May 01, 1996 5 min read
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Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, by Geoffrey Canada. (Beacon, $20.)

The Air Down Here: True Tales From a South Bronx Boyhood, by Gil C. Alicea with Carmine DeSena. (Chronicle Books, $14.95.)

In these two autobiographical accounts about growing up in the South Bronx, school is generally relegated to the background, scenery against which the turmoil of everyday life is played out. It’s not so much that school is bad but rather that it’s ineffective at quelling the threat of violence and, hence, unworthy of much respect. “When children feel that adults cannot or will not protect them, they devise ways of protecting themselves,” writes Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Rheelen Centers for Children and Families in New York City. “School is too often the child’s learning ground about the impotence of adult authority when it comes to violence.”

If anyone knows about the nature of violence, it’s Canada. As a young child, he was by nature contemplative, even serene. But he soon learned that in a world of victims and victimizers, nonviolence is hardly an option. His well-intentioned mother, feeling a need to turn her child into a “lion cub” (as opposed to a “fawn”), prepared him for violence by compelling him to engage in it: When, as a small boy, Canada’s jacket was stolen, his mother ordered him to recover it by force.

The young Canada was also schooled in the ways of violence at P.S. 99. As a gifted student on the “smart” track, he learned the three R’s, but he also learned how to fight in the many after-school brawls. To back down from a challenge, he quickly realized, meant verbal and physical humiliation. Canada attended elementary school in the 1960s, when battles were still settled with fists. But as the title of his book indicates, matters escalated dramatically over the decade. By his teenage years, he was carrying a gun he was all too ready to use and feeling like a “superhero.” His personal transformation from a dreamy child to a potential killer bolsters Canada’s insistence that violent adolescents are not born but made. “It takes years of preparation,” he writes, “to be willing to kill or die for a corner, a color, or a leather jacket.”

The sense of ever-rising stakes also is present in The Air Down Here, narrated by 9th grader Gil Alicea, a Puerto Rican American. Gil, like the young Canada, is compelled to fight in the schoolyard; the difference is that now, in the mid 1990s, the threat of violence--gun violence in particular--is inside as well as outside the school. Kids slip weapons through the back door, the guards looking the other way to avoid confrontations.

According to Gil, who manages to maintain his exuberant charm even in the wake of his sister’s and mother’s AIDS-related deaths, many teachers are almost as indifferent to what goes on in the classrooms as to what occurs in the hallways. Most simply pass their students through the system, not even attempting to make their subjects relevant. At a public-relations breakfast hosted by then New York City schools chancellor Ramon Cortines, Gil, invited as a student representative, asks the schools chief why teachers don’t explain to kids how they will use what they learn at school in their lives. When the chancellor says it would be difficult for teachers to do this, Gil thinks, “Couldn’t you just make it part of the teachers’ business to do it? Like, when they develop the curriculum, couldn’t the teachers include an explanation of how to use what they teach?”

Regardless of what teachers do, children like Gil cannot learn until they come out from under the threat of violence. And the only way to accomplish this, Canada insists, is to create violence-free zones with community schools staffed by youth workers who counsel students and are able to stand up to those who are most dangerous and aggressive.

This, of course, is easier said than done, but Canada apparently has managed to create such an environment at the Beacon School in Harlem, which he co-founded in 1990. Open all year, the school is what Canada terms a “multi-service center,” offering, among other things, a Peacemaker Program that teaches negotiating strategies. The idea is that if violence is a learned behavior, then it can be unlearned or stopped before it becomes a patterned response.

Skeptics are likely to view Canada’s comprehensive approach as impossibly idealistic and prohibitively expensive. But prisons are costly, too, and apparently ineffective in deterring juvenile crime. Schools can’t save the world, but they can, at the very least, be safe havens--places where children can think about something besides the threat just around the corner.

Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools, by William J. Murray. (Morrow, $20.) In 1960, the notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, acting on behalf of her son William, filed suit in federal court to block Bible readings and prayer in the Baltimore public schools. Three years later, she emerged victorious when the Supreme Court ordered an end to all public school-initiated religious activities. Now, more than 30 years later, that son is arguing a very different position on the matter. Compared with his outspoken mother--who once wrote, “We find the Lord’s Prayer to be that muttered by worms groveling for meager existence"--Murray is reasonably circumspect regarding the subject of prayer. As the title of his book makes clear, Murray wants prayer in the public schools, and he patiently explains why, beginning with the intentions of the country’s Founding Fathers. They would have found nonsectarian prayer constitutional, Murray argues, therefore it must be all right. But what he fails to point out is that the Founding Fathers were white Protestants, as were those for whom the Constitution was conceived, and they couldn’t have imagined how diverse the nation--with its myriad of faiths--was to become. Murray essentially argues that prayer should be permitted in the classroom as long as it isn’t coerced. But it’s hard to imagine how prayer in the classroom can be anything but coercive. Inevitably, students, particularly young ones, will participate out of peer pressure, which denies the free conscience required by genuine religious faith.

--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Books


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