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Worlds Apart

James O'Brien

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak to a creative writing class at one of the most expensive prep schools in Minnesota, so I got up early on the appointed day and drove out to the suburb where it sits gated and far from the barbarians. It was just after 8:00 o'clock in the morning when I arrived, but the rent-a-cops were in full swing, shepherding a parade of SUVs, minivans, and sports cars dropping off star pupils and future business and civic leaders.

Inside, the halls bustled with bright, bantering kids and the best teachers money can buy. All that energy, ambition, and opportunity made me jealous for a past I never had and a future for my kids I'll never be able to afford. As I made my way to the classroom, I could feel my lifelong fascination/revulsion for the rich and suburban getting the best of me.

The kid who caught my attention was wearing a polo shirt and a pullover sweater. His hair was perfect, his cheeks ruddy; self-satisfaction wafted off him like cologne from a magazine ad. I hadn't noticed him sitting in the back of the room, but after I introduced myself to the class and talked about my background--careful to mention that I'd done a fellowship at Stanford, so as to alleviate my creeping class and education insecurity and to let them know I wasn't just some starving-artist schmuck--he made himself known.

He was as bored as I was. He picked up on the most obvious point of my spiel and asked me the name of the punk rock band I sang for. I told him, and he and the girl next to him sniffed. The early hour and my autopilot opening had deadened the room, so when my plea for questions went unmet, I turned back to the kid and asked him if he liked punk rock. "No," he said flatly.

It wasn't going well. The teacher left the room to free them up. I asked them to read me some of their work. He volunteered, but said he didn't want to read his piece, so a friend read it for him. It concerned going to church in "the inner city" (St. Olaf's in downtown Minneapolis), and how much he disliked the poor people around him who stank of shit, and the man with a toupee in the pew in front of him. It was callow and bald-faced and it made fun of everything it touched. He had the good manners to insert an I-shouldn't-feel-this-way caveat at the end, but his thesis was clear: I'm better than you.

I looked at the ceiling. Heard a few stifled guffaws at the smart-ass mocking of the poor and lost. Rubbed my chin. Looked at the educational doodads on the wall. I thought about the most recent Mindworks series in the Star Tribune, in which students from around the state wrote about the poor and homeless with a sobering bitterness and lack of empathy.

I thought about Walter Karp's 20-year-old Harper's essay "Why Johnny Can't Think," which summed up the failures of public education like this: "A favored few, pampered and smiled upon, are taught to cherish privilege and despise the disfavored. The favorless many, who have majored in failure for years, are taught to think ill of themselves. Youthful spirits are broken to the world and every impulse of citizenship is effectively stifled."

I thought about the night I attended the 20-year reunion of the 1976 class of Minneapolis Central High School, a place where rich and poor kids hung together, where sons of doctors (the Najarian brothers) walked the halls with the sons of broken homes (Prince, among others). (I graduated from Minneapolis's De La Salle the next year.) I thought about what Central's former music teacher, Bea Hasselman, wistfully told me that night: "In my opinion, that '71-'81 Central was the most peacefully integrated school in the history of the state. People chose to come here because of its curriculum. Science. Math. Language. The arts. People thought of it as an 'inner city school,' but it could compete with any school in the state. And we did."

I took a breath. I told the kid it was a good piece of writing insofar as it managed to be honest, but that he should take it further. I told him to think about why he felt the way he did, and mentioned that the church setting was an ironic frame for his own cynicism. I told him a lot of good writing exposes the writer, warts and all, and I told him that even though I didn't know anything about him, I was pretty sure from what he wrote that he came from money and that he didn't give a shit about people who weren't like him.

The rest of the students gasped and looked at me. I think I was the only one watching his reaction. His jaded mask crumpled and turned into the face of a fearful and no longer so self-sure little boy. His mouth actually fell open, as if he was being called out for the first time in his life. Maybe in that moment he had the sense he might really be missing something important, a whole other world of complicated questions, stimuli, dirty fingernails, and people he might learn things from. More likely, perhaps, he was just embarrassed at being shown up.

My work was done. I had put the kid in his place, put him in a box. Maybe he'd learned something. Chalk one up for the city, to hell with the suburbs. Now I would go and tell the world about this kid and the way he symbolized everything that's wrong with everything.

The next morning I e-mailed the kid's teacher to tell her I was thinking of writing about her student, because I was alarmed at what he'd written. She told me not to be too harsh, that the kid is an amazing artist, and that one of his best friends killed himself last year. Then she said she didn't have time to chat, because she'd just gotten word that one of her colleagues, a fellow teacher at the school who can be seen blowing a kiss to the universe at www.citypages.com/kisses, committed suicide the day before.

"This is the world I live in," she concluded. "These kids have had their share of dysfunction and grief, and they are about to get another boatload."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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