Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope – book review

No matter what you read lately, whether it’s political, economic, or even comedy relief, the concept of a national divide keeps popping up. It seems there is nothing that we’re not crabby about – which song got the Grammy, whether poodles are better than dalmatians, whether corn counts as a vegetable or a starch. Umpteen books have been written on the divide of “liberal” vs. “conservative,” urban vs. rural, prosperity vs. lazy poor, criminal drug abuser vs. victim of Big Pharma, and into that mix Nicholas Kristof throws out an excellent one, called Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

Kristof grew up in rural Yamhill, Oregon, a White, conservative town of 1100 people. More than a quarter of the kids he went to school with died of drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents caused by drugs or alcohol. Why did he make it out in one piece, while his friends died slowly of alcoholism, often homeless most of their lives? Why did families lose 3, 4, 5 kids to drugs and alcohol? Why did some do fine?

To keep it real, Kristof explores people in similar situations in places like South Dakota, Oklahoma, New York City, Baltimore, and more, bastions of poverty and drugs in the U.S. What he finds is the same issues, handled differently – humanely – makes a world of difference. In places like Oklahoma, the entire penal code is stacked against poor people. Indigent and need a free legal defender? You are then arrested for being indigent, and fined for your arrest. Now you’re in debt to the state. So you are sent to prison for being a debtor – even if it’s only ONE dollar! Now you have more fines added. People are released from prison – private, for-profit prisons, of course – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from a mere $25 parking ticket. Can’t make the payments on your fines? Back to jail, and more fines. It’s a gerbil wheel of punishing the poor – even though intervention programs can save $10 of tax money for every dollar spent.

And of course, once you have a felony conviction, you can’t get a job. So people turn to selling meth and heroin. And get convicted, and can’t get hired, and get homeless and depressed and turn to drugs…. Over and over and over. Why are Mexicans taking the jobs from under-educated poor white people? Because the Mexicans can be counted on to show up for work, and aren’t drunk or stoned.

Kristof narrows the biggest issues down to two: One is education. Most of the people he knew didn’t graduate, had parents that barely made it to 8th grade, and grandparents who might not have made it to fifth. If you come from a home where there are no books, no magazines, and no expectations of further education, it’s harder to succeed. He explores one family where the mother had a 5th-grade education, and five children by four different fathers. When the first was expelled from kindergarten twice for behavioral issues, she – with a fifth-grade education – decided to home-school her kids (5 under the age of 6). How much of a chance do those kids have?

The second predictor of success was coming from a two-parent home. If you had two parents – and usually two incomes – you had a much greater chance of being successful. Single mothers with a trail of children left those kids in chaos. More than one child entering Yamhill kindergarten was described as “feral.”

Kristof also explores the programs – often started by those who had had enough – that give people just the right boost, whether it’s paying those $1 legal fees and freeing people from prison or getting them a job or housing or a drug treatment program. Such programs are a lifeline for the people involved, and often get them on the track to permanent success. Unfortunately, many of the government programs to do just that have been eliminated in recent years.

The book is easy to read, informative, and does not preach or even really point fingers. It’s careful to present only facts, though the family situations and the culture of violence surrounding them can be maddening. Despite the grim realities, the book ends up on a positive note. This is one to put on your To Be Read list, and check out these other titles in similar vein:


Hillbilly Elegy
The Left Behind
Evicted
White Trash
Dimestore
Dreamland
Chasing the Scream
Detroit
Broke, USA
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Survival Math
Nickel and Dimed

 

Susan Reads: The Smartest Kids in The World

America’s schools are abysmal; in the world arena, our students barely break the top 20, ranking down there with Lichtenstein – and private prep schools aren’t significantly better.  In fact, America scores only seven points higher than dead center. We blame poverty, we blame spending, we blame teachers, parents, curricula, lack of diversity – but no one has come up with an actual plan that works.

               In The Smartest Kids in the WorldTime journalist Amanda Ripley follows three American exchange students of different backgrounds to some of the highest-scoring countries in the world – laid-back Finland (#3), the pressure-cooker of South Korea where students are in school more than 14 hours a day (#2), and upcoming Poland (#15), which, despite poor standing as a poverty-stricken, post-communist country, managed to climb from the bottom to the top ranks in only three years because of drastic and ongoing reforms.

                Not everything is rosy in all places; there are still pitfalls to each system, but one thing remains common to all good systems: value the education.  When anyone in America becomes a teacher because they want to be a sports coach, there’s a problem. All top countries made it extremely difficult to become a teacher – thus, only the top teachers actually make it to the classrooms.  Sports are not included in school; they are strictly extra-curricular.  Teachers are paid very well for making it that far – and if their students slide, they can be fired far easier than in America  – why keep a bad teacher?  Seriously – why do we do that? In most of these places, the teacher is not the focus. It is not about holidays, or length of day, or passing endless standardized tests: it’s about imparting learning to the child.  Education is about the child’s learning, and nothing else.

Ms. Ripley’s research illuminates what is wrong with our educational system, and lays out a course  to work towards fixing it. This book is a fantastic wake-up call to educators of all children, from Pre-K to college. It’s a fast, easy read that will leave you very angry with the status quo. – a must-read for anyone concerned about the state of education in America.

Go. Read it. And start bugging your schools.