Selections from Lives on the Boundary

Passages from Rose's book on the struggles and achievements of America's underprepared. He reflects on students' dreams of literacy, and the yearning to become a better version of one's self.

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Sitting in the classroom with Ruby, Alice, and the rest, you think, at times, that you're at a revival meeting. There is so much testifying. Everybody talks and writes about dreams and goals and “doing better for myself.” This is powerful, edifying — but something about it, its insistence perhaps, is a little bit discordant. The exuberance becomes jittery, an almost counter-phobic boosting and supporting. It is no surprise, then, that it alternates with despair. In their hearts, Ruby and her classmates know how tenuous this is, how many times they've failed before. Somebody says something about falling down. Sally says, “I've felt that too. Not falling down on my legs or knees, but falling down within me.” No wonder they sermonize and embrace. It's not just a few bucks more a week that's at stake; literacy, here, is intimately connected with respect, with a sense that they are not beaten, the mastery of print revealing the deepest impulse to survive.

(p. 215–216)

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Psychologist David Pillemer has analyzed memories of school, and suggests that such memories have much to tell us about students' perception of success or failure. When I talk to people about their education, from factory workers to physicians, from middle-school to doctoral students, it is telling how many of them call up resonant and emotional memories of events in school that, they claim, have had a potent effect on so many things: their sense of their intelligence, their social competence, their bearing in public spaces.

No surprise, then, that desire runs through these memories — yearning, the swelling or breaking of the heart. Sometimes, the longing is cut short, frustrated, blunted, as in those instances where students encounter courses or institutions that seem beyond them. I suspect that this wrenched desire is familiar to many. But there is also occasion where desire is fulfilled, at least to a degree, leading outward, opening up. “Yearning helps you become someone new,” says novelist Zadie Smith, and we see that sort of becoming too, possible lives emerging. A sense of hope.

(p. 244–245)

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