BOOKS & THE CULTURE IN THE END THE BEARERS OF MESSIANIC VISIONS MUST COME TO TERMS WITH THE FACT THAT, AS MUCH AS WE LOVE THEM, OUR STUDENTS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. strayed onto their turf in search of a used car which had been advertised, while his murderers assumed he had arrived for an assignation with a neighborhood girl. In the second year, the focus was on the death of two students at Thomas Jefferson High School in another Brooklyn neighborhood; they were gunned down in the hall by a fellow student who claimed to be protecting himself against their death threats. One of the victims had written a poem a year earlier on the occasion of his grandmother’s funeral which included the prophetic lines from which the book’s title derives: When I die will I be thought about? Will my name be shouted out? These plays enabled O’Connor to overcome his dissatisfactions with the formulaic poetry-writing assign ments which had been the project’s stockin-trade up to that point. He was committed to “making writing matter” in the lives of his students. The poetry they produced was cute, easily appreciated by admirers, but divorced from the task of understanding and affecting the harsh realities with which they lived. Imagining themselves into the heads of real characters from recognizable worlds and speaking in their voices brought O’Connor and his students closer to his vision of engagement and relevance. The book is a double-humped camel two separate accounts of the productions staged in each of two consecutive school years. Any teacher will appreciate and recognize O’Connor’s tales of the chaotic and maddening swirl that surrounds major projects like thesehorseplay, unaccountable absences, cold feetculminating in stunning, adrenaline-driven performances. It’s the kind of high-stress engagement that keeps traditional teachers committed to passing out those worksheets and maintaining silence. What keeps the double account from being totally repetitious is O’Connor’s growing awareness the second time around that his work, no matter how passionate and intense, will not save the students’ lives. “We now understand that we were not miracle workers, just doing our best in difficult circumstances.” After a brief flurry of improved grades and attendance and a determination to apply to the special arts high school, one of the few possible ways up and out of the neighborhood maelstrom, the students settle back into the familiar patterns of resignation and defeat. I am all too familiar with a teacher’s messianic impulse to save the children whose talents and potential are so evident and whose chances of survival are so fraught with obstacles beyond our control. “The simple truth is that the crisis in education is not taking place only, or even primarily, in schools,” says O’Connor. In the end the bearers of messianic visions must come to terms with the fact that, as much as we love them, our students are not our children. We must acknowledge, painfully, that they often loom larger in our lives than we in theirs. They are with us for a short time and they pass on, to be replaced by others equally talented and equally needy. While they are with us we must make the existential commitment to acting “as if we can re-shape their fates, knowing all the time that in O’Connor’s words “no matter what you do, you can never do enough.” O’Connor is disarming in his willingness to make himself vulnerable both to his students and his readers, to expose his missteps and misconceptions alongside his successes and breakthroughs. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting, given his considerable wisdom and insight, to confront his extraordinary naivet about his students, beset on all sides by drugs, violence and family pathology. “Retrospectively, it is hard for me to understand how I could have been so innocent about the lives of my students…and in that way I was no different from so many other Aniericans who read the papers and watch the news every day but have never let themselves truly imagine what it means to grow up poor in this country.” Hard for me to understand too. There is the danger that the newly enlightened will get off vicariously on the drama of the dysfunctional and that the pathology will come to be seen as the totality of these children’s existence. O’Connor skirts dangerously around the edge of these abysses, but in the end he makes a significant contribution to the accounts by sensitive participants in the struggle to close the gap between children’s lives and what they encounter in school. FRONT ROW AT THE FRONT LINE Ford of City Kids, City Teachers: Reports from the Front Row is a friend and colleague in the battle to reform the schools of Chicago, where I have been working for the past year. I am an unabashed admirer of his efforts to promote the creation of small, humane schools where gray, unyielding, oversized institutions are now the norm. Bill’s buoyant spirit has encouraged others to stay the course in the face of the endless discouragements those of us in the school business face. Only the $200-per-plate tab kept me from a testimonial dinner for Bill, attended even by Mayor Daley, whose father set his cops on Bill’s Weather Underground buddies at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Stay around long enough and you’ll see it all. Finally, my wife’s blurb is one of the five that decorate the back of this book. How much more deeply can you be implicated? So draw your own conclusions when I say that this book is a useful compendium of pieces, most previously published elsewhere. Together they paint a portrait of the promise and problems of city schools and try to convey a sense of the social context in which these schools operate. The collection is shamelessly partisan and opinionated. A number of the essays promulgate the notion that schools are designed to replicate the existing class structure made even more insidious by society’s unacknowledged racism. We hear this message not just from educators and activists, but from writers and even from the students themselves. Here is James Baldwin in “A Talk to Teachers”: 1f…one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.” Authors like Luis Rodriguez, Audre Lord, and Pat 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 13, 1996
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