Equity & Diversity Opinion

Lives on the Boundary, 20 Years Later

By Jessica Siegel — October 23, 2009 5 min read
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“This is a hopeful book about those who fail,” wrote Mike Rose in the preface to his powerful, evocative, and, at the same time, well-argued book Lives on the Boundary, which was published 20 years ago this year.

The book, which has sold over 200,000 copies, is not only discussed in education schools. It is read in English composition classes, remedial-writing classes, freshman summer institutes, and college-orientation classes, and is anthologized widely.

My copy from 1989 is now yellowed, with a corner of the cover missing and the last few pages slipping out. Yet it remains one of the few books I’ve read that really get inside the heads of students seen as “remedial,” “disadvantaged,” “at risk,” “illiterate,” “intellectually deficient,” or whatever new term is coined for young people who struggle in school. And it remains a central part of how I teach high school teachers at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, which, for the most part, prepares students to work in the New York City public schools.

But if it is “a hopeful book about those who fail” —and it is—that isn’t because Rose, now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, but once categorized as one of those kinds of students himself, has written a pedagogical how-to in reaching disadvantaged learners. No, the book is in fact unclassifiable: a memoir, a history of American education, a description of learning processes, an exposé of false notions of intelligence, and a call to arms for a humane vision of education.

The book is effective partly because it is an amalgam. But it also is beautifully written and on target about what it is like for kids struggling in school. Rose should know. He grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of two Italian-American working-class immigrants. His mother quit school in 7th grade to care for her sickly younger brothers. His father went through a year or two of Italian elementary school before coming to this country, and was disabled for much of Rose’s youth. His mother supported the family as a waitress in a coffee shop.

It is through Rose’s own eyes that a good chunk of the book is narrated, first as a student in the vocational track, which was used as a dumping ground for students seen as “not college material” at his Catholic high school; later, in the college-prep track, when he was switched there in 10th grade; and then afterwards, as an underprepared college student. He nails the experiences of someone trying to keep his head above water in school, as in this description of what it’s like encountering a difficult word problem in math:

“The basic elements are as familiar as story characters: trains speeding so many miles per hour or shadows of buildings angling so many degrees. Maybe you know enough, have sat through enough explanations, to be able to begin setting up the problem: ‘If one train is going this fast …’ or ‘This shadow is really one line of a triangle. …’ Then: ‘Let’s see …’ ‘How did Jones do this?’ ‘Hmmmm.’ ‘No.’ ‘No, that won’t work.’ Your attention wavers. You wonder about other things: a football game, a dance, that cute new checker at the market. You try to focus on the problem again. You scribble on paper for a while, but the tension wins out and your attention flits elsewhere. You crumple the paper and begin daydreaming to ease the frustration.

The particulars will vary, but in essence this is what a number of students go through, especially those in so-called remedial classes. They open their textbooks and see once again the familiar and impenetrable formulas and diagrams and terms that have stumped them for years. There is no excitement here. No excitement. Regardless of what the teacher says, this is not a new challenge. There is, rather,embarrassment and frustration and, not surprisingly, some anger in being reminded once again of long-standing inadequacies. No wonder so many students finally attribute their difficulties to something inborn, organic: ‘That part of my brain just doesn’t work.’ ”

As he does there, Rose is constantly pulling back to comment on his own experiences, to explain things or to give the reader the background to understand them. But the book is not just his own story; he describes teaching elementary school students, adolescents, Vietnam veterans, second-language adults, and grandmothers learning to read for the first time. All these people, characters in a rich patchwork quilt of experiences of his own and others’ time in school, become vivid to us. There’s Laura, a daughter of a food vendor in Tijuana, who signed up for and dropped a remedial English course at UCLA four times during her freshman year because of her fears that she was “a crummy writer.”

There is Olga, an older student in heavy mascara and with hair teased, who finished reading “Macbeth”: “You know, Mike, people always hold this shit over you, … make you feel stupid with their fancy talk. But now I’ve read it, I’ve read Shakespeare, I can say I, Olga, have read it. I won’t tell you I like it, ’cause I don’t know if I do or I don’t. But I like knowing what it’s about.”

And then there is Willie Oates, who is one of my favorites, a student in Rose’s class of Vietnam veterans who served time in jail and, thanks to the prison library, got turned on to reading everything from Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Sense and Sensibility and The Mill on the Floss. As Rose says: “As I paged through [his journal], I saw black, working-class experience fused with the language of teapots and Victorian gardens. … It was a remarkable book, the record of a clash of cultures and a testament to the power of Willie’s desire.”

A student’s desire for learning, a turn of phrase in a piece riddled with “errors,” a part of a student’s writing that is particularly revealing, an insight that comes tumbling out when conversing with a student—through all of these Rose sees evidence of possibility. Possibility is a word that comes up a lot in his writing. What is possible? Are we missing possibilities in students who seem like lost causes? These are questions he constantly raises. He was treated as a lost cause when he was in the vocational track—before a few insightful teachers, and later professors, noticed him and gave him the support he needed.

This is partially why I think it is so important for the preservice and working teachers in my class to read this book. Rose believes in the power of teachers to make a difference, even if he is critical of the way the educational enterprise is working.

What he offers as well in Lives on the Boundary is something called “binocular vision,” a concept he learned from Ben Campos, a seasoned teacher and a mentor with whom he worked when he was in the Teacher Corps. “Ben possessed the kind of binocular vision I needed so badly,” Rose writes. “He was able to see head-on the community’s poverty and despair, yet saw as well the many points of desire and possibility.”

That’s what I want my students to develop: an ability to see clearly their students’ strengths and possibilities as well as their weakness and issues. That’s what I want to share with them. And I offer it to them, thanks to Lives on the Boundary.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Lives on the Boundary, 20 Years Later


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