Dan Roche

OK. You readers, the UMB community, my loving and trusted cameradoes and cameradas, any of whom I would fight Satan himself to the infernal depths for without blinking, were served a bit of a raw deal last week. I excoriated you for your apathy, and so did my boss, Mike Hogan. We were both underwhelmed by the response to my request that someone define our school’s mission, from a student perspective, from a “big picture” outlook, however it came. I then promised to interview several of the people I thought might have the best idea of how to capture the vital energy of our school in a few encouraging words. I must confess that, for now, I am crapping out on that project.

You see, it’s much bigger than I thought it was. After talking to a few people, I realized that, well, our school’s social history is complex. I fell victim, a little bit, to this myth that our school was established as a sort of BU for the working class, a place where dishwashers with two kids could earn their degree in biochem after spending ten years out of school. I now know, ’tain’t necessarily so. You see, once upon a time, this school was teeming with rich kids. It wasn’t just that one kid from Deluxebury who used your 1985 Yugo GV as a footstool while climbing out of his Hummer X3 last week. By my understanding, from talking to people who were there, man, that many of the studentry (to use William Strunk’s pet word) were the children of the moderately-to-pretty-goddamn privileged.

Nowadays, it’s a given that in any class you may be sitting next to a flashy black girl from Roxbury, or a Croatan immigrant, or a Latin Catholic from Eastie, or a former refugee from Liberia. (I myself am part Irish Catholic and part English Protestant, so you can see why I have a tough time keeping it together.) But you can be reasonably assured that most everyone around you is either “from” Boston or currently resides therein. We are, not “we should be”, an urban school that consists of a fairly broad cross-section of society. Everybody is sick to death of the word “diversity” but the truth is, as a quality, it makes for an interesting and dynamic mix of people, and that is what we are blessed with now. Consider this entry, entitled “Chairman’s Committee Report”, (though I’m guessing it was nothing of the sort), from the Mass Media circa 1973:

‘Today, the urban and minority population at UMass is dwindling. Those that do manage to get by the maze of entrants fail out by the second semester, primarily because not much exists in the way of remedial and supportive services. Furthermore, in the future, those that do get into UMass will be so carefully screened as to virtually dismiss the threat that any of these street kids might do something about the state of things.

Bullshit, you say, right? Suburban kids can go here too and, after all many have apartments in the city too.

Not quite, baby. Those of you who came here from middle-class families might have had some other choice for schooling. Only tuition for you at UMass still isn’t too bad. For most city kids, it’s here or nothing. Then, too, many of you could go back to Mommy and Daddy in the suburbs for loans and shit. Not so easy for the city kid. Remember financial aid?’

Class-based bullying aside, by my understanding the lad had a point. My faculty advisor, who has been here for thirty-seven years, says that many of the old students came here from somewhere else. Kids weren’t working their way up from community college, they were leaving the private schools. Money, the nice price, might have been an issue for some, but also there were many students that had been, say, kicked out of their old schools for political activities.

Think about the times: UMB was a hotbed of activity surrounding Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Did you know Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, worked as a lecturer here at the same time as she first published her classic story (and English 101 staple), “Everyday Use.” There were a lot of people thinking a bit differently about education, and their concepts then lead to today’s realities. Over time, it seems that a lot of people worked hard on administrators to include students from the city as a major component of the University.

I’m sure I’m here because of that effort. When I matriculated I came from Roxbury Community College. Before RCC, I was out of school for close to a decade. During that time, I spent several years living outdoors, worked menial jobs, wasted away and did a few stints in the pokey. I brought with me only a few good grades and a r-r-rockin’ GED test score. Do you think I would be able to compete against a 20-year-old who is transferring from Simmons with a 3.8 because he wants to save a few bucks before he transfers back for the diploma? Hell naw. In 1970, that’s what would have happened, and I’d be a walking courier for the rest of my life.

Somewhere in that transition, those faculty conversations contained the seed, the original, the essence of what this school now is and what will make it the best urban public school in the country. There is a phenomenal amount of intellectual energy in this city’s working population that is waiting to be channeled. Our city isn’t unique in this, but a visionary, yet crafty and pragmatic, approach to recruitment can yield far more interesting results than catering to kids who are gaming the state system.

It’s a lot like scouting must be like in sports: a lot of times you’re not looking at what is, but what could be.

One memory I have from Hyde Park High involved a girl in my tenth-grade Science class. She was smart, and friendly- kinda cute, too. She asked Ms. C., our teacher, what kind of grades she would need to maintain if she were to get into Harvard. A 3.6? A 3.8?

Ms. C gave a sad smile and tried to avoid the question. The girl was insistent though. “What do you think?” She got the honest answer.

“I don’t think you can get in even with a 3.8.”

The girl pressed on. I felt so bad for her. It’s not often you see ambition being squashed in front of you. “What about a 4.0?”

“Not even with a 4.0. Not from here.” She could have then said, “But there are hundreds of other good schools, and even some great ones, that you can get into. There’s even a snowball’s chance in Hell you could get into Harvard if you work your face off.” She just let it drop, and the girl drooped.

I’d like to think there is a way local guidance counselors could give our school a heads-up about students like her. For all I know, she didn’t follow up on High School and entered the job market from there, doing something she is far too smart for. I’m certain there are plenty of people who have innate potential who, due to circumstances, think that continuing their education is out of the question. It isn’t.

And so, one project I have assigned myself over the summer is to put together a 4,000-word article on the evolution of the Urban Mission and the social history of our school. To encourage imagination as the school begins the 25-year rebuilding process, to stress the importance of lifting potential with people up from the street and from the unskilled workforce instead of being used as a state-subsidized footstool for cheapskates and a dump for the privates to unload their party boys.

Somewhere, our next hotshot engineering student is getting a summer job at Staples.

ADDENDUM: Final week approaches! Get mean…Someone from Iraq Veterans Against the War, get in touch with me…Stinky dorks at the Watermark literary magazine offer free food and reading on Monday the 12th at the Point Lounge, Campus Center, noon to three. Studs and babes at Lux magazine likewise Wednesday the 14th, 2:30, at the 8000% nudity-free Harbor Art Gallery…Soon, we enter the wandersummer! Do road trips. Laze in the Arbs. Visit Tuvalu, or Ontario, or Savannah, GA. Drink beer on the porch with your best friend. If you’re working, take quickie weekend vacations. This is the best summer of some eight-year-old’s life! What about you? …See you in 113 days, roughly 2,712 hours, or 162,720 minutes, or precisely 9,763,200 seconds.