City Desk

If Gene Marks Were a Poor Black Kid Who Went to Ballou In 2003

Some corners of the Internet were all a-flutter over this unfortunate and offensive article from a Forbes contributor titled: "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." In it, author Gene Marks explained that although he is just a middle-class white guy, if he were poor and black, he'd take advantage of all of the tech tools at his disposal and get really good grades (and Skype with the other kids getting good grades), and just basically work really hard so he could succeed.

Some of the problems with this, if they aren't obvious, are spelled out in a Washington City Paper cover story from 2004 (thanks to Jason Linkins for reminding us). It's the story of T.J. Boykin, a poor black kid who went to Ballou High in 2003 and is currently in federal prison in North Carolina:

Thomas “T.J.” Boykin returned for his final year at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School last September with the simple goal of graduating. First, he needed a class schedule. But at Ballou, such schoolhouse basics couldn’t be taken for granted.

T.J., like about 100 members of Ballou’s student body, didn’t receive a schedule on the first day of school. Nor the second. Nor even the fifth. Administrators blamed a computer virus. Instead of sending the children into classrooms with their peers, the school warehoused them in the cafeteria.

So T.J.’s routine went like this: He woke up at 6:30 a.m. and boarded a Metrobus that would take him out of the Barry Farm Dwellings for the 15-minute ride to Ballou, in Congress Heights. Then he took his place at a lunch table. “I didn’t do anything,” T.J. says of his cafeteria limbo. “I waited around.”

T.J. kept hoping an administrator would pop into the cafeteria any minute with his schedule. By Week 2, the cafeteria scene had turned into a test of patience. No homework, no books, no pop quizzes. The curriculum consisted of playing Spades, eating Doritos, guzzling Mountain Dews, talking about football, shooting air hoops, wrestling, slapping high fives, gossiping, and running around. Each period came and went, marked only by the rotation of teachers charged with baby-sitting T.J. and the rest. There was little effort to turn the mess hall into a study hall.

Boykin didn't actually get a class schedule until November of that year. One can't help but wonder whether Marks' advice would remain the same if he'd actually ever met the kind of kid he wrote about. Not known as a troublemaker, Boykin's last year in school abruptly ended when he shot a kid who had been bullying him. The entire story is worth a read.

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Comments

  1. #1

    Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.
    - Herman Melville, “Poor Man’s Pudding,” 1854

  2. #2

    Simply a prime example of Voltaire's philosophy of man's inhumanity to man.

  3. #3

    The story of Boykin (and so many others like him) is tragic and appalling, but in story after story like this, I can't help but think, "Where the hell are the parents?!" Surely there have to be a handful that are marching down to the principal's office and demanding answers and improvement and a class schedule, right? Except there doesn't seem to be, and that seems to be the bigger problem than the failing school, since a school will never succeed if the parents aren't backing it up.

  4. #4

    @Taz beat me to my question: Where are the parents? If my kid said that they still hadn't assigned him to a class or given him a schedule after the first day or two, I'd be making at least a phone call to start or a personal visit if things weren't happening.

  5. #5

    @Taz/Typical: Read the story. His mother is interviewed. She demanded a schedule from the adminsitration, but then the school closed because of a mercury spill and kids stayed home for a month.

    After three weeks of cafeteria squatting, Pearlie Boykin appealed to Assistant Principal Richard Gross: “I got on him,” she says, asking him to write out a schedule for T.J. Gross explained that the computers were down and told her to call back soon. (Gross says he remembers speaking with Boykin but cannot recall the content of their discussion.)

    She also called to register a complaint about the bullying.

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