The Prison on Pearl Avenue
I finally had an opportunity to watch Through the Fire the other day. While I considered Sebastian Telfair a fascinating, charismatic, and extremely likable kid, I found myself considerably more interested in some of the the peripheral characters in the film.
When it hit me, I knew it was like I’m not gonna get paid for it. It felt like I lost my life. Basketball is my life…. I’m still here. As long as I’m here, it’s pain.
- Asher Beard aka Tick Boom
Flick Webb, John Updike’s ex-basketball player, sadly clung to the past, occasionally dribbling an inner tube around a gas station to remind others of his departed greatness. Former superstars seem to pepper the projects of Coney Island. But these men don’t appear to reminisce wistfully about their glory days. While they occasionally recount their success, they often describe how they didn’t make it; looking almost like shell-shocked veterans, they seem able to understand how they didn’t make it into the league and out of Coney Island, but completely unable to come to terms with it, remaining in the very neighborhood they so desperately sought to escape. Flick Webb yearns for the past, but these men don’t even seem to recognize that they have a past, as if the moment it became apparent to them that basketball would not be their salvation, their lives halted, leaving them unable to move beyond high school. Even Jamel Thomas, Sebastian’s older brother, with the benefit of four years of college under his belt, could have landed an excellent job on the strength of his folk hero status in the town of Providence; instead he doggedly clung to the pursuit of self-actualization through basketball. For former Coney Island superstars, hoops dreams don’t fade, they freeze.
As I’ve mentioned (entirely too many times) before, I spent several years teaching in an exceptionally poor and almost entirely black area in the Mississippi Delta. I specialized in working with the “bad” kids, often several years behind and floating in and out of training school, the last resort before juvenile detention facilities. Teaching these kids was tremendously challenging, but not necessarily for intuitive reasons. By far the greatest difficulty was not teaching math to kids who often were more than three grade levels behind, but leading them to believe that they could be the kind of people who had the capacity to learn math.
By age six, the life paths of many Delta children are already mapped out. Some time during first grade, many teachers declare that kids are “smart” or “stupid”, “good” or “bad.” It's not uncommon to hear a teacher tell an eleven-year-old boy that he’s on his way to prison, as if his fate were unavoidably sealed. These labels originate from authority figures and are passed on to peers and before long, entire communities have placed many of their children into these discrete and static groups. (Parents obviously can help children resist this kind of labeling, but it’s exceptionally difficult for many parents, who may be too busy working and raising their own and others’ kids to constantly demand proper treatment for their children in school).
So when a kid came to my classroom from training school, in his mind, his only option was to be a “bad” kid. Learning math and positively contributing to class was simply not something “bad” kids did. The challenge then, was to show these kids that acting “bad,” was a decision that was theirs to make; they needed to recognize that others were imposing their identity on them and that they could forge one of their own if they tried hard enough.
As enticing as it may seem to suddenly be unshackled from the internalized expectations of others, this is actually a fairly terrifying process. For a sixteen-year-old seventh grader, being bad may be the only thing he knows how to do. Not only is he obviously far behind his peers academically, every one around him expects him to fail and wind up in prison. I can’t conceive of how difficult it must be for someone so young and with such little support to try to completely change who he thinks he is. Upon entering class, kids will rebel for weeks, desperately clinging to who they were and the lack of responsibility that comes with it. Analogously, consider the challenge facing men like Beard; declared a basketball star his entire adolecent life and suddenly faced with the prospect of shedding that label. Imagine the challenge of just giving up on that identity so late in his life.
The “smart” kids faced similar, identity-related problems. When “smart” kids struggled with a certain concept, they often ignored their difficulties. After all, they were the “smart” kids, who weren’t supposed to have questions or make mistakes and simply assumed that their difficulties stemmed from something other than not understanding. Yet if they failed a test, they freaked out, completely unable to understand how a “smart” kid could perform poorly.
While I didn’t get the chance to follow my students into adulthood, a few characteristics were particularly striking about the adult population of those areas. Most of the adults I met depicted themselves as always having been on the “right” path. While I occasionally met someone who described overcoming a troubled childhood, I heard countless stories of the overwhelming majority of their “bad” classmates eventually turning to crime, landing in jail, or disappearing entirely. While this may be an illustration of the lack of second chances given to those born poor and black, it also seems that these labels, like the one affixed to Asher Beard, last a lifetime.
In communities like these, self-fulfilling prophecies are tremendously robust. Men like Asher Beard can’t imagine being anything other than a great ball player in the same way that “bad” kids struggle to imagine themselves as anything other than just that. In my own upper/middle class school, I was constantly reminded that I could be whatever I wanted. The possibility of limitless opportunity is never presented to children in Delta schools. A commenter in a previous post noted, quite correctly, that black communities like these produce many important professionals. However, while Coney Island and the Delta may produce potential role models, they almost never return there. Doctors generally don’t come back to live in the projects. Kids can only imitate what they can see, leading to a dearth of imitable archetypes available.
Maybe it’s a community-wide rejection of an internal locus of control that leads so many to accept their labels and fight so hard to preserve them. Maybe it’s something entirely different. Regardless, of its source, such thinking and the behavior that stems from it constitutes a significant social problem. The perception of choice shouldn’t be available only to those born above the poverty line.