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“Three Miles”: A Visceral Response

I was never a podcast person. I barely even listen to talk radio on the morning commute. Listening–in the car, at the gym, around the house–is for music. But that all changed when I started listening to Serial, a podcast by This American Life that took my facebook feed (and the iTunes charts) by storm.  Since finishing Serial, I’ve mostly been complaining to myself that there isn’t more Serial. But this week, I decided to try This American Life. A quick look at the description of the podcast “Three Miles” was enough to draw me in. It was about the connection between education and equity and exposure. They were speaking my language. And with two little children at home, this podcast was sure to be a nice break from playing weebles and filling sippy cups. Ah, fifty minutes where I don’t feel my brain cells weeping.

“Three Miles,” like all This American Life content I’m sure, is superbly made. It’s informational, it’s well-paced, it’s provocative. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend it. Since this podcast alone has prompted numerous conversations on my social media feeds, I decided to try to come up with a cohesive response to it. My reaction to “Three Miles” was multi-faceted and visceral at times.

This American Life logo“Three Miles” is about the experience of two groups of students from very different backgrounds and educational experiences interacting with each other through the curation of two English teachers who thought it would be good if their students met. One group is from University Heights, a South Bronx public school and the other group is from Fieldston, a private school three miles away. Fieldston tuition per year = cost of one BMW (roughly).

After writing letters, the teachers decide it would be beneficial if the students met each other. This seems like a good idea. (I still believe it is.) The podcast notes that for the University Heights kids, the field trip to the private school could show them another world, a world where you don’t have to be poor, hungry, angry, on your way to nowhere. And for the private school kids, many of whom will become leaders in the corporate and political world, the exposure to how “the other half lives” is beneficial. Chana Joffe notes “And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.” How can you write policy or affect change (something that you should be doing if you’re privileged) if you’ve never encountered someone who could benefit from the changes? Sounds good, right?

Not really for Melanie. She freaks out when they get there. And you know what? I understood the freak out. Joffe presented it as an odd reaction but I could easily see one of my former students from Preston reacting the same way. I sympathized with Melanie and imagined myself as her teacher. I agreed with her. Yes, why do the Fieldston kids have the idyllic high school experience you envisioned for yourself. The experience where, as one interviewee remembers, you could leave your bookbag on the floor of the library and no one would take it. I left my bag everywhere in my high school. Sure, I had some stuff taken from my locker but I could leave my bag somewhere without fear of someone rifling through it. What would they take? The keys to my 1989 Nissan Sentra? Sure, just make sure you leave me the keys to your mom’s SUV of which she tired after a few months.

The part that hit me the hardest was when the journalist finally caught up with Melanie. (Ten years later…) Melanie described going through the process of the Posse Foundation, a scholarship that provides a full ride to underprivileged kids who show promise. These are the kids who exhibit an alternative set of predictors for college success. Some of these kids I met in my time at Preston.  Melanie made it to the third round of the process, I think. She started crying when she described the rejection. You feel like the whole world your whole future is riding on this scholarship and when it doesn’t happen, you’re crushed.. She says “But it’s a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that’s the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I’d say, why didn’t I get it? What was wrong with me?”

I’ve been part of the counseling students through a few of these scholarships at Preston. I usually taught freshmen and sophomores so I never saw a student through the process of say, the Gates Millenium Scholarship or the NYT Scholarship. But I’ve reviewed essays, talked to students about what to wear and what to say in interviews for colleges and various programs that would help them finance college or just put another feather in their college application cap. I remember the disappointment students felt so acutely when they got their rejection letters, probably more than I remember the excitement of a student getting accepted to their college of choice or getting the necessary funding to go there.

Melanie’s recounting of her disappointment, the absolute despair she felt, how she felt she must not deserve a better life, filled me to the brim with pity. I wept hearing her voice shake as she retold it. To think that with all the compassion and dedication some educators pour out every year and still Melanie would think that she wasn’t good enough. I can remember having a few emotional conversations with students about their disappointment, about the pain of rejection. In the back of my mind was always the adult voice saying, “Oh this is just life sometimes. But good things will happen too.” But “Three Miles” presents you with someone whose life is such that good things don’t happen. And it’s incredibly sad to think that so many people go through life never expecting something good to happen.

Robert_E_Hill_Fieldston_plaqueIn the end, while I found the podcast interesting, I felt sad. One of the teachers, Pablo, says that he’s an example of someone who got out of the projects and he’s working on his PhD now. He’s “made it.” He says that he keeps telling students that more education, that college is the way out of their current situations. However, he knows that only a handful will cross class barriers. I feel the same way. If I were still teaching at Preston, I’d be doggedly pushing that same message. Get into college. Get your next degree. Move up the food chain.

I started writing this blog post because so many of my friends on twitter and facebook were talking about it. The mention of Fordham was enough for fellow grads to start the dialogue. Everyone had sensitive, sound responses and offered ideas for how to better support the “University Heights” kids when they get to college and have to sit in the same room as the “Fieldston” kids. But what was devastating about the podcast was that so many of these students have such a low sense of self-worth. They don’t expect to succeed. They are literally the opposite of entitled. They have supports and they don’t reach out sometimes. Jonathan, who won the Posse Foundation scholarship, failed out of college. He just didn’t go to class. He couldn’t afford the books. He didn’t ask for help. Jonathan tells Chana: “So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22, because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class, and doesn’t do the work on top of that.” He gives in to this insidious self-fulfilling prophecy that poverty constructs. He tells TAL that he never felt like he deserved this opportunity, that he was scared. How do educators combat that level of low self-esteem? I’m not saying that the programs are not worthy or that they don’t work. I think these are noble pursuits but to hear that someone like Jonathan didn’t make it just breaks my heart.

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