We're in the process of adopting and taming another one of the outdoor feral kitties. I say "we"--it's 95% Christopher. He has sat patiently reading a book for hours in the musty garage, waiting for this new little one, (Wheat Thin) to trust him enough to come over and get petted. He's spent untold time rattling bags of kitty treats, tossing "crunchies" to the new baby, and gently scratching behind his ears. I went down there myself a few times. Once I saw him hiding in a cupboard atop stacks of old New Yorkers. Another time he was crouched behind the bicycles. Then again, he hides under the toolbench or in the laundry basket. The garage is full o' junk and he has a million hiding places.
Our thought is that this little boy will be a good playmate for Trixie who is currently Queen Bee of the household. The heartbreak is that the taming process involves separating him from his pal and twin shadow Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray is always going to be feral. She doesn't/won't allow herself to be touched; she's skittish and aggressive, while Wheat Thin is pliable and friendly.
Of course we think and talk about the kids Christopher encounters in his work. Those who want to learn and seem to have hope of turning their lives around; those who so far refuse contact.
People are more complex than cats (at least to me they seem to be; a cat person would disagree.) You can't predict what's going to happen with a young person based on how they appear at sixteen or eighteen; plenty of folks get their lives together after that. But you can say that there are consequences, and that these very early choices and decisions matter. (If they are indeed always choices, which I'm not sure they are. Sometimes it seems people are compelled to act out certain dramas before they have the freedom to choose another way. This is why a longer life can indeed be a blessing--sometimes you have to live out a certain amount of karma first.)
These early early choices can matter a lot. Especially if you're poor, if you don't have the luxury of infinite second and third and fourth chances. There are kids sitting in prison for crimes they committed at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen. There are trajectories that are already set. There are young people enlisting in the military whose lives are hanging in the balance because of a piece of paper they signed.
The other night we were at a friend's house for break-fast after Yom Kippor (okay I wasn't fasting, but it's still fun to break it.) It was an intimate gathering of friends and family, including two teenage nephews. One of the boys was on the debate team and the conversation jumped from joy to grief to the nature of reality. Derrida was mentioned. True confessions: I only have a very vague sense of who Derrida actually is (one of those French philosopher guys, right?) But these kids knew. What's more, they knew the main thrust of Derrida's theories and could employ them, logically, in an argument. They could and did hold their own in a room full of opinionated adults. They could thoughtfully defend a point of view while at the same time acknowledging where other people were coming from; they could do this in the abstract.
In the midst of this lively intellectual melee, I looked over at Christopher. I knew what he was thinking. The kids he teaches have such small worlds, bounded by invisible ghetto walls and by the rules of the gang. It's uncool for them to show any interest in school, in ideas, in learning. It's uncool to read. He scours bookstores and sometimes toy stores for games and materials that will pique their interest. Sometimes he gets through.
But the kids whose company we were enjoying the other night are headed for Harvard or some other great college. They have a father who sings a blessing to them every night. They have had parental involvement and books and stability, good food, medical care and emotional support since they were born. They have never seen their father hit their mother, no member of their family has been arrested or murdered, they were not exposed to drugs in utero.
They were ahead before they even got started.
All kids should be able to have such a beginning. All kids don't need to go to Harvard. But the basics; food, medical care, freedom from fear--all kids should have those things before they're asked to learn. As a prerequisite for education. Do you hear me, Obama? Stop punishing the schools and the teachers and start looking at societal inequities.
Okay, it's much easier to ruminate on all this than it is to do my actual work. I have just fifteen or twenty more pages left of The Recruiter. You can do it, Alison, come on, you can do it...