The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Published September 23, 2014
416 pages (hardcover)
My husband jokes that, once a year, a good friend of mine and I participate in our “Annual Education Debate.” The arguments (and our respective positions) never change, but the discussion is impassioned. This friend and I were both Teach for America teachers in Baton Rouge. He taught at an inner-city middle school with a nearly 100% African-American population; I taught at a rural, minority-to-majority transfer elementary school (minority-to-majority transfer schools, or “M2Ms”, are better known as “bussing schools”–kids are bussed to far-flung schools in an effort to even out the effects of de facto segregation).
My position in this debate, always, is that Teach for America isn’t capable of “closing the achievement gap,”—ensuring educational equality for all—which is its laudable goal. It does not have the infrastructure, provide the support, or have sufficient resources to achieve this goal. The problem is just too big. As a Teach for America alum, this is a very controversial position to take (we Teach for America alums are known for drinking the Kool-Aid). But, in my mind, it’s realistic.
At this point (years removed), I am much more aware of my limitations and the limitations of other Teach for America teachers. I believe in kids, especially “my” kids (all of whom are in their twenties now, and many of whom I am still in touch with). My students experienced great gains and huge successes (measured by test scores, of course). But they were only with me for one year. No matter how much success they experienced in fifth grade, no matter how much their lives and attitudes changed, when they graduated elementary school, they moved on to middle school and all of its influences. They had to navigate the world of drugs, teen sex/pregnancy, gangs, poverty, bad neighborhoods, bad teachers, and a billion other negative influences. And, for some, that’s nearly impossible.
A couple weeks ago, I listened to an episode of This American Life called “Three Miles” that drove this point home (you can listen to the episode here). The title refers to the distance between two high schools: one, public, is located in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other, private, costs an exorbitant $43,000 per year. A program started by teachers at both schools forges relationships between the two schools and gives the public school kids an opportunity to see how the other half lives (the spacious quads, the cheerful students, the fun electives). The idea is that the poor kids will be inspired, they will strive for success, they will seek out opportunities, they will go to college, they will be successful, they will have the money in the future to send their kids to the private schools.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Because even the most brilliant students at the public school—the ones who were inspired and were the lucky few able to defy the odds and get full scholarships to college—felt like fish out of water when they got there. They were lost in the crowd, they didn’t have money for books, they were too proud to ask for help (and, even if they could swallow their pride, they didn’t know whom to turn to).
One kid interviewed, Jonathan Gonzalez, got an incredibly prestigious full-ride called the Posse Scholarship and was accepted to Wheaton College. The foundation that awards the Posse Scholarship recognizes that its recipients are likely the first people in their families to go to college, so the scholarship program includes a campus mentor, pre-college preparatory seminars and orientations, and constant check-ins. It tries to set its recipients up for success. The expectation, of course, was that Jonathan should have been thrilled and should have thrived. Here’s an excerpt of the transcript:
Chana Joffe: Did you have any moment of, this is great, I get into college?
Jonathan Gonzalez: No, I was scared.
Chana Joffe: You skipped right past excitement?
Jonathan Gonzalez: Yeah, there was no real excitement. I was just like, all right. So now what?
Chana Joffe: Did something change from November to whenever you arrived at college, where you started to feel like, OK, I’m a person who goes to college?
Jonathan Gonzalez: I can’t really say yes, you know? Because at the core, I still didn’t feel like I was worthy. And when I got to college, it showed.
Chana Joffe: Jonathan’s first day at Wheaton, he looked up his course syllabi and panicked. He couldn’t afford the books. He also did not tell anyone he couldn’t afford the books. He just never got them.
Jonathan Gonzalez: I didn’t do the homework, so I’m going now into a class where, one, it’s a different dynamic. Now I’m in Fieldston, where it’s 12 kids to a teacher, and I’m the only black kid in some of these classes. I’m the only kid in some of these classes. So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22, because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class, and doesn’t do the work on top of that. But for me, it was– I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?
Jonathan was in a bad place . . . and he didn’t know how to get himself out of it. He still felt like he didn’t fit in. He didn’t know who to turn to for help. He felt completely out of his comfort zone. And he couldn’t make it work:
Jonathan Gonzalez: The way I found out that I failed out of Wheaton was by going back to the school, and my roommate opened the door. And he was like, yeah, man, they changed the lock. Somebody else is coming in.
And right then, I was like, oh, shit. And the dean was like, you need to leave immediately. You cannot be on this campus. You need to leave immediately. I felt like I had to go to my mom and say, listen, you were right. I’m not shit.
You can read the full transcript here. Jonathan’s story is horribly depressing. But it is also realistic. It is also, sadly, not at all unique. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is another great example. The titular Robert Peace grew up in “Illtown,” a poor neighborhood outside of Newark:
During Rob’s childhood, East Orange represented the second-highest concentration of African Americans living below the poverty line in America, behind East St. Louis. The violent crime rate of thirty-five hundred per one hundred thousand people was almost six times the national average of six hundred, and eight times that of adjacent South Orange, which stood at four hundred. The figure meant that any given person in East Orange had roughly a one-in-thirty chance of being violently robbed, assaulted, raped, or killed in any given year.
In East Orange, Robert Peace stood out as unique. He was, by all accounts, brilliant. His parents valued education and saw his potential. When he was very young, his father would sit with him each evening, working on his homework, challenging him to write neater, delve deeper, and try harder (“Skeet harped on particulars that Jackie, in her own childhood, had never even considered: penmanship, consistency of format, and above all, the importance of memory. With an old wisdom in his attention to detail, Skeet would drill Rob heavily on vocabulary, definitions, states and capitals, until the facts became embedded in the cerebral circuitry”). His mother worked long hours in shitty jobs to scrape together enough money to send him to private schools.
It seemed like Robert Peace was destined to become a success story, despite his surroundings (at the time, “The public high school graduation rate was below 60 percent, and in some outlying areas, such as East Orange [where Robert Peace lived], less than 10 percent of residents held a college degree.”). He joined the water-polo team at his high school, became one of the top ten butterfliers in the state, was president of his class, was awarded the Presidential Award (his school’s highest honor), and was admitted into Yale. And, thanks to a benefactor at his high school, he was able to attend.
He did well at Yale, earning great grades, making lots of friends, and majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry (MB&B), a major that was “not for the faint of heart” (“Those who majored in MB&B were either smart and confident enough to know they would get A’s anyway, or sufficiently interested in the subject not to worry about their GPAs. Rob was both.”).
But a decade after graduating college, Robert Peace was murdered. He had spent years in blue-collar jobs at the Newark airport (the perk of which was being able to fly for free to places like Croatia, Brazil, and South Korea to explore the world). He had watched his father (convicted of double homicide) die a painful death without adequate medical treatment in prison after years of trying (and failing) to help overturn his conviction. He had failed to provide for his mother, who was still working the long hours that had allowed her to provide Rob educational opportunities. He was still living in Illtown. And he’d been selling drugs for years.
The book is a detailed look at Robert DeShaun Peace’s life (“If you’re going to tell the story of a man, tell the whole story.”), as told by his roommate at Yale, Jeff Hobbs. Some of the book (mostly the Yale years) is based on Hobbs’ memories, but it is clear that Hobbs spent many hours interviewing everyone close to Rob (his family, his high school friends, his Yale friends, his co-workers, his former teachers, etc.).
If you were to watch this book’s trailer (an activity I rarely recommend), you would not be inclined to read the book. In fact, you’d probably think the book is boring and incredibly dry. Hobbs is clearly one of those people who is not an oral communicator. Luckily, he is a good writer. The book is long (over 400 pages), but it does not drag. It reads like fiction (the highest compliment I can give to a non-fiction book, honestly). It is engaging, has a cast of very interesting characters (from Rob’s nearly all-Black water polo teammates and high school best friends known as “The Burger Boyz” to his fellow airport worker and single mother, Linda, who convinced him to watch Glee), and is an honest (and heart-wrenching) depiction of unrealized potential.
Occasionally interspersed amidst the text are photographs, text message conversations, emails, Facebook messages, and online articles (with corresponding comments). These are used perfectly—they add dynamic but are not overused.
This is obviously not a feel-good book. But it is real, and it is eye-opening, but it is not at all preachy. It’s a book that educators, politicians, and people who don’t know how lucky they have it should read.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for September 2014
Who should read it: Jovi, my “Annual Education Debate” partner (i.e., fierce proponents of the power of education); fellow Teach for America alums.
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014)