Notes of a Processed Brother
Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence
All three of these works have, as their subject, certain aspects of the life—of the very different lives—of young people today; mostly in America, though there are glimpses of Jamaica in Mr. Reeves’s book and some cross-cultural observation, chiefly in a paper by Joseph Douvan, “The Political Imagination of the Young Adolescent,” included in the Daedalus volume. Although many readers have wearied of thinking about the lives of the young, it must nevertheless be conceded that the topic retains an intrinsic importance, if the future is to have any at all. What Samuel Johnson once said of the city of London is even truer of the young: to be tired of them is to be tired of life. Messrs. Reeves, Bhaerman, and Denker clearly do not find themselves in this condition; about half the contributors to the Daedalus volume write as if they do.
As life is divided into stages in America, early adolescence is an important period. Yet the most important message these three works, taken together, convey has nothing to do with adolescence as such, but rather, with the much broader question of the relation of academic scholarship to knowledge and understanding of social and psychological processes. Most of the Daedalus issue is comprised of formal papers detailing the findings of properly conducted empirical investigations. But the last eighty pages of the book have been allotted to three more subjective chapters, as a kind of epilogue to the more respectable materials preceding them. The presence of these papers establishes that the editors of Daedalus indeed can, under circumstances that they deem fitting, admit into the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—which is what Daedalus is; the Proceedings have been published in this form since 1958—subjective reflections upon individual experience similar in kind to those that fill the pages of Notes of a Processed Brother and No Particular Place To Go.
Notes of a Processed Brother is an irresistible book: a sprightly, straightforward, true tale of romance and adventure and of the tempering of youth by the bittersweet mixed experience of betrayal and inner triumph. It is also, despite the familiarity of the genre, a unique book. There is surely no other in which the hero-narrator is a black man now just twenty years old, whose trials of courage, devotion, and chivalry occurred in a New York City public high school, and who was, at the outset, not a rebel but a straight citizen and athlete (track). Much of the book recounts the frustrations that Reeves encountered and the attacks upon his character that he survived as president of the citywide general organization of New York City high-school students, which serves as a pretext for student government.
His crafty and treacherous foes are high-school administrators and, subsequently, members of the Board of Education and its bureaucracy. The beautiful maiden whose demands sap his strength and his love, and who ultimately abandons him cruelly and publicly, is no Carmen but a middle-class Jewish girl from the more suburban part of Queens who follows student leaders and wants the titillation of a black lover and the satisfaction of keeping her parents in a frenzy, but has no thought, as Reeves does, of marriage.
No victory awaits him. On April 15, 1970, during the antiwar Mobilization Rally in Bryant Park, where the eighteen-year-old Reeves is scheduled to call a strike of 275,000 New York City high-school students demanding a real voice in their schooling, angrier and more militant demonstrators intent on other causes tear the podium down as soon as William Kunstler has finished speaking from it and before Reeves’s turn has come. The strike never really gets under way. Reeves himself has to confront the principal of his own high school with his attorney and a threat of legal action to get the school—New York’s celebrated and presumably freedom-loving High School of Music and Art—to concede that he has fulfilled the requirements for a diploma and graduate him.
Banal and familiar materials from which to make a fresh narrative, one might say; but the attempt is entirely successful. Mr. Reeves’s tone does a great deal to make it so. He writes without an ounce of self-pity—an emotion that many older black writers now feel free to push by the ki. His black identity seems so secure that he need not strive to achieve it or force it on the public—a fact which continually enraged his black fellow students at Music and Art who were, by and large, unable to tolerate his choice of a white girl instead of a sister as a lover. His writing, therefore, sounds a truly objective note, free of rhetoric and posture, which is essential to his effectiveness since he very freely identifies the individual protagonists in his narrative.
One of the more refreshing experiences it provides is that of seeing through a student’s eyes familiar figures in educational controversy in New York City, like Albert Shanker, Joseph Monserrat (then president of the Board of Education), and Seymour P. Lachman, a liberal member of the board who had much to do with compiling (Reeves calls him its author) a rather toothless resolution on “Rights and Responsibilities for Senior High School Students” which the Board of Education adopted, while refusing even to authorize a process by which students might draw up a binding bill of rights for themselves. There are also one or two good guys, like Aryeh Neier of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and shrewd glimpses of the air-borne panel and conference circuit which included Mr. Reeves during the time that his struggle with the New York City Board of Education made him a celebrity in the field of urban-racial school conflict. Mr. Reeves’s view of all these people is not very different from that of most others who have given an account of them, but this in itself is a salutary lesson to those who may still believe it is easy for adults to fool the young.
While Mr. Reeves was actively learning by doing in the New York City school system, Mr. Bhaerman and Mr. Denker were conducting the New Educational Project in Washington, D.C.: a “free” high school that at one point in its two-year history required three centers in widely separated buildings around the Washington area to house its students and their manifold activities. Bhaerman and Denker are a few years older than Mr. Reeves. They were sent to teach in high schools in Washington and its suburb, Silver Springs, in autumn, 1967, by the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education—probably the best and most interesting program of teacher education in America, though neither Bhaerman nor Denker is very enthusiastic about it.
Both were disappointed to find themselves assigned to elite high schools, equally bourgeois though one had a predominantly black, the other a predominantly white, student body. Their discontent with their lives in these very similar posts led them into an informal group of young activist educators, who decided to found their own free high school. No Particular Place To Go is a simple and moving account of the things that happened and the people they met—a short book, six chapters, written alternately by each author, which gives their account the added depth that binocular vision from viewpoints similar but not quite identical provides.
There is nothing especially unusual in the brief history of the New Educational Project. As in Mr. Reeves’s book, the hassles are familiar: housing problems, rip-offs, harassment by municipal inspectors and police—intensified beyond what most free schools experience, since the New Educational Project ran communes in which many of its young students lived and many of their friends and acquaintances and a few urban drifters as well crashed. In its strengths, too, No Particular Place To Go resembles Notes of a Processed Brother. Though warmer and more reflective—it is the work of older, more experienced men—the book is equally unsentimental. What comes through with clarity in both works is the inescapable daily grind, grime, and anxiety, and the intense sense of being involved with something that matters that commitment to educational reform brings to those still young enough to believe change to be possible.
There are few similarities in the content of the two books. Reeves like Laocoön fought his battles within the clutches of the New York City school system; Bhaerman and Denker repudiated the schools to start a very different kind of place for early adolescents. Yet, though their problems and the events in which they become involved are totally different, all three learned a few identical basic truths that committed radicals must come to accept, and that seldom emerge as distinctly as they do from the pages of these books.
All three young men appear to have been astonished that so large a proportion of their difficulties should have arisen from the actions—and occasionally the malice—of members of their own group, people they thought were on their side, committed to the same goals. Mr. Reeves is constantly troubled by the racism of other young blacks who sneer at and occasionally insult his white girlfriend and put him down, keeping him constantly under threat of impeachment from his sandbox student office, for being such a Tom as to fall in love with a white girl.
As he becomes a real, if ephemeral, force in New York City school politics and gains recognition and some actual power, the rancor of his fellow students at Music and Art becomes more and more intense and strident; they insist that he is only seeking publicity for himself and dominance over them. Despite the limitations imposed by its high-school scene, Notes of a Processed Brother is a valuable study of the role of ressentiment in political action, though Reeves never uses the word. Hardly anyone ever helps a winner, especially among the poor and downtrodden, especially if he is fighting their cause.
Bhaerman and Denker are very much hampered by the same, unanticipated phenomenon, though in their communes it takes a different form. The kids, eager to escape from their parents, almost immediately transfer to the older people in the New Educational Project the same attitudes they held toward their parents. The result is a fairly rapid development of daily chaos. The houses become filthy; dishes pile up unwashed; rooms are abandoned because of an overpowering stench of cat shit, because the young people who brought the cat to live with them refuse to accept any special responsibility for cleaning up after it. Formal classes, which the students themselves set up in their areas of interest, soon come to be received as apathetically as they were in public school, attendance falls off, they are often gradually abandoned. No consistent policy about the use of pot and hash can be adopted, let alone enforced; there is a constant fear of busts.