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A War Of Attrition

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West Oakland continues to have more than its share of roving teenagers and street hustlers, some of them McClymonds dropouts.

West Oakland began an inexorable decline after World War II as cars and trucks rendered the railroads increasingly superfluous. The construction of the Cypress Expressway in the 1950s didn't help matters; it roared through the heart of the city. Later, some of the community's most vibrant blocks were razed to make room for a sprawling postal distribution facility.

In 1966, radicals Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the militant Black Panther Party and set up headquarters in West Oakland. The Panthers rallied the community, launching a free-meal program for kids, organizing tenants, and preaching the gospel of self-determination. The eventual demise of the Panthers in many ways epitomized the dissolution of West Oakland. In 1988, Newton was murdered during a crack deal under the Cypress Expressway.

"A lot of West Oakland parents were in the Black Panther movement," says Schmookler. "But they're obviously no longer doing what they need to be doing. A lot of them got caught up with crack cocaine."

These days, West Oakland is experiencing something of a comeback. The Oakland port is flourishing, and the economic boom of the larger San Francisco Bay area has brought new industry and housing to the area. Still, West Oakland continues to have more than its share of roving teenagers and street hustlers, some of them McClymonds dropouts. Schmookler and his fellow teachers spot them on the street corners as they drive to and from school.

"Sure, I see them around," Claude Joffiah says. "They tell me their reasons for dropping out of school are economic. Their role models are out on the street chasing big bucks, hustling. That's what the kids think it takes to make it in America."

The way society's most affluent citizens view poor kids like these perturbs Schmookler. Their attitude, he says, is: " 'If only these people just worked a little harder, stopped doing drugs, drinking, and hanging out, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps.' To me, this way of thinking is a joke. Everyone doesn't succeed in the best of circumstances, so how can you expect them to succeed in the worst of circumstances? I'm not going to blame the victim for being the victim. My kids didn't decide to get born in West Oakland.

"If they feel alienated from mainstream society, it's sure not because they have made that choice. Why would you decide not to have any hope? Why would you decide to live in an area where people get killed, do drugs, hang out on the corner drinking? No one decides that's the way they want to live unless they've been so brainwashed that that's all they know. It's like war veterans. Do you think they went into battle wanting to kill people? No, they didn't. But after a while, they grew accustomed to it. It's a corrosion of life."

Living in West Oakland colors Schmookler's students' views on almost everything. White people, with whom they have next to no contact, are instinctively mistrusted. During the summer of 1997, Schmookler ran a McClymonds school-to-work internship program. He would drive from one work site to the next to see how his students were faring. One day, a few students working for the highway department told him that they were "black prisoners" and that their white employers were racist. It turned out that someone at a job site had put this idea in their heads, telling the boys that they were doing "shit work for $5 an hour." Schmookler reproached them, explaining that it wasn't going to do them a bit of good to charge the department with racism. He told them that they had better concentrate on doing a good job. But it didn't sink in. The students were prone to believe almost anything bad regarding whites.

'My students may not care much about citizenship, but they believe in the American dream and the pursuit of happiness.'

Ben Schmookler,
McClymonds High School,
teacher

Schmookler understands this attitude and says his students can hardly be blamed for seeing their world in the context of a white conspiracy. "Just reverse the situation," he explains. "If you lived in West Oakland and everyone was white and poor, and everyone black lived in the hills and drove nice cars, wouldn't you think something was wrong? Wouldn't you have animosity toward these people? Wouldn't you try to justify the position you find yourself in? Especially when the only thing you can break down for certain is the color of your skin?"

I had told Schmookler I wanted to see him and his students in action, so he invited me to sit in on his second-period American history class one day early last spring. As the students found their seats, Schmookler returned tests from the day before, dispensing both praise and admonishment. About half the students had passed. One girl celebrated when she saw her grade: "I got a 75," she proclaimed. "A 75!" Among the failures, there was little more than token protest.

But one student was clearly irked. She held up her test and said to Schmookler, "Look, I did the essay section, and you still failed me."

"That's not an essay," he explained. "Those are notes you copied from the board."

"Oh," she said, foiled.

It amazes Schmookler how many of his students, even those with the most dismal academic records, think they are going on to big things after high school. When he asks them what they intend to do, many tell him that they plan to go to college. Their GPAs are 1.0, 1.5, maybe 2.0, but still they're planning to go to the University of California.

When he explains that they won't get in, they get defensive and ask why he's being so negative. "I'm not telling you that, the college is telling you that," he explains. "It has admissions requirements you have to meet."

Still, the students refuse to believe. They have an infinite capacity for deceiving themselves. "My students may not care much about citizenship, but they believe in the American dream and the pursuit of happiness," Schmookler says. "For them, the American dream isn't about going off to vote but to make money. My kids very much want to make money. Do they know how to do it? No."

Even so, Schmookler sees energy and native intelligence in many of his students, and he wonders what would happen if he could tap into those qualities. As it is, he is trying to teach them how to read a textbook, write a paragraph, and behave in class. With each passing school year, they sink further behind. And yet there are times when they perform capably--even admirably--in class.

After the students examined their grades, Schmookler launched into a review of the test. "How did Social Darwinism fit into Manifest Destiny?" Schmookler asked.

"If you're white and think everyone else is inferior to you, it's pretty easy to think it's your destiny to expand everywhere," said the girl who was thrilled to get the 75. "That's how they could justify taking over Hawaii."

Schmookler says, 'There will always be a few teachers who will stay no matter what. But the rest will go; they won't tolerate it.'

Schmookler wanted to know how Theodore Roosevelt justified sending troops to the Dominican Republic. "By extending the Monroe Doctrine," a boy named Jamal explained. As the discussion continued, Jamal offered his thoughts on a number of subjects. When the conversation turned to cultural bias, he provided an example: "Like when ghetto kids are asked suburban questions on the SAT." Later, when the subject of colonialism came up, he provided a definition for missionary: "someone who tries to get you to be a Christian instead of a Buddhist." Jamal was clearly smart.

Earlier in the year, Schmookler had thought Jamal might be college material, so he checked the boy's academic record. His GPA was exactly 0.

Like most good teachers, Schmookler combines workhorse persistence with bursts of thoroughbred flair. I watched him drive his students with a string of questions--"Why did the U.S. government put a quota on Japanese immigrants but let in droves of Russians?" "Why did certain attitudes toward the Japanese surface in World War II and again in the 1980s?"--and then break into a rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

A little later, he asked the students if they knew who the "bad guys" were in World War II.

"The Jews," a student said earnestly.

"No," Schmookler said. "Let me explain. . . ."

When I first met Schmookler in the summer of 1997, moving on was the furthest thing from his mind. He was committed to teaching at McClymonds for the long haul. A year later, however, his resolve had worn thin. He was thinking about becoming a dean, perhaps at another school. "I don't like doing the same thing year after year," he said at the close of the 1997-98 school year. "It's just not my nature."

While that may be true, there was no denying that the last two months of the school year had taken a toll on Schmookler. First, one of his mentors, principal Willie Hamilton, had to leave his job for medical reasons. With Hamilton's departure, McClymonds again teetered on the brink of chaos.

Then, in late spring, Schmookler was attacked by a student. He had confronted a group of youngsters smoking marijuana on campus, and one of them came at him throwing punches. The attack itself was no big deal, Schmookler told me; he had the student by 150 pounds and easily subdued him. What disturbed him at the time, and continued to bother him, was the fact that neither the acting principal nor any other administrator at the school would take any action. Only after Schmookler wrote letters to the superintendent and school board members was the student finally suspended.

When I talked to Schmookler in late June, he sounded down. His future at McClymonds was uncertain. Only half of his 120 students had made it through the class with a passing grade.

"There will always be a few teachers who will stay no matter what," he told me. "But the rest will go; they won't tolerate it. They're going to ask themselves, What the hell am I doing here? Why am I spending all of this time hitting my head against the wall?''

I asked Schmookler what it would take to turn McClymonds around and make it an appealing place to work. "A strong principal like Mr. Hamilton," Schmookler said. "A dedicated central administration that can get teachers everything they need. A consistent discipline plan. Is all of that going to happen? Right now, it doesn't look good."

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