‘What Can I Do?’

February 01, 1990 2 min read

Moreover, that number does not include the hundreds of thousands of troubled young people who live at home, but are victims of poverty, abuse, and violence--children who are failing in school and in danger of failing in life. All too often, society has given up on them, and they have given up on society. Too often, but not always. Sometimes someone steps in and makes a difference.

Take Tim Rollins, for example. Rollins, whose story begins on page 56, used to teach art to special-education students in a New York City public school--or at least he tried to. Out of despair for his students and frustration with the restraints of the bureaucracy, Rollins finally resigned and almost single-handedly created “Kids of Survival,’' a unique program in the South Bronx that nourishes the innate artistic ability of teenagers who are often learning disabled.

The painting-collages created by Rollins’s kids have been purchased by collectors and museums for as much as $35,000 each. The one shown on the facing page was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and the current AIDS epidemic.

Or take Deborah Caincross, Mary Noble, and Mary Copley, three teachers whose stories begin on page 46. Every day in their classes they saw “damaged’’ children on the way to becoming “discarded children.’' They weren’t trying to help solve a national problem when they made the difficult decision to become foster mothers. Each simply wanted to help one very needy child.

Or take Dan Conrad, who for the past 20 years has required the students in his elective social studies class to perform community service four days a week. He believes it’s good for them and good for the community. And, as the story beginning on page 60 reports, that view is catching on in America’s schools. Thousands of students across the country are doing something to help others or make their communities better places to live. They are learning early in life that they--acting alone or with others--can actually make a difference. This is a lesson that very much needs to be taught these days.

America has always placed great emphasis--in fact and in rhetoric--on the individual and individual action. But as the problems of modern society proliferate, there seems to be a growing sentiment among the citizenry that one person cannot really do anything to change things. In the face of intractable problems, we, as individuals, often feel helpless. The common refrain is: “What can I do?’'

It is sometimes easy to forget that individuals, taken together, are “The People.’' And when The People act--as they have been doing dramatically in Eastern Europe--things can be changed. But even these grand, sweeping collective actions are really made up of millions of individual decisions and actions. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict put it, “No civilization has in it any element that is not, in the last analysis, the contribution of an individual.’'

Tim Rollins knows that. He also knows that feeling of helplessness, and he fights against it. He tells his Kids of Survival that “you have to create something in the world, and you’ve got to make history.’' One way to do that, he tells them, is to pick up a paintbrush. “That is how somebody who is a nobody can make history.’'

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as ‘What Can I Do?’