More than Semantics
Difference between then and now:
Bankrupt currently has a high status notation- in an unusual twist bankrupt (today) seems to imply the ultimate risks were taken, a business was created, failure was the result of any number of things, and one may now join the ranks of iconic success stories for rebounding; after all bankrupt tends only to affect one’s business aspects not one’s personal assets so the ability to live through bankruptcy is allowed. In contrast being broke suggests stupidity, not understanding how to play the high stakes financial games, not borrowing effectively which translates to borrowing without penalty something that big businesses may be getting away with all the time, or simply “not savvy” – perhaps less than astute when it comes to knowing whom to “play” during the building process. Plus once one has attained a certain financial level then there are ways to “own” more than one company and to sell off, walk away from, or to bankrupt one of the businesses while still thriving through another. Now contrast these relatively comfortable situations with the image of a person on social assistance of any kind. Add to that person the stigma of living in a social housing unit. Big problem now to access financial advice let alone assistance in a meaningful way. Broke has only stigma attached to it- zero glamour, even less than zero expectations. But, say people, bootstrapping is still possible? Not without shoes!
Charles Dickens wrote of debtors’ prisons because he had knowledge of the ways in which society affected individual opportunity. His writing is now considered part of “classic English literature” and to an extent relegated to the sidelines for the readers capable of enjoying his in depth descriptions and his very strong points of view. For many, his general story line is accepted as the story expressed via movies that have been created around his characters, Scrooge from a Christmas Carol representing “the terrible boss”, Oliver in Oliver Twist, representing fairy tale dreams of rescue for orphaned children or any child wishing a different situation, Little Dorrit and “good character” winning over moneyed positions; these stereotypical characters were meant to share with real people some basic flaws in the social organization of Dickens’ time. Real people being the readers, who could readily recognize both the exaggeration within the fictional character descriptions and the real “truth” the novels themselves were sharing about the big thematic issue of social evolution. In Dickens’ times, debtors’ prisons enclosed a society; today we have social housing which when truly examined offers little benefit over the debtors’ prison of yore however people apparently strive to access social housing; newspapers would suggest that the line up to get into such “projects” is enormous. The debtors’ prison Dickens portrays was a punishment and recognized for the soul crushing environment and the stigma it produced. Social housing however attempts to suggest it is a “leg up” and here I must question “for whom” as the statistics about current individuals “escaping” the social housing situation is limited if in existence at all.
These thoughts are with me today with the end of a school year arriving and many students not running off to luxury camps and marvellous trips and the expectation of “amazing” experiences. I also recently reviewed the book “Just Kids from the Bronx” an Oral History compiled by Arlene Alda, released this year, 2015. The author interviews over 60 successful and famous folk who originated in the Bronx, New York. In reading many of the stories what became clear was that many were children of recent immigrants, and accepted that within their mixed communities, the pressure to succeed, the dual emphasis on work and education, mixed with the knowledge that they were “broke” in comparison to other regions in the state such as Central Manhattan and its upper East or West side, and attaining a higher income and achieving a better lifestyle was not only doable but expected! The concept of “you can do it” was actually more “you must do it” – there were no big educational mantras as we have today discussing “mindsets”, nor discussions of “Grit” versus “learned helplessness” instead there were visible options, hard work , a generous application of luck and steady if not always agreeable, goals to be crossed off and achieved. Yes this is a book about “success stories” but it is also a nostalgic look back at an area that had been “low economic” yet propelled many to other levels. Very different then from social projects of today which appear to suggest “stop complaining; you already have a roof over your head”, and which enclose low income communities more to “protect” the wealthier neighbours than to provide a stepping stone for the working poor.
However as an educator what also stood out for me in the variety of stories were the “crucial wake up calls from teachers who recognized potential”. Note the use of the word “crucial”; necessary today as then to be validated, to have others suggest that talent or desire to practice is a valid goal. Amazingly, the collection of stories is lauded as not only inspiring but “proof” that the “American dream” (success on one’s own terms) remains achievable. Disclaimer- I had the pleasure of living in New York and genuinely agreeing with the song “if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere; New York, New York!” New York seemed to be alive with people, and in the middle eighties many of these people were literally in the streets, entertaining, busking, dancing, proclaiming, and it seemed, anticipating our appreciative discovery of them. Walking was a given, and one could expect that not only would the sidewalks be crowded, but also so would just about everywhere else! Yet one found private spaces, and began to revel in how much the city itself appeared to pulse, how energy encouraged energy, and how very much art, and appreciation of the arts was prevalent on every corner. For educators this IS important, and a close rereading of many of the narratives reminds that even with the educational structures that today are considered taboo such as streaming of students based on expected abilities, school and the place it played for many balanced the idea of work to survive with work that will allow one to thrive. Artists and scientists and business executives remind that it is not the grades of A’s versus C’s that could make one feel “inadequate” ; it is being ignored. I blogged elsewhere about recognizing the quiet ones in a classroom; we also need to recognize the one’s who may appear to deliberately be craving attention and not dismiss them under today’s current structure of labelling.
The stories of the Bronx do change over time, as did the area. What begins as recollections of “community space” slowly becomes like the above mentioned “contained” areas that social projects turn into. I was struck by the following sentences; “It has to do with what the horizon looks like. The horizon from the South Bronx was limited to an everyday survival worry about clothing and shelter…” (in contrast to) “It is one of the gifts of a place like Allen-Stevenson (a school)…that they not only educate you, but they open up limitless horizons for you. My course was changed and set from that moment in fourth grade when a teacher decided to take matters into his own hands.” Wow! What an inspiring positive reaffirmation for Educators! To be reminded that being in the field can make a difference, and to recognize that sometimes little gestures make for opportunities.
A side note: Libraries, museums, free concerts, outdoor theatre, writing challenges, are also mentioned for their affirmative value in suggesting that creativity is to be enjoyed, and encouraged in various avenues. Summer in the city does offer “amazing experiences” however they might be of a more personal nature than the group camp experience or the community activity. And one needn’t be in New York State to seek what is offered closer to home. Summer wishes: keep reading and writing!
“Limitless horizons”…lovely thoughts