Wise Words from Ta Nehishi Coates

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 14, 2010

A few months back, in reference to teen pregnancy, I wrote about what I thought was a crucial difference between the kids I went to high school with, and kids from more affluent backgrounds. Forgive me for quoting myself:

…when I think about the girls who got pregnant back in high school, and the dudes that got them pregnant, in the main, I don’t think about them needing tools for impulse control, so much as I think about them not understanding the beautiful bigness of the world, and how teen pregnancy shrinks that world. To say that they had low expectations for themselves doesn’t get at it, more like, they didn’t really know what was possible.

A few years back I did a talk at a college in the mountains, and I remember thinking, "Wow, I didn’t know you could go to college in the mountains." It’s a small thing, and I don’t really know how class and wealth play into this. I do know, that when compared to people of my social class, I was much more exposed to the broader world. I think I might have had a better sense of what there was to lose, because I had a better sense of what could be gained.

The ignorance of what is possible is, to me, one of the most devastating–if hard to measure–components of a culture of poverty. It gives the illusion that one has very little to gain from the world, and thus very little to lose. I think a substantial portion of my peers did not have a very good sense of precisely how much of the world teen-pregnancy, or an arrest for drug-dealing, would foreclose.

What I see in HCZ, and specifically that generation of kids coming up from cradle to college, is the possibility of "having something to lose." Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I would think a group of kids–tied together from birth–with monied interest vested in their success, with like-minded parents enrolled, would create a resilient kind of social capitol, both within the community, and without. My expectation would be that a group of that sort, with the intrinsic sense of representing something, with ties to people beyond the neighborhood would also have a better understand of what is possible out of the world, of "having something to lose."

This is all very personal to me. I scored 1090 on the SAT, after taking it three times. If you took an average white kid with the same income as my parents, and the same number of tries, I’d bet they scored higher. Most of my peers today scored two, three and four hundred points higher. I don’t say that to foolishly brag, but to point out that, besides having parents, I had enough exposure to the world to know that standing on a corner, or having a kid at 16, would foreclose much of that world to me. Whatever successes I’ve accrued came not singularly from improving my school performance, but from making sure I stayed in the game.

Closing the testing gap is important, but it isn’t the only social benefit of comprehensive intervention. Keeping kids from dropping out, keeping kids out of jail, keeping them from having kids, themselves, has its own rewards.


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