Tuesday, June 2, 2015
A Newark Story
The book above is an interesting read, if not an easy one.
The writer, a former newspaper reporter, spent four years following the efforts of a man to build a Little League team in one of the more desperate neighborhoods of Newark, NJ, a city that has been depressed and afflicted with troubles for many years.
The would-be manager was a promising high-school pitcher but also a drug dealer. A gunshot left him a paraplegic with not much hope until a ballpark was built across the street from his house. He set his sights on teaching baseball to neighborhood children.
Along the way we learn about the children and their families. Many parents use, have used or have sold drugs. Prison, gunshots, financial strain and general disorder characterize their lives. Reading about these things is difficult, and living them is much more difficult.
Still, the children want what all children want -- steady home lives, involved fathers, success in school or sports or music, or anything.
Their parents want what all parents want -- for their children to be safe, to do well in school, to enjoy their childhoods, and to have productive adult lives.
These are not small wishes in the Newark neighborhood where the book is set. Everybody in the book, including the coach, struggles. Their small victories and frequent setbacks are wrenching.
Much as the reader wants to cheer for a victory against all odds, the story ends with most of the children and their families moving forward, falling back and doing the best they can.
A memorable character is a man, Thaiquan, who has come out of prison determined to make a good life for his family. He has married and with his wife is raising a blended family of five children. He works full-time and helps manage the baseball team, which has an up--and-down record.
Mostly, he worries about his children. His great goal is to get them into charter schools, a challenge because Newark's limited charter seats are awarded by lottery.
By the end of the book, the family's oldest child has survived a gruesome experience with her birth father. She is enrolled in one of the state's worst high schools, which has a 50 percent graduation rate. Her once steady grades have slipped, and she has taken up with a bad group there. "(S)he frequently came home with stories about how her day had been disrupted by false fire alarms and fights and general classroom chaos."
Equally troubling, the next child, a son, is slated to attend the same high school.
His younger children are more fortunate.
"His seven-year-old daughter, Tanisia, had just become the family's first child to get accepted into a charter, and Thaiquan already noticed a dramatic improvement: She stayed in class longer, brought home more homework than any of her siblings, and was excited each morning to go back."
Fortunately, his two younger children were guaranteed slots in the same school, "and they still had a shot at more prestigious charters."
A national report released this March suggests that Thaiquan's intuition about schools was a wise one.