And Still We Rise (by Miles Corwin)

By , April 12, 2002

April 12, 2002 — Over the years, I’ve read a number of well-written books about children, education, and juvenile justice, and always I am left with a strong feeling of frustration and despair. This week, I read a very different book, one I strongly recommend you read.

Miles Corwin, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was researching a story on “homicide in South Central LA” when he accompanied police to the scene where “John Doe Number 27” had just been shot and killed. Initially, police assumed that they were dealing with just another gang-banger, but then they found his neatly-written exam paper, graded “A.” This 15-year-old was enrolled in a program for gifted children at a local school. He was shot, like many other children each year, because his response to a roving gang’s challenge wasn’t satisfactory.

Corwin reports that he was affected by the realization that he was writing only about the gang-bangers and drug dealers, and not about the many gifted youth who simply struggled against all odds to succeed in LA’s South Central neighborhoods. If “John Doe 27” had survived, he might have graduated from Crenshaw High School’s gifted student program in 1997. The students of that class — seniors in the AP English class at Crenshaw during the 1996-97 school year — are the subject of “And Still We Rise.”

Corwin respects and even reveres the students and teachers he writes about, but this is still a book about human beings, not cut from any single mold. They make mistakes, they are real. And that, in the end, is why after snatching time to read a chapter or two at a time for several days, I found myself up all night tonight finishing this book.

Corwin is a good reporter, and a good writer. For this book, he spent many hours (over the course of an entire year), in the “gifted program” classrooms of two English teachers at an LA high school, and many more hours interviewing teachers, students, and family members. Sometimes, is seems quite apparent that Corwin is “recycling” material that probably appeared in the LA Times or its magazine. In the latter half of the book, I was surprised to find “new characters” introduced, students who clearly had been in the class all year, but who weren’t mentioned in earlier sections of the book — as if Corwin started his focus on a few students, and gradually expanded his horizon as the year progressed.

I bought this book because it appeared “different” from the “year-in-the-life” books I’ve read before, and I was rewarded. This is not a book about hopelessness. It is a book about affirmative action — during the school year, California’s proposition 209 passed, ending most affirmative action programs in the state. Corwin clearly states that one purpose of the book, is to illustrate how unequal our schools are, and how even the most gifted students in South Central LA cannot possibly succeed without help. Corwin is clearly not surprised to find that the most successful students in the “gifted class” are those who live in safer, more stable homes, with well-educated parents and involved families, while other students, even smarter and more dedicated, cannot succeed without such support.

Over the years, I have drawn one unifying theme from books in this genre: The System Sucks. The system is broken, populated by people who have good intentions but never adequate resources. “And Still We Rise” is different. Yes, it relates stories of failure, including the most common story about a needy child who is denied any genuine resources or attention until the child “crosses a line,” after which vast resources are poured on, though perhaps too late.

But above all, the book is about the incredible young men and women who succeed against incredible odds, not just surviving and getting a high school diploma in a school where that achievement is rare enough, but excelling, taking Advanced Placement classes, and aspiring to attend elite colleges. I live in Pleasanton, California, an affluent, mostly-white suburb in Northern California, where most children continue on to college, and our Rotary Club routinely awards recognition to local students who are enrolled in 5 AP classes and boast GPAs well above 4.0. Yes, these local kids work hard and often struggle against the odds to achieve, but very few children in the Pleasanton school district face conditions as bleak as those that face the children from the strongest homes in South Central LA.

Corwin acknowledges a key point: the seniors in the gifted program at Crenshaw represent the “survivors of the gifted,” those of the very brightest students who were not discouraged or distracted before their senior year. He is not writing about the thousands of students who were capable but not as gifted. In most suburban school districts, such “competent” students (like me) could still aspire to college and great accomplishments; in South Central LA, such aspirations are unlikely and implausible.

Sometimes, when I read other books chronicling life in an inner-city school, the solutions seem easy: the characters are often portrayed as Good or Evil, and obstacles often seem artificial. Reading such books, I feel as if it would be a simple matter for me to gather a few friends, roll up our sleeves, and fix all the problems. Miles Corwin doesn’t create such hope with “And Still We Rise.” He shows how complex and enduring the problems are in inner city schools. Corwin, and the teachers and students he writes about, don’t shy from blunt statements about racism and inequality.

When I finished “And Still We Rise,” I didn’t have that artificial feeling that solutions are easy, nor that the situation is hopeless. I felt as if I better understood the lives of other people, who live whole lifetimes in circumstances I would not endure even for months.

Bad things happen, and people do foolish things in this book; there are no heroes and no easy scapegoats. The environment is brutal; the outlook for all but the very best students is bleak. Yet this is a book about hope, and about opportunity, and I felt good when I finished reading “And Still We Rise.”

Once or twice a year, I read a book that makes me want to reach out and thank the author. This is one of those books: I would like to thank Miles Corwin for dedicating a year of his life to observing and researching this book, and more time to writing and refining it. I would also like to thank Corwin, and his editors, for not hiding behind a pretense of “objectivity,” but bluntly sharing his viewpoints and motivations, and admitting that he became personally involved in some aspects of the stories he was reporting.

“And Still We Rise” is a well-written, compelling, inspirational book. I strongly recommend it.

By Mark J. Welch (markwelch@markwelch.com) (April 12, 2002)

Disclaimer: The book links to Amazon.com are affiliate links (paid advertising).

2 Responses to “And Still We Rise (by Miles Corwin)”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Nine years after writing this review, I noticed that my book review was assigned as required reading in an AP English classroom: http://www.markwelchblog.com/2011/06/11/thoughts-on-learning-that-reading-my-book-review-is-a-class-assignment/

  2. K. Eure says:

    When I was in graduate school. I wrote a paper on this book and one of the characters, Ms. Moultrie and I believe that it was done profoundly. Its written from a social work perspective but I believe that it is great. I would love to have others read it.

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