the state, winning two state titles with Northern Highlands.
Madison thanked him. The two said goodbye. She walked away, toward the parking garage. Eric immediately called his wife to tell her about running into Madison, about what a coincidence it was. Perhaps the meeting was serendipitous, he thought.
A block away, Madison began climbing the nine flights of stairs. When she reached the top, she placed the bag of gifts where it would easily be found. And a few minutes later — maybe as few as five or as many as 15 — she hurdled the silver-colored railing. She landed in the bike lane. A woman who did not see her fall stayed with her until an ambulance arrived. The woman believed Madison had passed out, perhaps drunk. Madison did not look like she had jumped from a building. She looked like she was asleep, the only scratch on her a small one, just above her eye.
When Eric walked out of the restaurant a little over an hour later, he heard the wail of police cars and ambulances. Something had happened down the street. He walked the other way to avoid the commotion. “I’ve gone over that night probably 100 times in my mind,” he says. “I wish I had spent a little more time with her, but really nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
More than two hours after Madison jumped, at 9 p.m., Stacy received a call from the 215 area code. Even before she picked up, she felt unsettled.
“Is Madison OK?” she said.
It was Steve Dolan. He told Stacy something was wrong with Madison and he would find out more details and get back to her. Frightened, Stacy called some of Madison’s friends at Penn. First on her list was Ingrid.
“Where is Madison?” Stacy asked. “Have you seen her?”
“No, I haven’t, but we were supposed to eat dinner together tonight.”
“Something is wrong,” Stacy said.
Ingrid ran the quarter of a mile from her dorm room to Madison’s, calling her friend’s roommate on the way. The information to that point was limited: Nobody could find Madison. None of it made sense. Ingrid had just seen her friend that morning, and she had seemed the same as any other day.
Ingrid burst into Madison’s dorm room — her friend left the door unlocked. Every other time she’d been there, Madison’s bed was unmade, clothes draped across the chair. As Ingrid looked around, alarm bells went off in her mind.
Madison’s bed was crisply made.
Within minutes, campus officials were in the room and Ingrid was back on the phone with her friend’s mom, who had received a call from the chaplain.
“She’s gone,” Stacy said.
No one can say for sure why Madison chose that specific parking garage. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does. Maybe comfort exists in believing there is order in the world, even when someone is making the most disorderly decision we know: running toward death instead of away from it.
In their absence, we’re left trying to pin meaning to air.
Nine stories of air.
PHILLY IS THE City of Murals. Hundreds of buildings are covered in artwork.
There is art on the parking garage from which Madison jumped. On the south side of the structure, on the wall facing Spruce, is a small installation. Quotes, fragments of thoughts, are stenciled in white against a black background, like chalk on a blackboard. The most evocative phrase reads, “She had wings on.”
The wall looks like the rubble, the stacked words from poems never published.
She had wings on.
Madison left a suicide note that began, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.” Previously, in her journal, she had written “Help!” at the top of one page, followed at the bottom by “No, no more help.”
She also left a copy of the young adult book Reconstructing Amelia, which tells the story of a devastated single mother who pieces together clues about the death of her daughter, who supposedly killed herself by jumping off a building at her prep school. In the book, nothing is as it seems. And at the end, the mother discovers that Amelia didn’t jump; she was pushed.
Jim cannot bring himself to read the book.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell how fast the current’s moving until you’re headed over a waterfall,” the author writes.
Madison seemed to see a version of herself in Amelia, in the perfectly crafted veneer that never felt like an honest reflection of her interior life. As though she could never find validation for her struggle because how could someone so beautiful, so seemingly put together, be unhappy? This is illogical, of course. Like thinking a computer’s hard drive can’t malfunction simply because the screen hasn’t a scratch.
The day after Madison jumped, Jim walked to the top of the parking garage. He read the phrase, She had wings on. He spoke with Madison’s friends. He compiled clues.
Then he stopped. He could spend his life trying, in vain, to make his child whole again, he thought. Or he could work to keep others from breaking apart.
The Hollerans are trying now to deliver a new message: It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to show people you’re not OK.
ASHLEY MONTGOMERY IS now a sophomore at Penn, and she still runs track. When she was a freshman, she and Madison would train together; the two were also close away from the sport. For Ashley, sophomore year has gone much better than freshman year, and she often thinks to herself, If only Maddy were around to feel this, to be here.
Freshman year of college can be like running an obstacle course wearing a blindfold. Nothing prepares you for how hard the workouts will be, how long they last, what each class will be like, which events are fun and which should be avoided.
Once, as she and Ashley ran through the Penn campus, Madison spotted a quote on the side of a building, part of a mural. She stopped to take a picture. Then she uploaded the image to Instagram.
A few hours later, when Ashley went to Instagram to see the picture, the image was gone. Madison had deleted it.
After Madison died, Ashley went running, hoping to find the mural that had caught the attention of her friend.
“We all shared what we knew, and some things were answered,” Ashley says. “But we could only do so much. The puzzle will never be complete.”
THE TOP OF the parking garage slopes upward. There is a wall, then a silver-colored railing. Because Madison landed out in the street, her friends and family are convinced she took a running leap over the side, clearing the barrier just like she once cleared hurdles on the track.
At first glance, a running leap off a nine-story building makes little sense. Why not something that seems gentler, easier? (Whatever that means.) Maybe this is because all we can think about, standing at great heights, is the moment of impact, the violence of a falling body hitting concrete. This is exactly what Jim thought of when he went to the top of the parking garage on Jan. 18, 2014, the morning after — peering over the railing and wondering what that final moment, the impact, must have felt like for his daughter.
Emma hasn’t made sense of the act, or the method, but says if forced to make sense of it — and Madison has forced her to do so — she can maybe understand why Madison chose jumping. “If you run and jump, it’s freeing — to just do that. You just jump and it happens. And it’s over with. And you don’t have to struggle. I can picture her walking up there and just setting her mind to it and knowing it could happen — that’s something I can see her doing. When she gets on that line in track, it’s like, ‘I’m doing this.’ She was always so determined, with everything that she did. Maybe even too determined sometimes.”
In high school, Emma and Madison talked about what life would be like as they grew older. (Most of Madison’s friends said she rarely spoke of the future with them.) What it would be like to get married, have a family. Both were scared of growing up. Madison never even got her driver’s license.
“We were both so fearful of what was to come,” Emma says. “The way her mind worked, it threw her off when she didn’t know what the next step was, or what the future would hold. Knowing the end result was something she always wanted.”
But maybe Madison had stopped projecting into the future. Maybe picturing the concrete at the base of the parking garage was as impossible as imagining herself in old age.
Maybe she could only imagine the freedom of flying.
EVERY YEAR, MORE than 40,000 Americans die by suicide. Among young adults, ages 10 to 24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, with more than 4,500 young people taking their lives each year. The suicide rate among NCAA athletes is lower than the general population (0.93 per 100,000, versus 10.9). Between 2004 and 2012, 35 student-athletes took their own lives.
Young adult suicide profoundly shakes us. Such promise, gone so soon.
What happened? Why? What did we miss?
Survivors search for answers. At first, those left behind are detectives. They are chasing clues. Over time, friends and family begin looking instead for peace, and for some kind of purpose.
“What happened?” becomes “What now?”
JIM STANDS IN the kitchen of the Holleran family home, looking into the backyard. He and Stacy played college tennis and still play. All their kids play the sport, or played at one time, including the two youngest, Mackenzie and Brendan, both of whom are still in high school. Mackenzie is packing a bag now, about to walk out the door for a lesson.
Jim makes a joke about the “friendly” rivalry between Mackenzie and Brendan on the tennis court. Everyone laughs.
A worn soccer goal sits in the backyard. Jim gestures out the window and says, “Madison used to run laps around the yard.”
A shrine to Madison, with a sketched portrait, a dangling cross and the card from her funeral Mass, sits on a ledge over the dining room table. The Godiva chocolates Madison left for Jim were eaten. He doesn’t remember when. The gingersnaps are gone too. Jim and Stacy seem much more interested in sharing Madison’s life — a DVD of her soccer highlights, a binder of newspaper clippings, her senior yearbook filled with notes from adoring classmates — than the items she left before ending it.
On the refrigerator is a 2013 holiday card that reads, “Happy New Year. With love, the Holleran Family.”
Madison is in the back row. She looks happy.
A week after Madison died, on Jan. 23, 2014, the family launched a Facebook page, “In Memory of Madison Holleran,” which has more than 52,000 likes. The site is dedicated to suicide prevention and ending the stigma attached to mental illness. Included on the page are stories of Madison, and stories from people struggling with depression, looking for a community.
“Sometimes we are all a little broken, but there is always someone to help, always someone who cares,” one post reads.
“Please seek help,” another reads. “You are not alone.”
And there’s this one, from a runner, dated Oct. 6:
“I run because it’s therapeutic for me. Because every time I run outside, around my home, I am reminded of the beauty of the world, of which I often forget. Yet at the same time, I am fully aware of beauty — it simply saddens me because of reasons I have not yet conjured up. I suppose I am sad. But at the same time I am happy; and miserable; and joyful; and stressed out; and calm, and everything in between. I am everything. Every emotion, rigged in every format, and developed through every machine. I am numb but I am not.”
A little over a year before she died, Madison posted on Instagram a snapshot of a quote from Seventeen magazine:
“Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.”
The image had been put through a filter.
By Silas House
BEREA, Ky. — I WAS always with older folks when I was very young. They called me “Little Man” and told me I was “an old soul.” I worked in the garden with my grandparents, learned how to count money with Old Man Hoskins at the local store, and eavesdropped on the tales of my ancient neighbors. But it was the stories of my fierce aunt, Sis, that were my favorite.
Unfortunately, it seems there are fewer opportunities for different generations to interact now. The 2010 United States census shows that Appalachia, where I live, has some of the lowest levels of age segregation in the nation. Yet even here I notice a shift away from the intergenerational activity I enjoyed as a child in the 1980s.
What do we lose as we drift further away from our elders?
I spent a great deal of my time with Aunt Sis, who seems to have always been old. She knew how to plant and how to build a fire. She had once been known as the wildest and most beautiful woman in Leslie County, Ky. She was blunt and hard to please. Sis loved to wear red dresses and red lipstick. Her coal-black hair was always styled, even after long hours in the yarn factory that left her hands bloody with thin cuts. I grew up right next door to her, and everyone said I was “her pick.” She didn’t bother to deny it. “Little Man is my baby,” she always said, even when I was into my 40s.
Sis challenged my notions of what it meant to be elderly. Sis loved the most current music. She cussed. She took me to concerts and sneaked me into R-rated movies. Sometimes she and I danced in her living room to the latest Bob Seger record. “He’s my favorite!” she’d yell while she snapped her fingers, every part of her moving. “Turn it up, Little Man!”
More than anything else, my aunt told me stories. She knew all the key elements of storytelling: love, mystery, trouble. In her tales there was comedy, tragedy, a man who got his comeuppance, a defiant woman who would not be defeated, a community that ostracized the heroine. She recalled rationing and claimed to remember listening to F.D.R., my childhood hero, on the radio. She brought my long-lost great-grandparents to life.
This is the main thing we lose when we don’t talk to our elders: the histories. How many teenagers, for example, know the intimate details of the Kardashians’ lives but don’t know the love stories of their own parents? The joys and sorrows of the older generations serve as examples for us to learn from, to emulate or, perhaps even more useful, to avoid. As age segregation becomes more ingrained in our culture, what cycles will be repeated, what misconceptions will flourish?
Sis was not without fault, of course. She could be racist and xenophobic in a casual way that many of her generation shared. I had learned that slurs like this were not appropriate, and taught her as much. Intergenerational education.
Many of us move away from our hometowns and extended family. As I got older, I moved, too. We also take less part in the activities that once brought different generations together: things like church, community-focused entertainment and communal work. In my hometown, entire families used to attend an annual sorghum cook-off. We pulled foam off the bubbling syrup, sat around an outdoor fire and exchanged stories. First the teenagers stopped coming, then the middle-aged folks. For a while the older generation soldiered on, but that particular tradition stopped a few years ago now.
The generational divide is nothing new, of course, and it may only continue to grow. According to the most recent census, the elderly population will more than double between now and 2050. Before then we’ll have to decide if it’s better to ignore a huge chunk of our population, or if we will embrace everything we can give to one another.
Members of the older generation can help; they are certainly not innocent in this. They, too, congregate with those their own age. My generation should be bridging the gap between the young and the elderly.
My daughters, both teenagers, spent a lot of time with Sis in her very old age. She may have been on oxygen and in a wheelchair, but the stories she shared taught them how to be as strong, defiant and determined as she had always been. Sis taught them that people of all ages have value, and revealed to them that multigenerational mixing can lead to true laughter, knowledge and mutual respect.
Sis’s favorite singer, Bob Seger, turned 70 this week and recently released another album. Shortly before her death in February, I played a few of his new songs for Sis. She managed to swing her foot along to the beat. Struggling for breath, she smiled at the music and our joint memories. Now she is gone, and a universe of stories has gone with her. Fortunately, I had been taught to listen, to be present, and so those stories go on in me and in my daughters, handed down from one generation to another.
Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
By Maggie Jones
Laura Klunder’s newest tattoo runs down the inside of her left forearm and reads “K85-160,” a number that dates to her infancy. Klunder was 9 months old when her South Korean mother left her at a police station in Seoul. The police brought her to Holt Children’s Services, a local adoption agency, where a worker assigned Klunder the case number K85-160. It was only two weeks into 1985, but she was already the 160th child to come to the agency that month, and she would go on to be one of 8,800 children sent overseas from South Korea that year. Klunder became part of the largest adoption exodus from one country in history: Over the past six decades, at least 200,000 Korean children — roughly the population of Des Moines — have been adopted into families in more than 15 countries, with a vast majority living in the United States.
Klunder, who is 30, has a warm goofiness and a tendency toward self-deprecation. (“I was the chubby kid with glasses wearing Lisa Frank T-shirts,” she said, shaking her head at the memory of her middle-school self.) But she also resonates intensity. She chose the tattoo of her case number as a critique of adoption, she told me. “I was a transaction. I was a number in the same way that people who are criminalized and institutionalized are given numbers.”
Klunder, who was raised in Wisconsin, moved back to South Korea in 2011, which is where I met her one night last February along with three of her friends, all adoptees from the United States. We were at a restaurant in the Hongdae section of Seoul, known for its galleries, bars and cheap restaurants. Outside, the streets teemed with university students, musicians, artists and clubbers. The neighborhood is also a popular spot for the approximately 300 to 500 adoptees who have moved to South Korea — primarily from the United States but also from France, Denmark and other nations. Most lack fluency in the language and possess no memories of the country they left when they were young. But they are back, hoping for a sense of connection — to South Korea, to their birth families, to other adoptees.
That night, Klunder and her friends passed plates of bibimbap (rice topped with meat and vegetables), soondubu jjigae (tofu stew) and pa jun (scallion pancake) around the table and ordered bottles of beer and soju. Everyone there was a member of Adoptee Solidarity Korea, or ASK. It was started as a reading group in 2004 by a handful of politically progressive Korean female adoptees (and one man) in their 30s, who began to discuss why Korean single mothers felt pressure to give away their children — 90 percent of those who place their children for adoption are not married. They talked about a culture in which single mothers are often ostracized, one in which employers typically ask women about their marital status in job interviews; parents sometimes reject daughters who raise their children alone; and the children of single mothers are often bullied in school. They also questioned why the government offered little aid to mothers to help keep their families intact. At an adoption conference organized a year after the group was created, members handed out fliers that read, in part, “ASK stands in opposition to international adoption.” They sold T-shirts, designed by Kimura Byol-Nathalie Lemoine, an early adoptee activist, that depicted a wailing baby with a large stamp on its rear end: “Made in Korea.”
Over time, ASK backed away from its message of ending adoption. It was too polarizing, adoptees said, and “hard for people to hear anything we said after the word ‘stop,’ ” Jenny Na, one of the group’s founders, wrote in a history of ASK. But in recent years, members — along with other Korean adoptee activists — have built an improbable political campaign, lobbying for legislation that has helped reduce the flow of Korean children overseas. In the process, they have emerged as leaders in a movement to question the very concept of international adoption, one that has galvanized other adoptees around the world.
Some of those leaders, including Klunder and her friend Kim Stoker, who was also at dinner that night, want to stanch the flow of Korean children entirely. “I get parents’ desperation to have children,” said Stoker, who at 41 was the oldest of the group at the table. “Accepting diverse families is great,” she said. But, she added, “I don’t think it’s normal adopting a child from another country, of another race and paying a lot of money. I don’t think it’s normal to put a child on a plane away from all its kin and different smells. It’s a very modern phenomenon.”
In 1954, a couple from Oregon, Bertha and Harry Holt, went to a local auditorium to watch a presentation by World Vision, the Christian relief organization, on Korean War orphans. At the time, South Korea was hobbling to recover from its brutal war with North Korea. “We had never seen such emaciated arms and legs,” wrote Bertha, a nurse and fundamentalist Christian who wore round wire glasses, “such wistful little faces looking for someone to care.” Federal law prohibited families from adopting more than two children from abroad. But in 1955, the two senators from Oregon sponsored the Bill for Relief of Certain Korean War Orphans, which Congress passed specifically to allow the Holts to adopt four boys and four girls. Reports of Harry Holt, a farmer and lumberjack, coming home with eight children appeared in newspapers around the country, and soon prospective parents flooded the Holts with letters, saying that they, too, wanted to adopt war orphans. Within a year, the couple had established the Holt Adoption Program in the United States (followed later by a Holt agency in South Korea), the first and still one of the biggest international-adoption agencies.
During the ’50s, most children available for adoption were of mixed race — “the dust of the streets,” as they were called — whose fathers were American and U.N. soldiers. Some of them had turned up at orphanages, lost or abandoned; in the postwar chaos, it was unclear if their parents were still alive. But in other cases, mothers relinquished their mixed-race babies because they feared that their families would be treated as outcasts.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the country had industrialized and urbanized rapidly; divorce and teenage-pregnancy rates climbed. Poor and working-class single women with babies struggled with little, or no, support from the government. Most of the children placed for adoption at the time were fully Korean. In the meantime, the number of babies available for adoption in the United States in the 1970s dropped, as birth-control was more readily available, abortion was legalized and single motherhood became more socially acceptable.
South Korea, by this point, had passed the Special Adoption Law, which created a legal framework for adoptions and approved four agencies to process those adoptions. From the beginning, though, there were problems. Adoption paperwork was sometimes fraudulent — a grandmother or an aunt might give up a baby without the mother’s consent (while she was working or looking for work), because they thought the mother and the child would be better off. Agency workers often didn’t verify information — about a child’s health or age, or whether the mother had truly consented to adoption — in order to expedite the process. Eleana Kim, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging,” explained that though most women weren’t directly paid, adoption agencies set up homes for unwed pregnant women and took care of medical expenses with the expectation that the women would agree to have their babies sent overseas. Workers at adoption agencies sometimes told mothers that they would be selfish to keep their children, who would thrive in affluent, two-parent households in the United States. In the 1980s, adoption became big business, bringing millions of dollars to Korean agencies. The government benefited, too. For each child South Korea sent away, it had one fewer child to feed.
By 1985, the year Klunder arrived in the United States, South Korea had earned the reputation as the Cadillac of adoption programs because of its efficient system and steady supply of healthy babies. The number of adoptions reached unsettling heights, with an average of 24 children leaving South Korea each day. The continued growth was all the more striking because South Korea’s economy had improved significantly. That year, its G.D.P. ranked 20th globally, just below Switzerland’s, and continued to climb over the next decade. During NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the world saw a newly democratic country lined with skyscrapers and freshly paved highways, Bryant Gumbel noted that South Korea preferred to keep quiet about its “exportation” of babies. North Korea also criticized its neighbor for its liberal adoption policies.
Embarrassed, the South Korean government promised to reduce international adoptions, in part by providing subsidies and extra health care benefits to South Korean families who adopted. But the government showed far less interest in helping single mothers keep their babies.
People in the United States, meanwhile, began adopting from all over the world. Though only 7,000 children were adopted into the United States in 1990, by 2004 — the peak of international adoption — that number had risen to 23,000, with children arriving from China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea, Ukraine, Colombia, Ethiopia and dozens of other countries.
I was among that wave of adoptive parents. After several miscarriages, my husband and I adopted two children — one domestically, one internationally. We chose domestic adoption initially because we longed for a newborn and wanted an open adoption, in which children and birth families can remain in contact. (Studies suggest that open adoption — far more common in the United States than in international adoptions — is psychologically more healthful for adoptees and birthparents.) In 2003, our older daughter, who is part Japanese and part African, was born in California, where we lived.
But by the time we signed up to adopt again a couple of years later, my husband and I were in our early 40s, and we feared that another domestic adoption could take years. Instead we looked to Guatemala, where adoptions often occurred more quickly and most children lived in foster homes, receiving more one-on-one attention than in orphanages. Unlike in China and many other countries, in Guatemala, adoptive families could also meet birth families during the process and stay connected afterward through photos, letters and visits.
I began scouting agencies with the most ethical reputations. I heard repeatedly — though mostly from agencies and other parents — that there were safeguards (DNA tests of mothers and children; social-worker interviews with birth mothers) to protect adoptive and birth families. But almost as soon as I arrived at the Westin Hotel in Guatemala City to finalize the adoption of our daughter, I felt queasy. Everywhere, it seemed, there were lawyers and agency representatives handing over brown-skinned babies, born to impoverished mothers, to white, wealthy parents — some of whom might never return to Guatemala again, who might make no effort to encourage a link between their adopted children and their country or their birth families. My husband and I were eager not to be “those parents.” When the adoption was complete, instead of leaving the country, we drove with our daughters to a nearby city, where we spent several days. One night at a restaurant, a well-dressed Guatemalan man in his 50s or 60s passed my new daughter and me and muttered, “There goes another baby taken from our country.”
His comment might have referred to corruption: It would become increasingly clear that Guatemala’s adoption system was, like those in Ethiopia, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, plagued with illegal payments, coercion of birth mothers and in some cases outright stealing of babies. (Guatemala’s program shut down seven years ago.) Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that birth mothers, typically indigenous women who faced discrimination, had little access to counseling and no official waiting period after birth during which to change their minds. He may have been imagining what would happen if the thousands of dollars each family handed over to their adoption agency was used instead to help children stay in Guatemala. And then there was the issue that Kim Stoker has since raised: Should adopted children be brought up by people of a different race?
“No parent wants their child to be discriminated against,” Stoker told me one night in Seoul. “But I think as a white parent in a white society — even if you’re in a multicultural neighborhood — you can’t protect your child when your child walks out the door. You provide all these economic resources, but there are all these other things that you haven’t experienced as a white person.”
My husband and I are of a generation that is supposedly savvier and better educated about raising adopted children. We have done some of the “right things”: traveled with our kids back to Guatemala and to Japan (where my older daughter’s birth mother lives). We’ve advocated for open adoptions (with mixed success) so our daughters would have access to their records and contact with their families. Our daughters’ friends and their school are diverse. And my husband and I try not to shy away from talking about the complexities of adoption and race.
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Still, my daughters don’t see themselves reflected in my and my husband’s faces. They will confront racism in their lives, which neither my husband nor I ever have. My children are happy and deeply attached to us. But while the predominant narrative of adoption focuses on what is gained, each adoption also entails loss for both the child and her biological family. It’s a loss I can’t fully know and one I can never entirely heal.
Perhaps that’s what the Guatemalan man meant when he saw me with my daughter. I had love and financial advantages to offer her. But she was yet another child who, through no choice of her own, was leaving her biological family, her country and her culture behind.
Before Laura Klunder left South Korea as a child, she lived with a foster family with whom she learned to take tentative steps holding an adult’s hand. She could say “omma” (mommy) and understood other Korean words. Then on April 27, 1985, nine days after her first birthday, she boarded a Korean Airlines flight with an escort provided by the Holt agency and flew 6,500 miles to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
In Franklin, Wis., a largely white suburb of Milwaukee, Klunder attended a Lutheran school where she was taunted by one boy for years: “Why is your skin so dirty?” “You look like a black Barbie.” “Did you fall in the mud?” Her parents had good intentions and, Klunder says, “were loving in more ways than they were not.” But they didn’t acknowledge how central race was in their daughter’s life. “My parents told me they didn’t see color,” Klunder said. “They couldn’t engage on that level.”
When I recently talked to her mother, she said: “I could see how upsetting certain things were to Laura. But I said, ‘You can’t let these things bother you so much; there will also be people like that in the world.’ ” When the issue of adoption came up, Klunder’s mother told her that her birth mother loved her very much but that God had a different plan for her. As a teenager, furious that her parents didn’t understand her feelings and experiences, Klunder repeatedly lashed out at them. They were angry, too. When she was in high school, Klunder told me, her father would say: “I didn’t sign up for this. Send her back.” (He says he remembers saying something like that only once.)
This was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when adoption experts had already shifted from telling parents to “assimilate” their adopted children, instead encouraging them to talk openly about adoption, to acknowledge racial differences and to embrace their children’s birth culture. Some parents signed up for “homeland tours” to Korea or sent their children to Korean summer “culture camp,” where kids gathered in the woods of Minnesota or California to study the Korean alphabet, dance to Korean pop music and learn taekwondo.
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Klunder’s family occasionally ate dinner with friends who had adopted Korean children, and they attended an annual Korean adoptee picnic near Chicago. Klunder felt ambivalent about it. The food was delicious, and the Korean women who danced in their hanboks were beautiful, but she didn’t identify as Korean. “They were telling me this is my culture, but I didn’t see myself in that traditional dress and tight bun.” And though she knew one other Korean adoptee as a child, by the time Klunder was a teenager — when difference is a stigma most kids work to avoid — “I wanted nothing to do with adoptees.”
In a 2009 survey of adult adoptees by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, more than 75 percent of the 179 Korean respondents who grew up with two white parents said they thought of themselves as white or wanted to be white when they were children. Most also said they had experienced racial discrimination, including from teachers. Only a minority said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group. The report recommended that parents do more than just celebrate multiculturalism or sign up for culture camp. Adoptees should have “lived” experiences related to adoption and race: traveling to birth countries, attending racially diverse schools. Those things might have helped, Klunder says, but only if she had parents who were willing to be honest about racism. “You need parents who can talk about white privilege, who can say: ‘You might experience some of this. I’m sorry. We are in this together.’ ”
In college, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Klunder found a group of like-minded friends and joined the multicultural student coalition. After receiving a master’s degree in social work, she took a job at Macalester College in Minnesota, advising minority and feminist groups and working on the school’s response to sexual assault. Her immersion in those issues served only to make fights with her parents more disheartening. “I knew that I was the only person of color in their life, and it was too easy for them to invalidate my point of view as another ‘anger issue.’ ” At some point, she said, “I felt hopeless to create change in my adoptive family.”
Eight years ago, she stopped talking to them, though she says she hopes that will change one day. Her mother, who misses her daughter, said: “I’m sorry for anything we didn’t do correctly for her. But we didn’t know how she felt. I couldn’t get her to talk about anything important or what was inside her.”
In the summer of 2010, when Klunder was 26, she went to Seoul to join more than 500 other Korean adoptees from around the world for an annual event known as the Gathering. For many — some of whom never had Korean adopted friends before — it was a heady experience. They ate together, drank together; some stumbled back late at night into hotel rooms together. They spoke in shorthand about their American lives, sharing their stories about being told by strangers that their English was very good and about meeting men who assumed that Asian women were up for anything in bed.
Klunder skipped the bars. She was too nervous to perform at noraebang (Korea’s version of karaoke) or to get naked with other adoptees at the jjimjilbangs (Korean saunas). Instead she stayed up late talking with a couple of other women. During the day, conference sessions delved into everything from searching for birthparents to the isolation of single mothers. Then Klunder heard Kim Stoker give a lecture about learning the Korean language as an avenue to “belonging” in South Korea. Raised in Colorado and Virginia, Stoker has lived in South Korea for 15 years and has the maternal presence of someone who has held the hands of many 20-something adoptees during their first months in Seoul. Living there is the most meaningful thing she has done in her life, she says. “We didn’t have a choice about what happened to us,” she told me, referring to adoptees being taken from their country. “So to come back, to live on your own terms. . . .” she said. “I do really feel like these are my kin.” By the end of Stoker’s talk, Klunder felt, as she put it, “invited to come back.” And before leaving South Korea that week, she decided that she would return to live there.
Over the year that followed in Minneapolis, Klunder was anxious about her impending move to a country where she had no friends, no employment and no fluency in the language. Still she quit her job and said goodbye to the boyfriend she loved (“an anti-racist white man,” as she described him). She packed one large suitcase with clothes and two carry-ons with shoes, handbags and books, including works by Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Alinsky, Bell Hooks, along with South Korean adoption memoirs. Then she flew back to her birth country on a one-way ticket.
By the time Klunder moved in 2011, Seoul had become home to hundreds of returning adoptees. The Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, the largest and longest-running adoptee group in Korea, made it easier for adoptees to live in the country — helping them find language classes and translation services and organizing social events. Most important, GOA’L, as the group is known, successfully lobbied the government to offer adoptees F-4 visas, which allow them to live and work in the country indefinitely. Now adoptees can also apply to become dual citizens.
Like many before her, Klunder spent some of her early days at KoRoot, an adoptee-only guesthouse in Seoul with cheap rooms and communal meals, run by Pastor Kim Do-hyun, along with his wife, Kong Jungae. At the two-story brick-and-stone house, Kim encourages new arrivals not only to explore Seoul but also to think about the larger political issues around their adoptions. In the ’90s, as a pastor in Switzerland, Kim began working with adoptees after one committed suicide, leaving a note that said, “I’m going to meet my birth mother.” Later, as a grad student in theology, Kim wrote his master’s thesis on birth mothers.
In 2008, Kim and his staff from KoRoot joined forces with the organization Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea and one of its founders, Jane Jeong Trenka, to try to amend South Korea’s adoption law to help discourage overseas adoption. Kim and Trenka, who was raised in rural Minnesota and returned to South Korea in 2004 to be closer to her birth family, spent three years meeting with public-interest lawyers, government officials, nonadoptee activists and a member of Parliament, Choi Young-hee, who agreed to sponsor the amendment. ASK and two other groups, Dandelions (a group of Korean birthparents who had placed their children for adoption) and Kumfa (an organization for single mothers), joined the effort as well. They lobbied government officials, wrote and rewrote the proposal’s language and drew attention to their cause by installing a piece of artwork in a government building, featuring 60,000 hanging paper price tags inscribed with a number representing each Korean adoptee.
In August 2012, they succeeded in enacting an amendment to the adoption law, implementing curbs on adoption that would have seemed unthinkable decades ago. Women must now receive counseling and wait seven days before placing a child for adoption. All adoptions must be registered through the courts, which gives adoptees, who often struggle to make contact with their families (only a small percentage of Korean adoptees who search for birth families ever find them), an avenue for tracing their history.
Detractors say the law now creates too many hurdles for women who genuinely want to put their babies up for adoption and slows the process. Since the law was passed, the number of abandoned babies has increased — though whether that’s a direct result is unclear. They also note that Koreans are generally not comfortable “raising another’s child,” as Koreans say, and finding adoptive families can be difficult. (Some Korean families who are willing to adopt keep it a secret.) Adoption supporters in the United States and elsewhere question the very idea of making adoption more restrictive around the world, especially in deeply impoverished countries, where birth control and abortion are taboo and there is little government will to help children, including those who languish in orphanages.
For better or worse, the amendment seems to be having its desired impact in South Korea: Adoptions to other countries, already on the decline since the 1980s — hovering around 1,000 a year between 2007 and 2012 — dropped to 263 in 2013. The activists also see the amendment as an acknowledgment that their views matter. “The law incorporates the opinions of the people actually affected — adoptees, unwed mothers,” said Trenka, who is 42 and now a mother herself; she and her partner, Luke McQueen, a 43-year-old Korean adoptee from Colorado, have a 3-month-old daughter. “And it’s proof that Korean adoptees can be taken seriously and effect change.”
For Trenka and other Korean activists, their engagement with these issues extends beyond Korea’s borders. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Trenka publicly warned that adoptions from Haiti were vulnerable to the same sorts of problems — fraudulent paperwork; children designated as orphans when their parents were alive — that existed in postwar Korea. Kim Stoker joined other adoptees from around the world issuing a statement protesting the “fast tracking” by the U.S. government of Haitian adoptions.
More recently, Trenka, along with Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian and Colombian adoptees, criticized a bill before the United States Congress last year that aimed to make international adoption easier. They argued that adoptees were not consulted about the bill and said — along with Holt International Children’s Services, which publicly opposed it — that it would eliminate adoption safeguards and reallocate foreign aid from international programs that help children.
Trenka has also met with activists from other countries, including Jenna Cook, an adoptee from China. Last year, she came to South Korea for a conference and talked to Trenka about adoptee rights. A recent graduate of Yale, Cook is one of more than 100,000 children adopted from China since the early ’90s, the second-largest group of international adoptees. She and other adoptees want the Chinese government to respond the way South Korea has and offer F-4 visas so they can return for the long term. “It’s important that we are recognized as a diaspora,” Cook says. “We are going to come back as highly educated middle-class Europeans and Americans, with brain power and economic capital.”
While some Chinese adoptees are now in their 20s, those from other countries tend to be much younger. Since the late 1990s, roughly 29,000 children from Guatemala and 14,000 from Ethiopia have been adopted into the United States. Most of them have yet to reach high school. Compared with Korea — a democracy and a developed country — Guatemala, China and Ethiopia may prove less welcoming, at least for now. But as adoptees grow up, Korean activists hope that they will demand more information about their histories and the adoption process from agencies and governments. Perhaps cities like Beijing, Antigua in Guatemala or Addis Ababa in Ethiopia — already popular destinations for adoptees and their families — may become their own mini-adoptee communities and centers of activism against international adoption.
Around 8 p.m. on a chilly Saturday night last February, more than a dozen adoptees gathered at several pushed-together metal tables at Hongik Sutbul Kalbi, a Korean BBQ restaurant in Seoul. The room filled with conversation and smoke from meat sizzling on open grills. Nights like this are a fixture of adoptee life in South Korea, flowing from BBQ or bibimbap restaurants to a bar for sojuand beer, to another bar, culminating with singing at a noraebang— till 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. That night the gathering included a woman in her 20s, who moved to Seoul a week earlier, and others — from California and Utah, from New York and Massachusetts — who had lived in South Korea anywhere from six to 10 years. Several at the table weren’t involved in adoption politics — or even especially interested in it. Adoptee socializing in Seoul often divides along political lines. Hollee McGinnis, whom I met the day before, was one of several people who told me that the most ardent adoption critics make some adoptees uncomfortable. “If you’re pro-adoption, you can feel Pollyannaish,” said McGinnis, a former policy director at the Donaldson Adoption Institute, who is researching her dissertation in Seoul on mental health and educational outcomes for children growing up in orphanages. “I’m not an advocate or detractor of adoption. I see it as a choice and a trade-off with relative losses and gains.”
At the barbecue dinner, Benjamin Hauser said he shared this view. “I understand there could be potential problems with adoption, but I know positive cases too.” Hauser, who is 36 and has lived in South Korea since 2004, is a manager at an English-language school and is writing a children’s adventure book featuring Korean adoptees. Unlike many adoptees, he remembers his early life in South Korea: He lived with a foster family for five years and spent two years in an orphanage before being adopted by a couple in Rochester. His parents then adopted two more boys from South Korea.
Throughout their childhood, he and his brothers had a fairly diverse group of friends, and their father, a professor of Japanese history, cooked Korean food and took the kids to Korean restaurants. At the end of high school, when his parents asked Benjamin if he would like to go to Paris or Seoul for his graduation, he picked Paris. “I grew up as an American,” said Hauser, who wears a small earring and has spiked hair that juts out in several directions. “My parents are Caucasian. I didn’t identify as Korean. I wasn’t mature enough to realize I could explore that side.” Before moving to Seoul, he never had an Asian girlfriend. “It was part of my feeling of wanting to be white.”
Ten years ago, when he was working as a manager at Otis Elevator Company in Albany, he realized “this job would be the rest of my life — and something was missing.” He remembered his goal when he was in the orphanage — to return to the dairy farm where he lived with his Korean family. (He later learned that it was his foster family; he has never found his birth family.)
But he feared that searching for his Korean roots was a betrayal of his adoptive parents. “I thought they might say, ‘We were the ones who took care of you; why do you feel like you need to look for your foster family?’ ”
Eleana Kim, the author of “Adopted Territory,” says it’s a common anxiety among adoptees who often dread “coming out” to their parents — whether it’s in the form of birth-family searches, returning to birth countries or criticizing the adoption system.
In Hauser’s case, his parents were not upset. “I was mostly worried that he might get hurt,” his mother, Susan Hauser, told me, referring to adoptees who can’t find their families or discover the families don’t want to be found. “But he was an adult, and it was his decision.” She and her ex-husband also supported his move to South Korea. Benjamin’s father, William Hauser, said: “I understand how parents feel it’s a rejection, but I don’t feel it at all. In a sense I’m much closer to him since he’s been in Korea.” He and Susan Hauser are in a tiny minority of parents who visit their children each year — their son Zack also lives in Seoul, where he’s a chef.
Instead it was Benjamin’s middle brother, Aaron, who was offended — at least at first — by how much his brother loved South Korea. “I thought Ben’s Korean pride diminished his American pride,” he told me recently. That changed when Aaron visited Seoul, took Korean classes and hung out with Benjamin’s friends. He realized that spending more time there made him feel “more Korean,” and that was gratifying.
Though Benjamin and his brothers feel close to their parents, many adoptees told me that closeness isn’t the only relevant issue. “It’s not just about me and my personal experience,” said Amy Mihyang Ginther, a voice coach who wrote and starred in a one-woman play that she performed in Seoul and other cities, taking on personas of adoptees and birth mothers.
Growing up near Albany, Ginther attended playgroups with other Korean adoptees and culture camp, which she loved. When Ginther was bullied in school — kids called her Chinese and Japanese and said her parents couldn’t be her “real” parents — her adoptive mother came to speak to the class about Korean culture and adoption, with Amy as her co-teacher. But her love for her parents didn’t keep her from longing to connect to her birth family and to South Korea. In 2004, she reunited with her birth mother (her adoptive father came with her on the trip). Then two years later, she visited again, living with her birth family for a month. (Her Korean mother was so protective, she barely let her outside the house.) In 2009, she moved to South Korea and has lived there on and off since. Ginther, who is 31, now sees her birth mother about every other month in Seoul or in her birth mother’s hometown, Gimcheon, a couple of hours south of the city.
“My life in the United States, no matter how good it was,” she told me one day over lunch, “never made up for my omma’s grief.” As Ginther understands the story, her parents were struggling financially when she was born, the youngest of three daughters. Her father told her mother that he would leave her if she didn’t relinquish Amy. (He later left anyway.) “Her choice,” Ginther said of her birth mother, “was no choice at all.”
Adoptees, of course, also had no choice, and many resent the idea that they should simply be grateful — that they are somehow better off than they otherwise would be. As Trenka writes in her memoir, “The Language of Blood”: “How can I weigh the loss of my language and culture against the freedom that America has to offer, the opportunity to have the same rights as a man? How can a person exiled as a child, without a choice, possibly fathom how he would have ‘turned out’ had he stayed in Korea? How many educational opportunities must I mark on my tally sheet before I can say it was worth losing my mother? How can an adoptee weigh her terrible loss against the burden of gratitude she feels she has for her adoptive country and parents?”
As I talked to dozens of adoptees in Seoul about what drew them back, the conversation, inevitably, shifted to what might push them to leave. For many, the experience of living in Seoul veers between warm familiarity and occasional alienation. (A different version of growing up as an Asian adoptee in a white family in the United States.) “Korea is home,” Amanda Eunha Lovell, told me. “But it’s not one I’m completely comfortable in.”
Lovell, who is 36, teaches English to elementary-school children and is a graduate student working on a documentary about adoptees returning to South Korea. She grew up in Ipswich, Mass., and has lived in Seoul for six years. She has an advantage over many adoptees: She speaks Korean fairly well, which makes her feel more at home. But like every other adoptee, she has had to adjust to different social norms, including Koreans’ well-intentioned bluntness, especially when it comes to women: How old are you? Are you married? Are you tired? Why don’t you wear more makeup?
Lovell doesn’t know if she’d be willing to raise children in South Korea, with its hypercompetitive school system. In addition, many women told me that they may leave because of the dearth of romantic partners. Male adoptees have it easier — they are seen as more masculine than they are in the United States — and live in a “frat culture,” as one woman told me, filled with drinking and a wide choice of women: adoptees, other expats and “Korean Koreans,” as native Koreans are called.
Lovell was one of the very few female adoptees I heard about with a Korean boyfriend. He’s a musician who tells her he is “not a typical Korean guy.” Still, “he scolds me, saying, ‘You should be doing this,’ ” she said, imitating a paternal voice. Laura Klunder also pointed out the various ways gender roles are ingrained in daily life: Female adoptees are often viewed as masculine when they wear clunky shoes and carry their own bags of groceries — a sharp contrast to the young Korean women in high heels, short skirts and meticulously applied layers of makeup. Koreans also consider it unladylike for women to smoke in public. And if a handyman arrives at a woman’s apartment to fix something, he will often ask to speak to the husband. “In the U.S., I feel my race,” Lovell said. “Here I feel my gender. This is what it must have been like in the United States during the ‘Mad Men’ era.”
For many adoptees, those cultural divides — coupled with the fact that they can’t speak the language, a frustrating and often heart-wrenching obstacle in their own birth country — solidifies the feeling that they hover in between: not fully American, not fully Korean. Instead, they live in a third space: Asian, Western, white, adopted, other. It’s a complicated place but not always a bad one. “I am, maybe, in a way, proud of my in-betweenness,” Lovell recently wrote me in an email.
It is a space I expect my children will share with Lovell, and with so many other adoptees. Both of my daughters’ birth families and their roots tug on their hearts. If they eventually decide to live in the countries of their birth mothers for a year or five years or more, I hope to support — even encourage — them. If living there fills some void, creates some peace, fosters a sense of belonging, how could I not want that for them?
In the years ahead, I also expect my kids will have tough questions for me. Perhaps they will ask why my husband and I thought we were equipped to raise a child of a different race. My youngest may ask why we chose international adoption. Did we understand its failures? Did we do anything to fix them?
I hope to answer without defensiveness — and with candor and empathy. I hope, too, that I remember two things may be true simultaneously: Our daughters’ love for us and their need to question why and how we became a family.
The backlash against “helicopter parenting” may have gone too far.
JANUARY 6, 2014, The Atlantic
The helicopter parent has crashed and burned. With millennials reaching adulthood it has become clear that this hovering style of parenting results in overly dependent young adults, plagued by depression or less satisfaction with their lives and anxiety, who cannot even face the workplace without the handholding their parents have led them to expect. The literature is now replete with indictments of over parenting and the havoc it creates. In her book Slouching Toward Adulthood, Sally Koslow documented a generation so cosseted that they have lost the impetus to grow up or leave home. The over-involved parent has gone from paragon of caring to a figure of fun.
The pendulum has swung, and as is so often the case, it may have over reached its mark. Parenting pundits now argue for the benefits of natural consequences, for letting the world take it toll on kids as method of teaching them grit and life’s necessary coping skills. Failure has become the new success.
Time captured this zeitgeist with a cover story in which editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs explained:
Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.
This thinking was a reaction to a generation of hovering parents who cleared the way and smoothed over life’s bumps, who metaphorically swaddled their children in bubble wrap. But the reaction to this unfortunate method of parenting has perhaps been an over-reaction.
The antidote to heavy-handed parenting is not hands-off parenting. There is not a stark choice between doing things for our children and thereby disabling them, and leaving them to tackle challenges on their own. The middle ground, hands-on parenting, involves neither spoiling a child by clearing their path for them, nor stepping away and watching them fail.
Even as the parenting tide was turning away from helicopter moms and dads, there was a problem with the newfound orthodoxy. Less engaged parenting isn’t always better, and in the realm of education, an involved parent leads to better outcomes. As Gibbs noted in her Time story,
Many educators have been searching for ways to tell parents when to back off. It’s a tricky line to walk, since studies link parents’ engagement in a child’s education to better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse and better college outcomes.
In a recent New York Times post, educators were asked how parents should cope with an underperforming teen, one who has previously shown ability but has become unmotivated and indifferent. Jessica Lahey, the teacher/author (and regular Atlantic contributor) who wrote the piece, acknowledges that this is the most frequent and difficult question that parents pose to educators. In this case the student in question is in ninth grade and struggling through the difficult transition to the increased demands of high school.
Making students care about school enough to give their best effort is an intractable problem for both parents and teachers. Research shows that many diligent, good students find a sharp fall off in motivation in the middle-school years.
Part of this is a decline in their desire to please their parents and teachers, and part is an increase in the distractions in their lives. For some students the step up to high school from middle school is a tough adjustment requiring study and organizational skills the student does not yet possess. For others, dating, the freedom that comes with driving, and their expanded social life simply prove too difficult to balance with schoolwork. Teachers and parents can find themselves at a loss when trying to reengage otherwise capable students who are underperforming in the classroom.
The educators who weighed in on the New York Times piece were unanimous in their advice. Back off, they urged: Despite a decline in attitude and performance in a student, increased parental involvement is not what was called for. One teacher argued for keeping positive and focusing praise on what effort is evident rather than what is not being accomplished. A professor suggested that parents find out where their student’s interests lay and that they should otherwise not get involved. The sensible argument was made that teens need to find their own motivation and that parents should back off because there will be consequences at school for poor academic performance.
This measured, considered advice is very much in keeping with the times, a reaction to the over-involvement that was recommended a decade earlier. The experts argue convincingly that parents should not smooth over their child’s failures, that they should not make what is wrong right.
This all presumes, however, that the consequences of performing poorly in school will be adequate, timely, and effective in convincing a child to change his or her behavior. It presumes that parental involvement will decrease a teen’s sense of personal responsibility, rather than heightening it. And finally it presumes that schools are teaching all the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, alongside the substance of the curriculum.
If the fallout from doing poorly in school were not so long-lasting, then letting teens find their way would set them up for adulthood. But that is not the case. If in the face of underperformance, parents focus on our children’s successes, seek out their passions, reward them with life’s luxuries, and allow the school to deal with the consequences, we have let our children down.
There are few lives that are not enhanced by doing as well as possible in high school. For kids headed on an academic path, doing well creates more post-secondary school options. For teens headed into the workplace, a degree opens more doors.
Some kids find true passion in the classroom, but for many the prescribed course load is filled with subjects that are uninteresting at best. It does not matter. As parents it is our job to teach our children that liking something or not liking something is an unacceptable excuse for doing poorly. Adulthood is filled with responsibilities we would all prefer to shed, but performing at a substandard level is rarely the best option. A parent’s job is to show our kids how sometimes you work hard at something that does not call to you because that is the right thing to do.
Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.
There is, I believe, a tacit understanding between parents and their teens that may need to be made explicit. Parents are willing to work hard, to sacrifice for our kids, and to give them opportunities in life. We will drive them to baseball; we will rent them musical instruments and invest in the technology they so crave. We will give them love and encouragement, and to the best of our abilities, a stable environment in which to grow. In exchange, children are expected to do their best. Not necessarily top of the class or best on the team…but their best. If teens don’t feel like living up to this deal, there are consequences.
Teens want phones and TV, friends to come over, and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store. They want new cleats or skates. They want to go to the movies with friends. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their half of the bargain. So while it may be tempting to attribute a poor performance in school to the vagaries of adolescence we do our children no favors to teach them that they will get something for nothing.
While the notion of natural consequences is an enticing one, it can be an unrealistic expectation. How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50 percent effort and getting by with passing grades? What are those consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that she is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing. But these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered that Facebook is more interesting than physics.
Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a shortsighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control right up until the moment that they find out that they don’t. Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.
Students thrive when they feel they can master the task they are given, when they see the purpose of that task, when they are engaged in the work and when they get positive feedback from peers, teachers, or parents for their efforts.
Creating these conditions, and cultivating the motivation that will follow, may well require parental intervention. When teens begin to struggle in school, that is the moment for parents to become more attuned to their child’s academic life, it is the point at which they should step up, not step back.
Parents might need to help students with their review by quizzing them, helping them to find online educational resources or by encouraging them to seek out the teacher or a tutor. Parents may need to remove distractions, provide incentives or reinforce family expectations. Much of the social cred that came from doing well in school has faded by high school. But one thing that does not change is some need for approval from parents. Teens may play tough but are not entirely indifferent to the values in their homes and the friction that is incurred from ignoring those values.
While it is easy for adults to see the direct link between academic success and increased opportunity, those dots need to be connected again and again for teens who are naive about the world of work and higher education. Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found in a study of over 50,000 students that relating academic achievement to life’s later goals is one of the most effective thing parents can do to help their teens.
Although the study showed that parents’ involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents’ achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.
Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high-school kids struggle because of their lack of organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they underestimate the amount of time required, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of test preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and reinforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.
But this involves closer monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “How much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.
Many educators suggest that these types of questions are nagging, and taking responsibility for something that should be on the shoulders of the child. As a parent, I have taken a different approach, believing that teens struggle in school because of the challenges posed organization, time management, and deferred gratification and that it is our job to help teach them these large life skills before sending them out into the world.
At one point, with a son who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced and then erase each one upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall above his computer. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small, very unscientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.
The argument against this internationalist approach is that it cannot be sustained, that working hard at something that is painful or boring because your parents are making you, is not a lifelong strategy for success. It could be argued that parents setting up extrinsic motivation will let a kid down once his life begins to separate further from that of his parents. Here is the good news. High school only last four years, and it is nothing like the rest of life. As soon as kids arrive at college, they are given some choice about classes, teachers, their schedule and the direction of their lives. If they pass into the working world, there is some choice there as well. By demanding that they do their best for four years in the face of the protests we will hopefully have taught them the value of delayed gratification, self-control, and fulfilling their responsibility. And in doing that, as parents, we will have done our job.
Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone
By Carina Chocano
Every time I hear someone use the term “strong female character,” I want to punch them. The problem is, I hit like a girl. Before I go further, here’s an anecdote that might help set the tone for what I’m about to try to say, which I worry has the potential to come across all wrong unless I manage to dispel certain widely shared assumptions without unduly setting anyone off.
Years ago, in the nascent days of the George W. Bush administration, while en route to the airport from his parents’ house in Florida, my boyfriend at that time and I spent an afternoon visiting with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. Like many Democrats, I was still very angry with Florida, and as fond as I was of my ex-boyfriend’s parents, navigating the minefield of our respective political affiliations (which pretty much meant we had to limit our debates to discussing the relative merits of Outback Steakhouse versus Chili’s) left me exhausted, depressed and somewhat bloated. By the time we reached his brother’s house, I was ready to go back to California and resume my life of loudly resenting Florida from a safe distance while eating at restaurants that didn’t require their servers to memorize corporate scripts. All that stood in the way of me and this golden dream was the visit.
It started, innocuously enough, with lunch in the kitsch-yet-sinister town of Celebration, where we hoped to be lucky enough to experience a postprandial, regularly scheduled fake snowfall. It took a darker turn after we piled back into the S.U.V., headed to their house to pick up the guns and drove to the indoor gun range. As Rush Limbaugh fulminated at top volume, I slumped in the back seat like a sullen 13-year-old, a gun case resting heavily on my lap, and wondered how I had arrived at this place. What did it mean that I was here? Could I be here and still be me? Who was I? Within about 15 seconds of stepping inside the shooting range, before the guy behind the counter could take my gun order, I burst into tears, ran outside and spent the next couple of hours alone in the car reading Jane Austen.
So here is the question I’m posing: If this story were a scene in a movie, and the movie were being told from the point of view of a young woman, would you describe that protagonist as a “strong female character”? Or would you consider her to be weak?
If weak, would you find it possible to relate to her on the basis of something other than her sex characteristics? Or would identifying with this “feminine” behavior threaten your sense of self, whether you were a man or a woman? Would you consider the scene funny, or not, and if not, why not? And what would a “strong female character” in a movie have done in this situation, anyway? Toss off an epigram and then shoot the radio? Reveal a latent talent for martial arts, jump the rifle-range counter and start pummeling the guy at the desk? Confidently march out the door to the strains of a Motown anthem and never look back? And what would she be wearing? Would boots or stilettos need to be involved? Or would flip-flops or ballet flats be O.K.?
“Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; or pretty much every character Jodie Foster has played since “Nell” or, possibly, “Freaky Friday.”
Maybe I’m a cream puff, but few cultural tropes get under my skin like “strong female character,” and it still surprises me when like-minded people use it. Maybe the problem is semantic. Maybe what people mean when they say “strong female characters” is female characters who are “strong,” i.e., interesting or complex or well written — “strong” in the sense that they figure predominantly in the story, rather than recede decoratively into the background. But I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear “strong female character” is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.
Of course, I get the point of characters like these. They do serve as a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic — or at least representational — representations of women. On the other hand, they also reinforce the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff. This implies that unless a female character is “strong,” she is not interesting or worth identifying with.
“Strong women characters” are a canard. They refer to the old-fashioned “strong, silent type,” a type that tolerates very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.
The absurdity of the strong-female-character expectation becomes apparent if you reverse it: Not only does calling for “strong male characters” sound ridiculous and kind of reactionary, but who really wants to watch them? They sound boring. In fact, traditional “strong male characters” have been almost entirely abandoned in favor of male characters who are blubbery, dithering, neurotic, anxious, melancholic or otherwise “weak,” because this weakness is precisely what makes characters interesting, relatable and funny.
Just to give an idea how entrenched, pervasive and distorting this idea can be: A few weeks back, I was in the car listening to Elvis Mitchell interview Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids.” Mitchell remarked that “Bridesmaids” seemed an unlikely project for Feig to have taken on. Feig replied that he had wanted to do a project for “strong women characters” for a while and pointed out that, after all, “Freaks and Geeks” was Lindsay’s — a teenage girl’s — story.
Funny, Mitchell remarked, Kristen Wiig’s character in the movie didn’t exactly strike him as particularly strong — she actually seemed like kind of a mess. Feig conceded that, yes, she was kind of a mess, but it was O.K., because they had made sure to establish in two scenes that, before she was temporarily derailed by the recession, she was a talented and successful business owner and would soon be back on top.
I don’t really believe that Feig, whose movie is the first in a while to feature women who sound a lot like women, thinks that the reason that we feel empathy and not contempt for Wiig’s delightfully, deliriously, awesomely messed-up and pathetic character is because she used to own a bakery. I think he meant it in the other sense, in the sense that he meant to do a story told strongly from a woman’s point of view. Either that or what happened was that he felt himself pulled into a discussion that’s been so distorted by this pervasive and stifling either/or fallacy that confronting it actually makes people get nervous and say weird things. I’m sure he’s perfectly aware that the movie has struck a nerve because its female characters are such a jumble of flaws and contradictions. Wiig’s not likeable despite the fact that she never gets her brake lights fixed and thoughtlessly hurts someone even as she herself is experiencing the pain of being hurt; or despite the fact that she’s jealous of her best friend’s happiness or of her best friend’s new best friend’s money and apparent perfection; or that she lingers in a destructive relationship with a guy she knows is treating her like dirt; or that, unlike the protagonists of the average romantic comedy aimed at women, she is forced to live with weirdos, who treat her miserably, and she doesn’t live in an adorable downtown loft complete with a pale blue refrigerator that retails for $2,000. (Nice touch, “Something Borrowed.”) We don’t relate to her despite the fact that she is weak, we relate to her because she is weak.
In an essay about MTV’s reality show “The Real World,” Chuck Klosterman wrote about how he and his raw-hot-dog-eating roommate came to be enthralled by the show in its first season and subsequent seasons: “The raw hot dog eater and I watched these people argue all summer long, and then we watched them argue again in the summer of 1993, and then again in the summer of 1994. Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of ‘The Real World’ weren’t sampling the youth of America — they were unintentionally creating it.”
Something similar happens when we talk about strong female characters. Certain traits become codified into a bad-faith embodiment of a type rarely found in nature: the stunning blond 23-year-old astrophysicist whose precocious brilliance and professional-grade beauty are no match for her otherworldly self-confidence, say, or the workaholic mercenary encumbered by emotions. It’s as if the naturalism of male characters has grown in inverse proportion to the realism in female characters. The insistence on “strong female character” is not bad because it aspires to engender respect, it’s bad because it tries to compensate for an existing imbalance by stacking the deck in favor of the female character, by making her better, more deserving, higher-toned, more virtuous and deserving of respect, somehow.
“Strength,” in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of “virtue.” And what we think of as “virtuous,” or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. “Strong female characters,” in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones. You know what’s better than a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew? A girl who reminds you of you.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
OCT 21, 2020, Harper’s Bazaar
I used to teach a writing workshop for teenagers who had just been released from detention—a few who had recently left Rikers. My workshop was not loved. It was, in fact, hated. Only one student showed up regularly to the Lower East Side youth center for sessions. One time, I made him read the William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just to Say.” Then we had to write our own versions. Mine was addressed to a child stealing plums. “You’d yell at a hungry kid?” was his input during constructive criticism time. “This class is worse than Rikers.”
Despite myself, I laughed. I laughed at almost everything this kid said or wrote, even when it was off-color. Especially then. One day, I brought in a recording of nature sounds—rain falling, wind blowing, waves crashing. I played the “rainforest” track and asked the class what it reminded them of. My student looked at me and said, “A bear gettin’ it in.”
I think of him whenever I see some profile of a comic declaring the subject in question the funniest person alive. I know our current media ecosystem is nurtured by hyperbole, but I always think, when someone is labeled the best or the funniest, especially when they are labeled the first: Who is being forgotten? And who never got the chance to try?
When someone manages to rise up through our hobbled alleged meritocracy and is crowned the first to hold a position, I know that does not mean that they were the only one who possibly could. I’d assumed everyone understood this, but it has become clear to me in the last few years, as these news of firsts in media and publishing and film and sports came rolling in, as people wrote and agonized over what felt like a shift in culture, that that was naive. People in power, the ones doing the crowning, generally believe that there is no one else qualified until they happen to decide to bestow the crown. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? To think that the first happened just because the right person finally managed to emerge and break through, and not because there was a whole system put in place to make sure no one who looks a certain way or comes from a particular background ever has a chance to do so in the first place. I am reminded of a Chris Rock quote, one he gave during Barack Obama’s second term as president. “To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first Black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not Black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been Black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”
My erstwhile student is part of this terrible calculus. He could probably do a brilliant, dazzling job at any number of brilliant, dazzling things. But the likelihood of him getting the opportunity to demonstrate that is very low, vanishing more quickly each day. The unlikelihood of that and the likelihood that someone will be named a first are two sides of the same coin. For a first to exist, it requires that people like my student be denied, frustrated, locked away from opportunity. It is why being named a first sits uneasy with a lot of people who have been: because you know that there are so many others who should be in that room with you, who should have been in that room before you, who probably deserve to be in that room more than you but don’t make the right people in power comfortable or have the right connections the way that you do. It’s a heavy burden to bear.
“I tell my students,” Toni Morrison said in a 2003 interview, “ ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’ ” I think this is the only way you can approach the bind of being a first: by working as hard as possible to make sure that you are not an only in whatever room you have been admitted to—by ensuring that others join you.
I wish I knew what became of my student. In a good and just world, he’d be writing for Desus & Mero or honing his craft as a stand-up in one of the comedy clubs he walked past every day to get to my workshop. Hopefully, in this broken world we currently inhabit, he is writing down his one-liners, keeping track, building a room for himself and his friends where it doesn’t matter if he’s the first through the door because he’s the one who imagined it in the first place.
We all pay lip service to the melting pot, but we really prefer the congealing pot
SEPTEMBER 2003 ISSUE, The Atlantic
Maybe it’s time to admit the obvious. We don’t really care about diversity all that much in America, even though we talk about it a great deal. Maybe somewhere in this country there is a truly diverse neighborhood in which a black Pentecostal minister lives next to a white anti-globalization activist, who lives next to an Asian short-order cook, who lives next to a professional golfer, who lives next to a postmodern-literature professor and a cardiovascular surgeon. But I have never been to or heard of that neighborhood. Instead, what I have seen all around the country is people making strenuous efforts to group themselves with people who are basically like themselves.
Human beings are capable of drawing amazingly subtle social distinctions and then shaping their lives around them. In the Washington, D.C., area Democratic lawyers tend to live in suburban Maryland, and Republican lawyers tend to live in suburban Virginia. If you asked a Democratic lawyer to move from her $750,000 house in Bethesda, Maryland, to a $750,000 house in Great Falls, Virginia, she’d look at you as if you had just asked her to buy a pickup truck with a gun rack and to shove chewing tobacco in her kid’s mouth. In Manhattan the owner of a $3 million SoHo loft would feel out of place moving into a $3 million Fifth Avenue apartment. A West Hollywood interior decorator would feel dislocated if you asked him to move to Orange County. In Georgia a barista from Athens would probably not fit in serving coffee in Americus.
It is a common complaint that every place is starting to look the same. But in the information age, the late writer James Chapin once told me, every place becomes more like itself. People are less often tied down to factories and mills, and they can search for places to live on the basis of cultural affinity. Once they find a town in which people share their values, they flock there, and reinforce whatever was distinctive about the town in the first place. Once Boulder, Colorado, became known as congenial to politically progressive mountain bikers, half the politically progressive mountain bikers in the country (it seems) moved there; they made the place so culturally pure that it has become practically a parody of itself.
But people love it. Make no mistake—we are increasing our happiness by segmenting off so rigorously. We are finding places where we are comfortable and where we feel we can flourish. But the choices we make toward that end lead to the very opposite of diversity. The United States might be a diverse nation when considered as a whole, but block by block and institution by institution it is a relatively homogeneous nation.
When we use the word “diversity” today we usually mean racial integration. But even here our good intentions seem to have run into the brick wall of human nature. Over the past generation reformers have tried heroically, and in many cases successfully, to end housing discrimination. But recent patterns aren’t encouraging: according to an analysis of the 2000 census data, the 1990s saw only a slight increase in the racial integration of neighborhoods in the United States. The number of middle-class and upper-middle-class African-American families is rising, but for whatever reasons—racism, psychological comfort—these families tend to congregate in predominantly black neighborhoods.
In fact, evidence suggests that some neighborhoods become more segregated over time. New suburbs in Arizona and Nevada, for example, start out reasonably well integrated. These neighborhoods don’t yet have reputations, so people choose their houses for other, mostly economic reasons. But as neighborhoods age, they develop personalities (that’s where the Asians live, and that’s where the Hispanics live), and segmentation occurs. It could be that in a few years the new suburbs in the Southwest will be nearly as segregated as the established ones in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Even though race and ethnicity run deep in American society, we should in theory be able to find areas that are at least culturally diverse. But here, too, people show few signs of being truly interested in building diverse communities. If you run a retail company and you’re thinking of opening new stores, you can choose among dozens of consulting firms that are quite effective at locating your potential customers. They can do this because people with similar tastes and preferences tend to congregate by ZIP code.
The most famous of these precision marketing firms is Claritas, which breaks down the U.S. population into sixty-two psycho-demographic clusters, based on such factors as how much money people make, what they like to read and watch, and what products they have bought in the past. For example, the “suburban sprawl” cluster is composed of young families making about $41,000 a year and living in fast-growing places such as Burnsville, Minnesota, and Bensalem, Pennsylvania. These people are almost twice as likely as other Americans to have three-way calling. They are two and a half times as likely to buy Light n’ Lively Kid Yogurt. Members of the “towns & gowns” cluster are recent college graduates in places such as Berkeley, California, and Gainesville, Florida. They are big consumers of DoveBars and Saturday Night Live. They tend to drive small foreign cars and to read Rolling Stone and Scientific American.
Looking through the market research, one can sometimes be amazed by how efficiently people cluster—and by how predictable we all are. If you wanted to sell imported wine, obviously you would have to find places where rich people live. But did you know that the sixteen counties with the greatest proportion of imported-wine drinkers are all in the same three metropolitan areas (New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.)? If you tried to open a motor-home dealership in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, you’d probably go broke, because people in this ring of the Philadelphia suburbs think RVs are kind of uncool. But if you traveled just a short way north, to Monroe County, Pennsylvania, you would find yourself in the fifth motor-home-friendliest county in America.
Geography is not the only way we find ourselves divided from people unlike us. Some of us watch Fox News, while others listen to NPR. Some like David Letterman, and others—typically in less urban neighborhoods—like Jay Leno. Some go to charismatic churches; some go to mainstream churches. Americans tend more and more often to marry people with education levels similar to their own, and to befriend people with backgrounds similar to their own.
My favorite illustration of this latter pattern comes from the first, noncontroversial chapter of The Bell Curve. Think of your twelve closest friends, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray write. If you had chosen them randomly from the American population, the odds that half of your twelve closest friends would be college graduates would be six in a thousand. The odds that half of the twelve would have advanced degrees would be less than one in a million. Have any of your twelve closest friends graduated from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Caltech, MIT, Duke, Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, Chicago, or Brown? If you chose your friends randomly from the American population, the odds against your having four or more friends from those schools would be more than a billion to one.
Many of us live in absurdly unlikely groupings, because we have organized our lives that way.
It’s striking that the institutions that talk the most about diversity often practice it the least. For example, no group of people sings the diversity anthem more frequently and fervently than administrators at just such elite universities. But elite universities are amazingly undiverse in their values, politics, and mores. Professors in particular are drawn from a rather narrow segment of the population. If faculties reflected the general population, 32 percent of professors would be registered Democrats and 31 percent would be registered Republicans. Forty percent would be evangelical Christians. But a recent study of several universities by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the American Enterprise Institute found that roughly 90 percent of those professors in the arts and sciences who had registered with a political party had registered Democratic. Fifty-seven professors at Brown were found on the voter-registration rolls. Of those, fifty-four were Democrats. Of the forty-two professors in the English, history, sociology, and political-science departments, all were Democrats. The results at Harvard, Penn State, Maryland, and the University of California at Santa Barbara were similar to the results at Brown.
What we are looking at here is human nature. People want to be around others who are roughly like themselves. That’s called community. It probably would be psychologically difficult for most Brown professors to share an office with someone who was pro-life, a member of the National Rifle Association, or an evangelical Christian. It’s likely that hiring committees would subtly—even unconsciously—screen out any such people they encountered. Republicans and evangelical Christians have sensed that they are not welcome at places like Brown, so they don’t even consider working there. In fact, any registered Republican who contemplates a career in academia these days is both a hero and a fool. So, in a semi-self-selective pattern, brainy people with generally liberal social mores flow to academia, and brainy people with generally conservative mores flow elsewhere.
The dream of diversity is like the dream of equality. Both are based on ideals we celebrate even as we undermine them daily. (How many times have you seen someone renounce a high-paying job or pull his child from an elite college on the grounds that these things are bad for equality?) On the one hand, the situation is appalling. It is appalling that Americans know so little about one another. It is appalling that many of us are so narrow-minded that we can’t tolerate a few people with ideas significantly different from our own. It’s appalling that evangelical Christians are practically absent from entire professions, such as academia, the media, and filmmaking. It’s appalling that people should be content to cut themselves off from everyone unlike themselves.
The segmentation of society means that often we don’t even have arguments across the political divide. Within their little validating communities, liberals and conservatives circulate half-truths about the supposed awfulness of the other side. These distortions are believed because it feels good to believe them.
On the other hand, there are limits to how diverse any community can or should be. I’ve come to think that it is not useful to try to hammer diversity into every neighborhood and institution in the United States. Sure, Augusta National should probably admit women, and university sociology departments should probably hire a conservative or two. It would be nice if all neighborhoods had a good mixture of ethnicities. But human nature being what it is, most places and institutions are going to remain culturally homogeneous.
It’s probably better to think about diverse lives, not diverse institutions. Human beings, if they are to live well, will have to move through a series of institutions and environments, which may be individually homogeneous but, taken together, will offer diverse experiences. It might also be a good idea to make national service a rite of passage for young people in this country: it would take them out of their narrow neighborhood segment and thrust them in with people unlike themselves. Finally, it’s probably important for adults to get out of their own familiar circles. If you live in a coastal, socially liberal neighborhood, maybe you should take out a subscription to The Door, the evangelical humor magazine; or maybe you should visit Branson, Missouri. Maybe you should stop in at a megachurch. Sure, it would be superficial familiarity, but it beats the iron curtains that now separate the nation’s various cultural zones.
Look around at your daily life. Are you really in touch with the broad diversity of American life? Do you care?
By Kevin Sack
Jacob Deng Mach stood 25 yards from a row of torso-shaped targets, his hands numb and twitchy in the March morning chill. It had been seven months since he entered Atlanta’s police academy, and things were not going so well. Despite three days of practice, he had failed on each of his first four tries to pass the firearms qualifying test, and his scores were largely trending in the wrong direction.
Jacob knew that if he did not pass the test twice, he would have to start over and repeat the entire grueling curriculum. If he then failed the firearms test again, he would be dismissed from the academy altogether, quashing perhaps his best shot at an unlikely ascension from war-ravaged Sudan into the American middle class. Suddenly, his hopes for supporting a family on two continents, for paying down his credit-card balances and student loans, for keeping the Georgia Power bill collectors at bay, all hinged on obliterating those targets.
Jacob, who is 33, had been shot at plenty of times as a boy. But he had never handled a gun before joining the academy, and he was proving largely immune to instruction. All elbows and knees, he lacked the fluid coordination of more athletic recruits and sometimes struggled to unholster his weapon or to get shots off in time. He confused sequences of commands, paused inexplicably before reloading, even fired occasionally at the wrong targets.
The instructor positioned behind him, a former Marine named Jason Overbaugh, grew so exasperated that he literally threw up his hands. “Mach, you cannot follow simple instructions, son,” Overbaugh told him. “I can’t say it any other different way. That’s why you’re screwing this up.”
A more seasoned academy hand, Officer Meredith Crowder, sensed that Overbaugh and Jacob needed a break from each other and suggested she give it a try. With her set jaw and spiky hair, Crowder could be as hard-nosed as any academy instructor. But she had developed an easy rapport with Jacob over the months, and she figured a familiar touch might help. She started by rubbing his back and then spoke to him in a soothing voice.
“Now, you were chased by lions and tigers, right?” she began in her West Georgia twang.
Jacob grinned. The part about the lions was right enough, and he was too preoccupied to explain that there are no tigers in Africa. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“So,” the instructor cocked her head, “what is the big deal with this?”
Jacob realized that Officer Crowder had a point. He certainly had overcome more. There was the death of his father, a rebel soldier, in the Sudanese civil war; the bombardment of his village by government tanks and planes; the barefoot trek at age 7, along with thousands of other tiny refugees, to a camp in Ethiopia; the loss of comrades to lions in the bush and crocodiles in the Gilo River; the starvation so severe that he ate leaves and watched friends drink their own urine.
He lost track of his mother for four years after new strife forced the boys to flee on foot back to southern Sudan. At 12, he had to escape the shooting again, this time hiking to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where he managed for 10 years on one meal a day. In 2001, after the United States granted refugee status to nearly 4,000 people who had been christened the Lost Boys of Sudan, Jacob was deposited in a drab apartment in Clarkston, Ga., just outside Atlanta. He arrived at age 21 with one change of clothes and a three-month guarantee of government support. There he confronted an alien world of flush toilets and microwave ovens, of impenetrable job applications and accents barely recognizable as English.
It did not take long for Jacob to realize that the streets were not, in fact, paved with gold. “All I knew was that America was the greatest thing in the world,” he recalled. “Nobody knew how people struggle in America.”
This new life would require new thinking. There was no such thing as ambition back in the village, where each generation of boys tended their families’ cattle and crops just as the last did. But in Georgia, Jacob felt he had little choice but to buy fully into the American dream. Traversing Atlanta’s sprawl by bus and train and foot, he worked the evening shift at a Publix, unpacking produce, and then the night shift at a Hilton, stocking minibars, at $7.50 an hour. He often found no more than four hours for sleep and snatched naps when he could. Once, regrettably, it was while he was stopped at a red light behind a bus, and his foot slipped off the brake.
God delivered him through all of this, Jacob believed. And while he often questioned why he had been chosen for such testing, he now had a degree of confidence that God would reward his faith by steadying his quivering trigger finger. In Philippians 4:13, it says that all things were possible through Christ, and so between rounds, he bowed his head. “God, you are the powerful God that gives us strength and abilities,” he prayed in the clipped, formal English he learned in the camps. “I am going to do this in your name.”
Surely a loving God would recognize how important this moment was to his goal of becoming perhaps the first Lost Boy to be sworn in as a police officer in the United States. Like past generations of immigrants, he dreamed that a badge might provide a way up and out. The job would pay him $42,000, more than he could imagine. After escaping one of the most anarchic regions on earth, he aspired to walk the streets of Atlanta as the very embodiment of American law and order.
But that morning on the firing range, it all was at risk. “I don’t know, ma’am, what I am doing really,” Jacob told Officer Crowder.
“You just relax,” she said. “That’s your problem.”
“Is that what it is?” he asked.
“That’s exactly what it is,” she reassured him. “Just listen to me. I’ll get you through it.”
I first met Jacob in 2005, four years after his arrival, when my wife, Dina, volunteered our family to mentor several Lost Boys who had been resettled in Clarkston. One night, Jacob and two Sudanese friends showed up at the house for an introductory dinner of baked chicken and Fudgsicles. He arrived in pressed jeans and an olive dress shirt, his lanky frame and narrow waist making him seem taller than his 5 feet 11 inches. As the evening progressed, Jacob related the story of the Lost Boys’ journey, which was no less riveting for sounding well rehearsed in the telling. While grateful for his escape to America, he made it clear that his daily routine — working two jobs while attending community college — left him exhausted. He seemed not the least intimidated by our suburban comforts and engaged our children with questions about their schools and activities. He laughed with an uninhibited cackle that evinced none of the post-traumatic stress we were told afflicted many of the Lost Boys.
Although his struggles were very much of the moment, his sights were set on the horizon. When Dina first asked our three guests how we might help them, one said he needed a car, while another wanted a computer. Jacob said he wanted braces, because he feared his imperfect teeth might hold him back in America. (Dina soon found an orthodontist to do the work pro bono, and the doctor was so impressed that she offered Jacob a part-time job in her office).
Looking back, I realize that we were drawn to Jacob by what I’ve watched draw others since: not just the trauma of the Lost Boys’ dislocation, which may have been as wrenching as any in modern times, but also his indomitable determination to prevail. We marveled as he won repeated promotions during a decade at the Hilton, becoming a security guard and then a security shift supervisor. He brought his wife, Lith Nhial Chol, to Atlanta from Kenya, bore a son, gained American citizenship, earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University — with a 3.3 G.P.A. — and supported family members in Africa and the States on an income of about $25,000 a year.
Jacob was sophisticated enough to manage an immensely complicated life in a strange land yet so naïve he did not realize that polygamy was illegal until we disappointed him with the news. Illiterate until age 13, he now communicated through endearingly florid emails and texts. The notes arrived on every occasion from Father’s Day to the Fourth of July: “Dina/Kevin, I do hope the weather keeps to both of you and the children.” He was not above flattery, writing Dina after our first meeting that she was “blessed with witty, talented and humorous gentleman.” So witty was her gentleman, in fact, that he “could even make the dog laugh.”
But unless prompted by us, Jacob never asked for a thing beyond our advice. He was as financially burdened as anyone we knew, but he had enough self-respect — and I suppose sense of style — to turn down most of the castoff clothes I offered from my closet.
It was Jacob’s job as a Hilton security guard that sparked his interest in police work. He majored in criminal justice at Georgia State and did an internship with the Atlanta Police Department during his senior year. Given his background, the gravitation toward law enforcement intrigued me. I knew that the police in Sudan were considered corrupt and that the refugees in Clarkston sometimes felt harassed by the local cops. I also knew that among the South Sudanese in the United States, there remained a strong imperative to resolve disputes internally. Involving the authorities or courts was considered almost taboo, and when circumstances warranted, councils of elders would convene to negotiate solutions.
Jacob had felt these crosscurrents in his own marriage. He arranged to marry Lith, a schoolmate at the Kakuma refugee camp, shortly before departing for Atlanta. He returned to Kenya two years later for their tribal wedding and then waited another three years for her to clear immigration hurdles. She is two inches taller than he is and strikingly beautiful, and after their extended separation, he prepared for the arrival of “my queen” by purchasing an ornate wooden bed that nearly filled his small bedroom. Lith became pregnant almost immediately after landing in 2006.
Lith is bright, well spoken and hardworking but also can be headstrong. After being confined to a refugee camp, she found her new freedom — and gender equality — intoxicating. When their son was 18 months old, she took the child to Australia to visit family and, two months later, informed Jacob that they would not be coming back.
Distraught about his child, Jacob agonized for weeks about whether to consult with diplomatic officials and lawyers, knowing it might not sit well with his Sudanese friends. Ultimately a combination of legal and community pressure influenced Lith to return after six months, and she and Jacob have patched their relationship for the sake of their 6-year-old son. She declined to let me interview her.
Despite the community’s ambivalence about the law, Jacob explained that the chaos of his youth provided much to admire about the clear-cut lines of American justice and those who enforce it. After three robbers broke into his apartment in 2006 and menaced his roommate at gunpoint, he was impressed that the police actually captured them. “It is a way of helping people who need help desperately,” Jacob said of policing. “Some will always have that feeling that the police are not trustworthy, but when they are in trouble, who are they going to call?”
By the time Jacob began applying to the Atlanta Police Department in September 2011, the city’s unemployment rate was more than a third higher than the national average, and any recovery seemed remote. Opportunities were particularly scarce for African-Americans and immigrants, and Jacob was both. Although the city’s sizable black middle class embodied the possibility of upward mobility for Jacob, that hope was tempered in neighborhoods close to his home, where poverty seemed inexorable.
Jacob knew he would be fortunate to get into the police academy, which accepted only one of every 15 applicants. His application emphasized his degree and work experience while neglecting to mention his rather extraordinary background. He declared in a handwritten essay that he was “proud, prepared and willing to join gallant men and women in uniform who put their lives in harm ways [sic] by fighting crimes and helping innocent citizens honorably.”
His file contained testimonials to his work ethic from employers and character references from friends, including myself. His only blot was the notation of five traffic violations in five years, including the collision with the bus. None involved alcohol or drugs, but a recruitment investigator singled out Jacob’s driving history as an area of concern.
In April 2012, Jacob was hired as a recruit but first had to pass a fitness test to gain a seat in the academy, which was housed in a former elementary school. Blessed with an effortless gait, he easily ran a mile and a half in less than the required 14 minutes 30 seconds. But his schedule had allowed little time for strength conditioning, and without the muscle to scale walls or drag a sand-filled dummy, he failed to finish the obstacle course in the allotted two minutes. He spent the next six weeks doing grunt work at the Zone 6 precinct while training to retake the test.
The officers in Zone 6 typically would disregard an underling like Recruit Mach. But after hearing snippets of his story, precinct commanders and officers dedicated themselves to helping him pass. “We knew he didn’t have much upper-body strength,” Sgt. Caroline Tanksley said. “So every time he saw one of us — and there are seven of us — we would make him do 10 push-ups. But we’d all get down and do them with him.”
On the morning of the next fitness test, Jacob’s head was tightly shaved, per regulations, and his arms showed the sinewy beginnings of muscle tone. Despite the early hour, he noticed that Sergeant Tanksley and three officers from Zone 6 had come to cheer him on.
Although a humble man, Jacob is not without ego, and when the run started he sprinted off to an early lead, burning energy that might have been better conserved. “I have to represent,” he explained after finishing second among 30 recruits. But it left him with little gas for the obstacle course, and by the time he had climbed and crawled and hurdled his way to the finish, his bloodied knees were so wobbly he could barely stand.
“One fifty-seven,” an instructor announced. Three seconds to spare. “That’s a pass.”
Jacob was in. Spattered with mud and sweat, he managed an unsmiling fist bump with a fellow recruit. “I didn’t think I had made it,” he gasped. The cops from Zone 6 were exultant and later presented him with $80 sneakers to replace the clunky black shoes he had worn. Jacob found himself almost without words. “You are my very good friends,” he said.
Officer Meredith Crowder tried to calm Mach before a qualifying attempt in firearms training at the Atlanta Police Academy.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
After wandering hundreds of miles and outlasting captivity in the camps, the Lost Boys arrived in America with deep stores of trauma and resilience. The story of their resettlement in places like Clarkston and Fargo and Phoenix has been poignantly documented by journalists (including in this magazine in 2001), filmmakers and authors, notably the novelist Dave Eggers, who ingeniously captured their voices in his 2006 book, “What Is the What.” There have been fewer assessments of how the Lost Boys have fared over the longer term, as their struggle to assimilate gave way to a search for economic security.
A few of the Sudanese refugees have achieved striking success, becoming teachers and engineers and pursuing graduate degrees. But many others have resigned themselves to low-wage work like parking cars or mopping school floors. A few have run afoul of the law. Their numbers in the area, roughly 150 at first, have dwindled by perhaps half, as men have migrated to other states for work or returned to South Sudan.
Jacob, who was elected head boy of his high school in the Kakuma camp, was considered a leader among the refugees. Eight years after arriving in the United States, he moved out of Clarkston and into a small house he built with Habitat for Humanity in a tidy low-income neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. As he entered the academy, he was completing a term as chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the political party that has governed South Sudan since its independence from Sudan in 2011. If he had a grand dream, it was to use his police career as a springboard to law school, so he might go back to a homeland he barely knew and teach his countrymen the ways of American justice.
On Sunday afternoons, Jacob gathered with other South Sudanese immigrants at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church for a service that fluctuated between English and Dinka, often in the same sentence. As drummers beat out a welcome, Jacob joined the men in shiny suits and buffed shoes who occupied the pews on the left. Their statuesque wives, swathed in boldly colored head wraps, split off to the right along with the children, some of whom slouched in tight jeans, N.B.A. jerseys and Spider-Man T-shirts.
Immigrant backgrounds are not unusual among police recruits in Atlanta. But few in Jacob’s class were as new to the country, and certainly none had been reared in a mud hut or paid a matrimonial dowry that included 30 cattle. His South Sudanese friends worried that his heavy accent and ebony skin might make him vulnerable and wondered whether he had the swagger to be an American cop. His own mother, Mary Ayen Kur, who lives in Kenya, said he had stood out among her seven children for his turn-the-cheek gentleness. During a visit to Atlanta, she told me: “He was born like a pastor.”
Jacob’s first term at the academy was short-lived, as he pulled up lame during a fitness test on Day 6 with what was later diagnosed as a stress fracture. Such setbacks are not unusual; three of 10 recruits do not make it through on their first try, either because they are injured or fail the tests of firearms skill, emergency driving or physical fitness. After recuperating for four months — while answering phones for the fugitive squad — Jacob joined a new class last January. He showed up both confident and anxious on the first day of the 22-week course for a crack-of-dawn session euphemistically described as orientation. For two hours, the academy instructors demanded push-ups, jumping jacks, stress positions and bear crawls, often with weighted duffels held overhead. Paramedics were positioned nearby to haul away the wounded.
“Get that bag up, Mach!” one sergeant hollered. “Solve the problem, son.”
“You look like a bunch of future Best Buy employees,” Officer Hardy Carrow said with a smirk.
Jacob’s face showed equal parts exhaustion, humiliation and fury. But as sometimes happened at such moments, his thoughts drifted back to Africa, to the two-month walk from Sudan to Ethiopia. “That was worse,” he told himself. “There is nothing more difficult than what I have gone through. They’re only trying to see whether you quit, whether you’re strong, whether you can deal with the stresses.” His ability to adapt to a hostile environment was one thing he liked best about himself.
The first week was devoted to exercises in controlled aggression, with recruits paired against each other in boxing and wrestling. The purpose was to measure heart rather than skill, which was fortunate because Jacob’s style was more jerk-and-flail than bob-and weave. With his long reach, he held his own, at one point sending a boxing opponent’s headgear sailing.
But Jacob was at his best in the concrete-block classroom, where he spent hundreds of hours learning criminal procedure and the Georgia code, writing mock incident reports and role-playing hostile scenarios. He almost always scored above 90 on tests and proved a valuable teammate in a game-show-like drill that required recruits to stand before the class and answer questions correctly or drop and do exercises. One day he was asked which constitutional amendment provided protection from eminent domain. Like a slugger who starts his home-run trot before the ball clears the fence, Jacob took a confident step toward his desk before responding: “The Fifth Amendment.” Other recruits high-fived him as he passed.
He spent part of his lunch breaks repeatedly drawing his unloaded Smith & Wesson, trying to build muscle memory for the firearms test in March. Once on the range, which was nestled between a landfill and a sewage-treatment plant, he would have to pass the test twice. It required him to shoot from a variety of positions, in particular sequences. Speed was vital, as a timer flipped the targets sideways after just a few seconds.
Over two days, Jacob failed his first four attempts. The night before his final tries, he gave up on sleep at 2 a.m., put on his uniform and strapped on a BB pistol he had bought at Walmart. He stood in the kitchen and practiced drawing on a target tacked to the living-room wall. “Things are falling apart,” he told himself. “I am doing something wrong.” He wondered if he needed to tilt the barrel down a hair.
It was the next morning that Officer Crowder intervened and started talking about the lions and tigers. “All right, remember, two right, two left,” she said. “Here we go, big guy, come on.” As the rounds exploded out of Jacob’s weapon, circles of daylight opened in his targets. “I need that every single time,” she told him.
When the guns silenced, Crowder tallied Jacob’s score and scribbled it on the target in black marker: 242 of a possible 300. He passed by two points. On his next attempt, Jacob squeaked by again with a score of 244. A broad smile spread across his face as his classmates whooped. “Good job, Mach,” Crowder said. Ignoring academy protocol, he embraced her full on.
Like all recruits, Jacob lived in fear of being recycled, of failing a required test and having to repeat the training. His biggest worry had always been the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course, or EVOC, which accounted for almost a third of all failures. He did not learn to drive until he was 26 and managed to get a license without any driver’s ed. Even now, a brief trip in his black Isuzu Rodeo might include moments of speeding, unsignaled turning and rolling through a stop sign. He had particular trouble driving in reverse.
The multipart driving test began two weeks after the firearms test in a pair of parking lots. First, drivers had to accelerate to at least 35 miles per hour, slam the brakes when a light turned red, zig left into a box outlined by cones and then zag right to a clean stop. The second part required precision driving through a narrow lane outlined by 900 plastic cones, with a timer running. Smacking a cone brought automatic disqualification.
On the first of four days of practice in the department’s Crown Victorias, Jacob regularly toppled cones while backing into a parking spot. On the third day, he somehow depressed the brake and gas pedals simultaneously and sent the car careering toward other recruits. The instructors had never seen that one before. The next day he managed to do it again. This time, the wheels shrieked as they spun in place.
“O.K., son, just stand down,” said Officer Karmen Williams, ordering Jacob out of the car. “We’ve got some concerns, O.K.?” She patted his wool cap.
The instructors huddled and called Jacob over. “It’s hard for me to explain,” he told them. “I never have this problem with my car.” They huddled again just beyond Jacob’s earshot.
“I wouldn’t recommend him getting back in the car,” Williams said, her thick dreadlocks pulled back tightly.
“We’re probably going to have to recycle him,” said Officer Michael Carter, the class coordinator. It was Jacob’s second safety violation in as many days, and there was no time to address the problem before the next day’s test. Precedent called for him to be removed from the class. “It’s very serious what happened,” Carter told Jacob. “It may take some more practice.” Jacob stood expressionless, then said, “I’m sure if I’m given another chance, I’ll learn from my mistakes.”
The next day, Friday, every other member of the class passed EVOC. Jacob spent the weekend terrified that the instructors might terminate him instead of letting him start the academy a third time. It seemed a bit overblown to him that they had not even let him try the driving test. He started to dwell on his mortgage and credit-card debt and student loans. “If they make it hard for me,” he said, “where do they think I can get a job? McDonald’s?”
On Monday he took action, emailing the recruit supervisor, Sgt. D’Andrea Price, to “profoundly apologize” for his troubles on the course. He said he recognized that the decision to remove him was “reasonable and necessary” and said he was determined to improve.
“I know practice makes perfect,” he wrote, before adding that he was the sole breadwinner for his “young, beautiful family.”
The following day, Price informed Jacob that she would give him one last chance in a new class. The schedule was such that he would have to wait only a month before getting his final shot at EVOC. Jacob couldn’t really pinpoint why he had so much trouble with the driving, but he attributed much of it to not being familiar with the bulky Crown Victoria. So on the May weekend before the next EVOC test, he went to the Thrifty outlet at the airport and rented one for two days of practice. “It’s a lot of money for me,” he said of the $151 he charged to his credit card. “I would have used that money for other things like buying food, sending money to my mom in Nairobi, even paying some of the rents. But this is a big deal. I’ve got to graduate.” It was clear that he felt the weight of the moment, but when I asked if the pressure was getting to him, he denied feeling overwhelmed.
Yet at practice that week he knocked down cone after cone. Each night I’d go home and tell Dina it was befuddling to watch. As on the firing range, Jacob seemed to get jittery when the clock was ticking. His face contorted as he maneuvered around the circles and curves, as if a dentist were drilling his molars. It was curious to us that Jacob seemed to handle mental stress well but became flustered by physical tasks that required hand-eye coordination. Perhaps the adrenaline flooded his system. Whatever the explanation, it was making the instructors crazy. “Mach, do they listen in the motherland?” Officer Williams, an African-American, asked at one point.
When test day arrived, Jacob felt he had done everything he could to prepare. Each recruit would get four chances to pass the braking test and, if successful, would then get four runs at the precision-driving course. Jacob failed his first braking attempt by nicking a cone. On the second and third attempts he accelerated too fast and finished outside the box. He was the only recruit of 35 to not move on. “This boy is coming down to his last darn time,” said Officer Williams, who, like other instructors, had become invested in Jacob’s success.
Williams turned her back as Jacob sped toward his final approach. When he hit 38 on the straightaway, it seemed there was no way he could keep the car in the box. Somehow it stopped just within the lines. “It’s good,” Carter declared, offering Jacob a fist-bump as Williams exhaled.
Now a clean run on the cone course, within 3 minutes 45 seconds, was all that separated Jacob from advancing. His first two tries ended quickly. First a toppled cone. Then an improper parking job. Williams hopped in the car for a practice run and peppered him with instruction. “Gas, I need some gas,” she agitated, clearly frustrated by her pupil’s failure to improve. By now Jacob seemed thoroughly rattled, and on his third try he backed into the parking space and again hit a cone. As he awaited his final attempt, he glared out the driver’s side window with his head sunk into his left hand.
Williams peered back and saw that Jacob was drenched. “You’re sweating, man, you’re sweating,” she said. He wiped his face with a broad sweep of his hand.
“Trying to get that time, ma’am,” he said.
“I know,” she said, “but you got to clean it up.”
Then it was Carter’s turn. “You got the air on in here?” he asked through the passenger window. “Do you need to take a breather?”
“No, I’m good, sir,” Jacob answered.
“Do this damn thing,” Carter urged.
“Yes, sir,” Jacob nodded. “I don’t want to let you down.”
Jacob accelerated with a grimace and a deep breath. He slapped the car into reverse, his mouth agape as he began backing into the space. Williams could see from the car’s angle that he was going to flatten a side cone with his left rear tire. “O.M.G.,” she said, glancing down as he rolled over it. After nearly a year of training and all the setbacks, it ended in an anticlimactic 15 seconds. “All right,” Williams said faintly, “that’s over.”
Jacob was momentarily stunned. Hanging both hands over the steering wheel, he let out a high-pitched wounded yelp.
Later that afternoon, Price and Williams summoned him to the library and made it official. They explained that he could reapply to the academy in a year if he wanted. Price told him how to turn in his gun belt and uniform, then asked if he had questions.
“No, ma’am, I do not have any questions,” Jacob said, “but one thing I would like to say is that I appreciate the opportunities given to me here. The instructors worked very hard to try and help me.”
Price’s voice softened. “One thing I want to say to you is you’ve been a positive light,” she said. “I know you’re down now, and I know you’re going to beat yourself up. I know it. But like I tell all the other recruits: There’s a time and a season for every reason.”
Williams encouraged him to try again. “Just know that you do have a family here,” she said. “You know that, right?”
Jacob offered to shake her hand. “Am I going to get a handshake or a hug?” she asked.
“I will give you both,” he smiled.
Continue reading the main story
Jacob’s hair had already started to grow in when we had lunch four days later. He had explained the situation to his friends at church, and fielded condolence calls from fellow recruits. He felt he had let people down, especially his family, but took some solace in the notion that his failures had been of inexperience, not of intelligence or character. Perhaps, he suggested, the God who had so tested the Lost Boys was still challenging him.
“I mean, life is an obstacle course,” Jacob said, “and you don’t expect to win all the time. Even LeBron James sometimes loses, you know? The people who qualified, who passed EVOC, it’s not that they are any smarter than me. No. Not in the classroom, not in doing physical training. You just realize you might not know everything. But I still have given it my best shot.”
He told me he was already exploring next steps. “As you have seen, since I came to this country I never stopped doing something,” he said. “So if this door is closed for me, I think God will open another door.”
Two days later, Jacob was at home, studying the application for another police department, when an Atlanta Police personnel officer called. He had been recommended to the code-enforcement division for a civilian job inspecting substandard housing and illegal dumps on private property. There was an opening, and it was Jacob’s if he wanted it.
Jacob could not contain his glee when he called to tell me. The job paid almost $39,000, he said, just $3,000 less than he would have made as a cop and $4,000 more than he made as a recruit. What a country: He had been fired and gotten a raise. “We work from 8 to 4, Monday to Friday, can you believe it?” he exulted. “I never get a job like that before. I am glad God has made it happen.”
It occurred to Jacob that God truly must work in mysterious ways. “I couldn’t understand why my foot was hitting the brake and the gas at the same time,” he said. “It had never happened before, so maybe God was doing it. Maybe I was going to get killed in the line of duty, and God was saying, ‘No, it’s not time.’ ”
On Jacob’s first day in the code-enforcement office, the commander, Maj. Cerelyn J. Davis, wandered by and asked if he was her new inspector. “Yes, ma’am, I am,” he answered, “and I am so ready to help you with these bad houses.” It made her laugh that he did not sound the least bit facetious.
Jacob and the more than two dozen other inspectors would handle 10,000 complaints a year, seeking compliance from property owners and issuing citations. He wore a silver badge on the belt of his khaki cargo pants but was armed with only a flashlight, a radio and an iPad.
Early in his training, Jacob helped inspect a complex of dilapidated apartment buildings where vagrants were squatting. As his partner tested the plywood, the new owners of the complex, Glenn and Cyndi Green, stood beside the silver Mercedes they were driving and made small talk with Jacob. They eventually asked about his background, and as his story unfolded, Cyndi Green began to wipe away tears.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “You should talk to these deadbeats out here that don’t want to do anything and tell them how hard you had it to make it where you have.”
Jacob told the Greens he was sure they had struggled as well. “What matters,” he said, “is your determination, your dedication, your ability to move your own challenges.”
Over the next few weeks, as he crisscrossed Atlanta in his white city truck, Jacob saw just how bad things were. For every ramshackle house he inspected in response to a complaint, there were another dozen properties nearby with collapsed roofs or shoulder-high pokeweed. He photographed and documented the blight with his iPad. “Going to these ’hoods, wow,” Jacob said. “I thought in America you would not see people living like this.”
The job kept him very busy, and for the first time he was able to pay his bills and send money to relatives in Africa without piling on debt. He thought he would like the job just fine for a while. Then, who knew? He could not shake the desire to give the academy one more try or maybe go to graduate school. He did not want to be complacent, he told me. “You know,” Jacob observed, “American dream is a continuous process.”
I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”
“Who needs help.” — Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now — loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been — and would be, I would tell her — and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.
I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.
Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.
She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his goodbye note) “sharing want with us.
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.
It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone.
She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now — the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that
are only parking places for children.
Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.
And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little boy hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.
She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick, Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t there today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire there last night. Momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.
But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three, four -year- oldness — the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands — and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?
The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.
It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them — too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let alone almost always as her brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses a laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.
Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time, after I had had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.
Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough.
“Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”
The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me — what it talked.”
She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.
She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to cat, and night after night she had nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back: “You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice, “now go to sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.
Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get
up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”
They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.
They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit “unless otherwise notified” — as we were notified the first six weeks.
Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. High up on the balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”
There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came. One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage,” Emily shouted in explanation. “They don’t like you to love anybody here.”
She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my Ieter nicly I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read — once. “We simply do not have room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.
Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.
(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold it in my mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)
It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.
I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.
She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.
There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’ n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.
School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness
were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an over-conscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too often.
I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now – – strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough. I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together. Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and shells, dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.
Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurts and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.
Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking — but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden – – and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.
I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin…” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscious of words before you speak, the constant caring — what are they thinking of me? without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives.
Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, Shoogily, invented by her to say: comfort.
In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over the unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in
There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school.
I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”
Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.
She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself into the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.
Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that — but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing. She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today.
“Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.
She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.
She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom — dead they won’t matter a bit.”
She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.
I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom — but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know-help make it so there is cause for her to know — that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…
ByNam Le, Prospect Magazine UK
September 28, 2008
My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem, the dull thluck thluck of a typewriter’s keys punching out the letters. It was a good poem—perhaps the best I’d ever written. When I woke, he was standing outside my bedroom door, smiling ambiguously. Still groggy with dream, I lifted my face toward the alarm clock.
“What time is it?”
“Hello, Son,” he said in Vietnamese. “I knocked for a long time. Then the door just opened.”
The fields are glass, I thought. Then tum-ti-ti, a dactyl, end line, then the words excuse and alloy in the line after.
“It’s raining heavily,” he said.
I frowned. The clock read 11:44. “I thought you weren’t coming until this afternoon.” It felt strange, after all this time, to be speaking Vietnamese again.
“They changed my flight in Los Angeles.”
“Why didn’t you ring?”
“I tried,” he said equably. “No answer.”
I twisted over the side of the bed and cracked open the window. The sound of rain filled the room—rain fell on the streets, on the roofs, on the tin shed across the parking lot like the distant detonations of firecrackers. Everything smelled of wet leaves.
“I turn the ringer off when I sleep,” I said. “Sorry.”
He continued smiling at me, significantly, as if waiting for an announcement.
“I was dreaming.”
He used to wake me, when I was young, by standing over me and smacking my cheeks lightly. I hated it—the wetness, the sourness of his hands.
“Come on,” he said, picking up a large Adidas duffel and a rolled bundle that looked like a sleeping bag. “A day lived, a sea of knowledge earned.” He had a habit of speaking in Vietnamese proverbs. I had long since learned to ignore it.
I threw on a T-shirt and stretched my neck in front of the lone window. Through the rain, the sky was as gray and striated as graphite.
“You must be exhausted,” I said.
He had flown from Sydney, Australia before touching down in Iowa—thirty-three hours all up. I hadn’t seen him in three years.
“You’ll sleep in my room.”
“Very fancy,” he said as he led me through my own apartment. As he moved into the kitchen, I grabbed the three-quarters-full bottle of Johnnie Walker from the second shelf of my bookcase and stashed it under the desk. I looked around. The desktop was gritty with cigarette ash; I threw some magazines over the roughest spots. Then I spotted the photo of Linda beside the printer. Her glamour shot, I called it: hair windswept and eyes squinty, smiling at something out of frame. One of her ex-boyfriends had taken it at Lake MacBride. She looked happy. I snatched it and turned it face down, covering it with scrap paper.
Walking into the kitchen I thought, for a moment, that I’d left the fire escape open. I could hear rain water gushing along gutters, down through the pipes. Then I saw my father at the sink, sleeves rolled up, sponge in hand, washing the month-old crusted mound of dishes. The smell was awful. “Ba,” I frowned, “you don’t need to do that.”
His hands, hard and leathery, moved deftly.
“Ba,” I said, half-heartedly.
“I’m almost finished.” He looked up and smiled. “Have you eaten? Do you want me to make lunch?”
“Thoi,” I said, suddenly irritated. “You’re exhausted. I’ll go out and get us something.”
I went back through the living room, picking up clothes and rubbish along the way.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he called out. “You just do what you always do.”
The truth was, he’d come at the worst possible time. I was in my last year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; it was late November, and my final story for the semester was due in three days. I had a backlog of papers to grade and a heap of fellowship and job applications to draft and submit. It was no wonder I was drinking so much.
I’d told Linda only the previous night that he was coming. We were at her place. Her body was slippery with sweat and hard to hold. Her body smelled of her clothes. She turned me over, my face kissing the bedsheets, and then she was chopping my back with the edges of her hands. Higher. Out a bit more. She had trouble keeping a steady rhythm. “Softer,” I told her. Moments later, I started laughing.
The sheets were damp beneath my pressed face.
“Softer,” I said, “not slower.”
She slapped my back with the meat of her palms, hard—once, twice. I couldn’t stop laughing. I squirmed over and caught her by the wrists. Hunched forward, she was blushing and beautiful. Her hair fell over her face; beneath its ash-blond hem all I could see were her open lips. She pressed down, into me, her shoulders kinking the long, lean curve from the back of her neck to the small of her back. “Stop it!” her lips said. She wrested her hands free. Her fingers beneath my waistband, violent, the scratch of her nails down my thighs, knees, ankles. I pointed my foot like a ballet dancer.
Afterwards, I told her my father didn’t know about her. She said nothing. “We just don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” I explained. She looked like an actress who looked like my girlfriend. Staring at her face made me tired. “He’s only here for three days.” Somewhere out of sight, a group of college boys hooted and yelled.
“I thought you didn’t talk to him at all.”
“He’s my father.”
“What’s he want?”
I rolled towards her, on to my elbow. “It’s only three days,” I said.
The look on her face was strange, shut down. She considered me a long time. Then she got up and pulled on her clothes. “Just make sure you get your story done,” she said.
I drank before I came here too. I drank when I was a student at university, and then when I was a lawyer—in my previous life, as they say. There was a subterranean bar in a hotel next to my work, and every night I would wander down and slump on a bar stool and pretend I didn’t want the bartender to make small talk. He was only a bit older than me, and I came to envy his ease, his confidence that any given situation was merely temporary. My parents had already split by then, my father moving to Sydney, my mother into a government flat.
That’s all I’ve ever done, traffic in words. Sometimes I still think about word counts the way a general must think about casualties. I’d been in Iowa more than a year and I’d written only three and a half stories. About seventeen thousand words. When I was working at the law firm, I would have written that many words in a couple of weeks.
Deadlines came, exhausting, and I forced myself up to meet them. Then, in the great spans of time between, I fell back to my vacant screen and my slowly sludging mind. I tried everything—writing in longhand, writing in my bed, in my bathtub. As this last deadline approached, I remembered a friend claiming he’d broken his writer’s block by switching to a typewriter. You’re free to write, he told me, once you know you can’t delete what you’ve written. I bought an electric Smith Corona at an antique shop. It buzzed like a tropical aquarium when I plugged it in. It looked good on my desk. For inspiration, I read absurdly formal Victorian poetry and drank scotch neat. How hard could it be? Things happened in this world all the time. All I had to do was record them. In the sky, two swarms of swallows converged, pulled apart, interwove again like veils drifting at cross-currents. In the supermarket, a black woman leaned forward and kissed the handle of her shopping cart, her skin dark and glossy like the polished wood of a piano.
The week prior to my father’s arrival, a friend chastised me for my persistent defeatism.
“Writer’s block?” Under the streetlights, bourbon vapours puffed out of his mouth. “How can you have writer’s block? Just write a story about Vietnam.”
We had come from a party following a reading by the workshop’s most recent success, a Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America who had written a book of short stories about Chinese characters in stages of immigration to America. The stories were subtle and good. The gossip was she’d been offered a six-figure contract for a two-book deal. It was meant to be an unspoken rule that such things were left unspoken. Of course, it was all anyone talked about.
“It’s hot,” a writing instructor told me at a bar. “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.”
Other friends were more forthright: “I’m sick of ethnic lit,” one said. “It’s full of descriptions of exotic food.” Or: “You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn’t have the vocab.”
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington DC, who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.
“It’s a licence to bore,” my friend said. We were drunk and walking our bikes because both of us, separately, had punctured our tyres.
“The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians…” he said, as though reciting children’s doggerel, then stopped, losing his train of thought. His mouth turned up into a doubtful grin. I could tell he was angry about something.
“Look,” I said, pointing at a floodlit porch ahead of us. “Those guys have guns.”
“As long as there’s an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text”—he held out his thumb and forefinger to indicate half a page. I nodded to him, and then I nodded to one of the guys on the porch, who nodded back. The other guy waved us through with his faux-wood air rifle. A car with its headlights on was idling in the driveway, and girls’ voices emerged from inside, squealing, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
“Faulkner, you know,” my friend said over the squeals, “he said we should write about the old verities. Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” A sudden sharp crack behind us, like the striking of a giant typewriter hammer, was followed by some muffled shrieks. “I know I’m a bad person for saying this,” my friend said, “but that’s why I don’t mind your work, Nam. Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. Like in your third story.”
He must have thought my head was bowed in modesty, but in fact I was figuring out whether I’d just been shot in the back of the thigh. I’d felt a distinct sting. The pellet might have ricocheted off something.
“You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans, and New York painters with haemorrhoids.”
For a dreamlike moment I was taken aback. Catalogued like that, under the bourbon stink of his breath, my stories sank into unflattering relief. My leg was still stinging. I imagined sticking my hand down the back of my jeans, bringing it to my face under a streetlight, and finding it gory, blood-spattered. I imagined turning around, advancing wordlessly up the porch steps, and dropkicking the two kids. I would tell my story into a microphone from a hospital bed. I would compose my story in a county cell. I would kill one of them, maybe accidentally, and never talk about it, ever, to anyone. There was no hole in my jeans.
“I’m probably a bad person,” my friend said, stumbling beside his bike.
That afternoon, as I was leaving the apartment for Linda’s, my father called out my name from the bedroom.
I stopped outside the closed door. He was meant to be napping.
“Where are you going?” his voice said.
“For a walk,” I replied.
“I’ll walk with you.”
The rain had stopped outside. I don’t know why, but we walked in the middle of the road, dark asphalt gleaming beneath the slick, pasted leaves like the back of a whale.
“There’s a coffee shop downtown,” I said. “And an art museum across the river.”
“Ah, take me there.”
“No,” he said, looking sideways at me. “The river.”
We turned back to Burlington Street and walked down the hill to the river. He stopped halfway across the bridge. Behind us six lanes of cars skidded back and forth across the wet grit of the road, the sound like the shredding of wind.
“Have you heard from your mother?” He stood upright before the railing, his head strangely small above the puffy down jacket I had lent him.
“Every now and then.”
He lapsed into formal Vietnamese: “How is the mother of Nam?”
“She is good,” I said.
He was already nodding. Behind him, the east bank of the river glowed wanly in the afternoon light. “Come on,” I said. We crossed the bridge and walked to a nearby Dairy Queen. When I came out, two coffees in my hands, my father had gone down to the river’s edge. Next to him, a bundled-up, bearded figure stooped over a burning gasoline drum. Never had I seen anything like it in Iowa City.
“This is my son,” my father said, once I had scrambled down the wet bank. “The writer.” I glanced quickly at him but his face gave nothing away. He lifted a hot paper cup out of my hand. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Thank you, no.” The man stood watching his knotted hands, palms glowing above the drum’s rim. I smelled animals in him, and fuel, and rain.
“I read his story,” my father went on in his lilting English, “about Vietnamese boat people.” He gazed at the man, straight into his blank, rheumy eyes, then said, as though delivering a punchline, “We are Vietnamese boat people.”
We stood there a long time, the three of us, watching the flames. When I lifted my eyes it was dark.
“Do you have any money on you?” my father asked me in Vietnamese.
“Welcome to America,” the man said through his beard. He didn’t look up as I closed his fist around the damp bills.
My father was drawn to weakness, even as he tolerated none in me. He was a soldier, he said once, as if that explained everything. When I was fourteen, I discovered that he had been involved in a massacre. Later I would come across photos and transcripts and books, but that night, at a family friend’s party in suburban Melbourne, it was just another story in a circle of drunken men. They sat cross-legged around a blue tarpaulin, getting smashed on cheap beer. It was that time of night when things started to break up against other things. Red faces, raised voices, spilled drinks. We arrived late and the men shuffled around, making room for my father.
It was the first time I was allowed to stay. I sat on the circle’s perimeter, watching. A thicket of Vietnamese voices, cursing, toasting, braying about their children, making fun of one man who kept stuttering, “It has the power of f-f-five hundred horses!” Through it all my father laughed good-naturedly, his face so red with drink he looked sunburned. Then someone called out his name; I realised he had set his chopsticks down and was speaking in a low voice:
“Heavens, the gunships came first, rockets and M60s. You remember that sound, no? Like you were deaf. We were hiding in the bunker underneath the temple, my mother and four sisters and Mrs Tran, the baker, and some other people. You couldn’t hear anything. Then the gunfire stopped and Mrs Tran told my mother we had to go up to the street. If we stayed there, the Americans would think we were Vietcong. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ my mother said. ‘They have grenades,’ Mrs Tran said. I was scared and excited. I had never seen an American before.”
It took me a while to reconcile my father with this story. He caught my eye and held it, as though he were sharing a secret with me. He was drunk.
“So we went up. They made us walk to the east side of the village. There were about ten of them, about fifty of us. Mrs Tran was saying, ‘No VC no VC.’ They didn’t hear her, not over the sound of machine guns. Only I heard her. I saw pieces of animals all over the paddy fields, a water buffalo with its side missing—like it was scooped out by a spoon. Then, through the smoke, I saw Grandpa Long bowing to a GI in the traditional greeting. I wanted to call out to him. His wife and daughter and granddaughters, My and Kim, stood shyly behind him. The GI stepped forward, tapped the top of his head with the rifle butt and then twirled the gun around and slid the bayonet into his throat. He wore a beaded necklace and a baseball cap. No one said anything. My mother tried to cover my eyes, but I saw him switch the fire selector on his gun from automatic to single-shot before he shot Grandma Long. Then he and a friend pulled the daughter into a shack, the two little girls dragged along, clinging to her legs.
“They stopped us at the drainage ditch, near the bridge. There were bodies on the road, a baby with only the bottom half of its head, a monk, his robe turning pink. I saw two bodies with the ace of spades carved into the chests. I didn’t understand it. My sisters didn’t even cry. People were now shouting, ‘No VC no VC,’ but the Americans just frowned and spat and laughed. One of them said something, then some of them started pushing us into the ditch. It was half full of muddy water. My mother jumped in and lifted my sisters down, one by one. I remember looking up and seeing helicopters everywhere, some bigger than others, some higher up. They made us kneel in the water. They set up their guns on tripods. They made us stand up again. One of the Americans, a boy with a fat face, was crying and moaning softly as he reloaded his magazine. ‘No VC no VC.’ They didn’t look at us. They made us turn back around. They made us kneel back down in the water. When they started shooting I felt my mother’s body jumping on top of mine; it kept jumping for a long time, and then everywhere was the sound of helicopters, louder and louder like they were all coming down to land, and everything was dark and wet and warm and sweet.”
The circle had gone quiet. My mother came out from the kitchen, squatted behind my father, and looped her arms around his neck. This was a minor breach of the rules. “Heavens,” she said, “don’t you men have anything better to talk about?”
After a short silence, someone snorted, saying loudly, “You win, Thanh. You really did have it bad!” and then everyone, including my father, burst out laughing. I joined in unsurely. They clinked glasses and made toasts using words I didn’t understand.
Maybe he didn’t tell it exactly that way. Maybe I’m filling in the gaps. But you’re not under oath when writing a eulogy, and this is close enough. My father grew up in the province of Quang Ngai, in the village of Son My, in the hamlet of Tu Cung, later known to the Americans as My Lai. He was fourteen years old.
Late that night, I plugged in the Smith Corona. It hummed with promise. I grabbed the bottle of scotch from under the desk and poured myself a double. Fuck it, I thought. I had two and a half days left. I would write the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father. It was a good story. It was a fucking great story.
I fed in a sheet of blank paper. At the top of the page, I typed “ETHNIC STORY” in capital letters. I pushed the carriage return. The sound of helicopters in a dark sky. The keys hammered the page.
The next day, at the coffee shop, I sat with my typed pages and watched people come and go. The door opened and a cold wind blew in.
“Hey.” It was Linda, wearing a large orange hiking jacket and bringing with her the crisp, bracing scent of all the places she had been. Her face was unmaking a smile. “What are you doing here?”
“Working on my story.”
“Is your dad here?”
She leaned over me, her hair grazing my face, cold and silken against my cheek. “Is this it?” She picked up a couple of pages and read them soundlessly. “I don’t get it,” she said, returning them to the table. “What are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“You never told me any of this.”
“Did he tell you this? Now he’s talking to you?”
“Not really,” I said.
I turned to face her. Her eyes reflected no light.
“You know what I think?” She looked back down at the pages. “I think you’re making excuses for him.”
“You’re romanticising his past,” she went on, “to make sense of the things you said he did to you.”
“It’s a story,” I said. “What things did I say?”
“Just tell me this,” she replied, her voice flattening. “You’ve never introduced him to any of your exes, right?” The question was tight on her face.
I didn’t say anything and after a while she nodded, biting one corner of her upper lip. I knew that gesture. I knew, even then, that I was supposed to stand up, pull her orange-jacketed body towards mine, speak into her ear; but all I could do was think about my father and his excuses. Those tattered bodies on top of him. The ten hours he’d waited, mud filling his lungs, until nightfall. I felt myself falling into old habits.
She said, “You said he abused you.”
It was too much, these words, and what connected to them. I looked at her serious, beautifully lined face, her light-trapping eyes, and already I felt them taxing me. “I never said that.”
She stepped forward and kissed the top of my head. It was one of her rules: never to leave an argument without some sign of affection. I turned away.
The apartment smelled of fried garlic and sesame oil when I returned. My father was sitting on the living room floor, on the special mattress he had brought over with him. He told me it was for his back.
“I read your story this morning,” he said, “while you were still sleeping.” Something in my stomach folded over. I hadn’t thought to hide the pages. “There are mistakes in it.”
“You read it?”
“There were mistakes in your last story too.”
In the kitchen, I scooped up a forkful of marinated tofu, cashews, and chickpeas. “They’re stories,” I said, chewing casually. “Fiction.”
He paused for a moment, then said, “Okay, Son.”
For so long my diet had consisted of chips and noodles and pizzas I’d forgotten how much I missed home cooking. As I ate, he stretched on his white mat.
“How’s your back?”
“I had a CAT scan,” he said. “There’s nerve fluid leaking between my vertebrae.” He smiled his long-suffering smile, right leg twisted across his left hip.
“Does it hurt, Ba?”
“It hurts.” He chuckled briefly, as though the whole matter were a joke. “But what can I do? I can only accept it.”
“Can’t they operate?”
I felt myself losing interest. I was a bad son. He brought up his back pains so often—always couched in Buddhist tenets of suffering and acceptance—that the cold, hard part of me suspected he was exaggerating, to solicit and then gently rebuke my concern. He did this. He’d forced me to take karate lessons until I was sixteen; then, during one of our final arguments, he came at me and I found myself in fighting stance. He had smiled at my horror. “That’s right,” he’d said. We were locked in all the intricate ways of guilt. It took all the time we had to realise that everything we faced, we faced for the other as well.
“I want to talk with you,” I said.
“You grow old, your body breaks down,” he said.
“No, I mean for the story.”
“About what?” He seemed amused.
“About my mistakes,” I said.
Afternoon. We sat across from one another at the dining room table: I asked questions and took notes on a yellow legal pad; he talked. He talked about his childhood, his family. He talked about My Lai. At this point, he stopped.
“You won’t offer your father some of that?”
“Heavens, you think you can hide liquor of that quality?”
The afternoon light came through the window and held his body in a silver square, slowly sinking toward his feet, dimming, as he talked. I filled and refilled our glasses. He talked above the peak-hour traffic on the streets, its rinse of noise; he talked deep into the evening. When the phone rang the second time, I unplugged it from the jack. He told me how he’d been conscripted into the South Vietnamese army.
“After what the Americans did? How could you fight on their side?”
“I had nothing but hate in me,” he said, “but I had enough for everyone.” He paused on the word hate like a father saying it before his infant child for the first time, trying the child’s knowledge, testing what was inherent in the word and what learned.
He told me about the war. He told me about meeting my mother. The wedding. Then the fall of Saigon. 1975. He told me about his imprisonment in re-education camp, the forced confessions, the indoctrinations, the starvations. The daily labour that ruined his back. The casual killings. He told me about the tiger-cage cells and connex boxes, the different names for different forms of torture: the honda, the airplane, the auto.
He told me how, upon his release after three years’ incarceration, he organised our family’s escape from Vietnam. This was 1979. He was twenty-five years old then, and my father.
When finally he fell asleep, his face warm from the scotch, I watched him from the bedroom doorway. I was drunk. Then I shook myself conscious and went to my desk. I read my notes through once, carefully, all forty-five pages. I reread the draft of my story from two nights earlier. Then I put them both aside and started typing, never looking at them again.
He wasn’t in the apartment when I woke up. There was a note on the coffee table: I am going for a walk. I have taken your story to read. I sat outside, on the fire escape, with a tumbler of scotch, waiting for him. I had slept for only three hours and was too tired to feel anything but peace.
He would read it, with his book-learned English, and he would recognise himself in a new way. He would see how powerful was his experience, how valuable his suffering—how I had made it speak for more than itself. He would be pleased with me.
I finished the scotch. It was eleven-thirty and the sky was dark and grey-smeared. My story was due at midday. I put my gloves on and untangled my bike from the rack. He would be pleased with me. I rode around the block, then towards downtown. On Washington Street, a sudden gust of wind ravaged the elm branches and unfastened their leaves, floating them down thick and slow and soundless.
I was halfway across the bridge when I saw him. I stopped. He was on the riverbank. I couldn’t make out the face but it was he, short and small-headed in my bloated jacket. He stood with the tramp, both of them staring into the blazing gasoline drum. The smoke was thick, particulate. For a second I stopped breathing. I knew with sick certainty what he had done. The ashes, given body by the wind, floated away from me down the river. He patted the man on the shoulder, reached into his back pocket and slipped some money into those large, newly mittened hands. He started up the bank then, and saw me. I was so full of wanting I thought it would flood my heart.
If I had known then what I knew later, I wouldn’t have said the things I did. I wouldn’t have told him he didn’t understand—for clearly, he did. I wouldn’t have told him that what he had done was unforgivable. That I wished he had never come, or that he was no father to me. But I hadn’t known, and, as I waited, feeling the wind change, all I saw was a man coming toward me in a ridiculously oversized jacket, rubbing his black-sooted hands, stepping through the smoke with its flecks and flame-tinged eddies, who had destroyed himself, yet again, in my name. The river was behind him. The wind was full of acid. In the slow float of light I looked away, down at the river. On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters. The water, where it still moved, was black and braided. And it occurred to me then how it took hours, sometimes days, for the surface of a river to freeze over—to hold in its skin the perfect and crystalline world—and how that world could be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.
Nam Le’s short story collection The Boat is published by Canongate
Essay #2: Critical Analysis of an Argument
15% of final grade
In this assignment you’ll move from analyzing the course theme as it relates to you personally to analyzing someone else’s assessment of a particular issue related to the theme.
You have a choice between two essays that we have read so far together as a class: “Against School” by John Taylor Gatto and “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” by Paul Tough.
Your paper should analyze how effective, or convincing, the writer was in making their argument, and what conclusion you have come to yourself regarding the issue being covered based on the reasoning and evidence that the author provides.
Summarize the article briefly. You cannot assume your audience has read the article you are critiquing. Therefore, you should provide a brief summary of the article early on in the essay. Be sure to state what the author’s main argument is and mention his or her main points of support and evidence. You should also tell your audience when and where the article was published and who it was written by.
Critique the author’s argument:
Consider the following questions as prompts for helping you critique the article and its argument.
What assumptions does the author make? Do I share them? If not, why not?
Does the author ever confuse facts with beliefs or opinions?
How convincing is the evidence?
Are significant objections and counterevidence adequately discussed?
What appeals does the writer make? To reason (logos), for instance, with statistics, the testimony of authorities, and personal experience? To the emotions (pathos), for instance, by an appeal to “our better nature” or to widely shared values? To our sense that the speaker is trustworthy (ethos)?
How is the text organized, and is the organization effective? Are the title, the opening paragraphs, and the concluding paragraphs effective? In what ways?
What is the author’s tone? Is it appropriate?
To what extent has the author convinced me? Why? (Note that it is possible to be partially convinced by the argument. You do not have to agree or disagree completely with the author, but either way you should be clear about your stance, even if that stance is one of ambivalence.)
You do not need to answer all of these questions. They should simply serve as prompts for getting you thinking critically about the article and its argument.
Provide support for your critique. Just as you want the author to provide examples and evidence to support his or her argument, you must provide support for your critique. For an essay of this length, it would be appropriate to use about four quotes from the text. Consider using outside examples or personal examples that demonstrate either the validity or questionability of the author’s arguments.
A strong essay will…
ESSAY FORMAT: double-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, standard 1-inch margins; your name, instructor’s name, the class (English 111), and the date should appear in the upper left corner of the first page; pages should be numbered. Example below:
Informative and Engaging Title
Start first paragraph here…….
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Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.
There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.
Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.
We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.
You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.
We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
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