A Musing: Lives on the Boundary


As I worked on my midterm essays this weekend, I realized that I never wrote a little something about what is probably the most personally meaningful book I’ve read in a long time —  Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educational Underclass.

I had originally read it back in the early 90s when my husband was a graduate student teaching Composition as part of his assistantship. It was one of the books his mentor assigned, and after devouring it, he immediately passed it on to me, knowing that I would love it. I loved it.

Reading it 20 years later, though, was a completely different experience. I was far away enough from my upbringing that I was able to see  (starkly!) how much my background resembled Mike’s and the students he wrote about. Where I came from affected my future in ways I hadn’t really sat down and analyzed. I have to admit, I had a real sad and sulky (and yes, angry!) few weeks there as I was reading this book! But don’t worry — I got through to the other side of it, thanks to Mike.

If I had to sum up this book in one word, I would use the word “invitation.” Even though this book talks about the hard stuff of poverty and abuse, and the testing, labeling, and underpreparedness rampant in the educational system, the main message is one of hope. It’s very simple, really. Invite everyone to the party. Rose writes, “…a failed education is social more than intellectual in origin.” (225)  Wow. Did you catch that? People aren’t stupid,  they just haven’t been invited across their race, class, and cultural boundaries in a real way. Sure, they get admitted to college, but are their realities ever taken into account?

For example, throughout college, I had to be at work at 1pm, and scheduled all of my classes at 8:30 through 12:45 so I could then run to work in an office all afternoon. This is how I was able to attend college, and what my working class family expected, but I bet my professors saw it as me running away from campus as quickly as I could. I never had time to linger in the library or join in after class conversations or office hours or anything of the sort. They probably thought I wasn’t a truly engaged learner. There were many classes I was super interested in that I didn’t get to take simply because they were never offered in the morning (and many classes I was lukewarm about that I had to take, because they met at 8:30am).  After reading Mike Rose’s book again, I realized that none of my professors ever asked me about this. For all of their Marxist theory they were never curious about how a working class kid was making it through college.

Now that I’m older and work at a university, I see that there are all kinds of other tricks — work-study, jobs at the university library which is opened late and allows you more time during the day for school, etc. but I or my family didn’t know about this stuff! No one from my family went to college! See — boundary. How different might things have been if someone took an interest as to why I wasn’t coming to office hours? Ah, it’s not fruitful to think that way — because I was lucky, and this is minor compared to so many other people’s situations. I talk to my classmates, and am astonished — who does her homework at 2 am because she has a nursing baby, who has to take their classes after a UPS job that starts at 4am.

…and this doesn’t even get into how, say, someone that went to a Catholic school and had 12 years of religion classes then must take a Western Civ class in their first semester. The professor starts talking about the Bible as literature, and the student is confronted with ideas that go against everything they know from their upbringing. How do they make sense of this academically?

…or, an example from the book — a student is reading Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness for class, and she has a bi-polar brother. How can she engage in this text given her reality?

…or, how strange things feel for a Veteran who has just come back from war, and is around all of these people years younger who have not been to hell and back? How do you fit in the university culture? How  have your previous experiences of authority translate into a classroom situation?

This just scratches the surface. This book is so full of things to think about. If you have any interest in education, this is a must-read. Gosh, if you have a heart that beats, it’s a must-read! It is engaging and full of stories that will make you cry, and make your really, really happy (read the story about Willie Oates and tell me what you think), and make you soooo angry! But, I hope, it will ultimately make you pause and think about ways you can extend an invitation in this world. There are so many. I know I contacted the Literacy Volunteers of Camden County and start training to be a volunteer in January. Happy New Year!

(image from Mike Rose’s Blog. How utterly grateful I am that Mike Rose blogs!!!)


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