….when someone has written something so well and you know you will not better it why not re-post it? This comes from the blog of David Hepworth, someone I first knew of as a presenter of the’The Old Grey Whistle Test‘ and then as editor of my all time favourite magazine, that is sadly no longer with us. I have listened to the podcast about the school in Chicago referred to in this post and it is very good. I too would recommend ‘This American Life‘:
Harper High School is a two-part programme from NPR in the States. I heard it via the This American Life podcast. It’s the kind of radio you don’t get in this country, not even from Radio 4. It sets out to discover what it’s like in a school on the south side of Chicago where they’ve “lost” (how the language of warfare clings) over twenty students in the last year.
The teachers and social workers of Harper High patrol the halls relentlessly exuding positivity. One of them, Crystal, says “let me appreciate you in advance” as soon as any student doesn’t directly refuse to comply with an instruction. This is the kind of school where they have to offer students a cookie for turning up at a class on time.
Even the police around Harper High reckon it’s impossible to escape being allied to one gang or another. It’s not to do with drugs. It’s to do with where you live. The kids are frightened, which is why they sound depressed. One boy, who has gone back into his shell after accidentally shooting and killing his brother, says “I don’t like to remember”. His words are those of a toddler. His voice is that of a man.
Harper High School flips the picture presented by British teacher recruitment advertising. You know that one – “work with the most exciting people in the country”. At Harper teachers are the ones who sound like the brightest, most questioning people in the world. The children are the ones who sound closed off, beaten down by life. They walk down the middle of the street, not merely to annoy the traffic, but because experience has taught them it’s the best place to be if the shooting starts. A star football player says he has learned that when you hear a shot you should go down as if you’ve been hit. It’s safer than running. If you run you will definitely be shot.
One of the reasons Harper High succeeds is because at no stage does a government spokesman or a representative of the teachers union or an academic pop up to try and explain it all. The relative looseness of the format allows them to break off and explain complex sequences of cause and effect without needing a single interviewee to stand them up, as would probably happen here.
Because the programme is not committing itself to coming up with a solution, because it doesn’t fit into any pre-existing current affairs strand, because it’s only setting out to answer the “what’s it like?” question, it can do at least a tiny bit of justice to the exhausting complexity of the problem.