Ta-Nehisi Coates has a characteristically moving meditation on school in the New York Times. He’s watching his 11-year-old son receive an education that isn’t merely an escape valve from inner-city dysfunction.
By some stroke of luck and by a greater stroke of privilege, my son enjoys a school that is the opposite of what I knew school to be. His teachers have seen him as something more than a potential statistic, as something besides another brown face in a demographic overrepresented in all the wrong columns. For him education has been not just the shield, but the sword.
Given his own, markedly different experience, Coates admits to feeling a sort of ambivalence:
The fact is that, in my time and in this time, education really is an insurance policy. It really is often the line between civilian life and jail. My failures at school left me, as well as my brothers, who endured their own struggles, at times unclear as to which tribe I belonged to. I was saved by the relentless energy of my mother and father, and the greatest education I received was in seeing those who lacked that advantage ultimately not make it.
This recalls Einhorn’s motivational speech to the title character in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, which chronicled a poor Jewish upbringing in Chicago:
Don’t be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled—the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows there’s an element that can be depended on to come behind bars and eat it. . . . It’s practically determined. And if you’re going to let it be determined for you too, you’re a sucker. Just what’s predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in—the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who’s the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who’d be surprised? You’re a setup for it.”
Back to Coates, who “can’t help but wonder, and worry, at what unintentional lessons I am now imparting.”
Maybe I’m misreading him, but I take Coates to mean that, unlike upper-crust parents who worry that they’re spoiling their kids, he’s worried that perhaps he’s not spoiling his son enough — that he might be projecting his own baggage onto someone else’s clean slate.