On the Outside Looking In , by Cristina Rathbone. Atlantic Monthly Press, 387 pages, $26.
If the closest you’ve come to a classroom lately is your neighborhood movie theater, you’re likely to have some peculiar ideas about inner-city education. Teaching, Hollywood-style, recalls those scenes from racist classics: Bwana stuns the truculent natives into goggle-eyed submission with displays of low-end technology passed off as white man’s magic. So, in Dangerous Minds , Michelle Pfeiffer pacifies her inner-city student hoodlums with a lesson in karate, while in the more recent 187 , Samuel Jackson charms a roomful of killer teens with a mystifying science experiment that calculates, based on a lab rat’s body weight, the dosage that takes the unfortunate rodent to the very brink of overdosing on morphine.
On the Outside Looking In is a welcome, sobering corrective to this reductive fantasy of the magically turned-around, hard-luck homeroom; it’s also, paradoxically, a good deal more dramatic. For what must have seemed like a long year, journalist Cristina Rathbone plunged into the depths of high school hell. Unsurprisingly, given the notoriously laissez-faire openness of the city school system, Ms. Rathbone had trouble finding an institution willing to let her “speak, unaccompanied, to any student either on or off the school grounds.” But happily for her readers, she wound up at West Side High School, in midtown Manhattan, a virtual ghetto for African-American and Latino students whom “even the worst zoned schools rejected.” A besieged refuge, West Side High has been presided over for two decades by its heroic principal, Ed Reynolds, an exhausted, hulking St. Jude, patron of desperate cases.
Ms. Rathbone talked to the students and, more importantly, listened. Among the astonishments of this remarkable book is its cast of characters, the half-dozen or so teenagers rendered so fully, in such telling detail-and with such compassion and regard for the complexities of their inner lives-that, although their names have been changed, we feel we’d recognize them anywhere: Maurice, the irresistibly charming womanizer whose barely controlled psychosis manifests itself in a penchant for inventing improbably glorious versions of his painful autobiography; Rasheem, a talented artist who dresses exclusively in purple (a color he claims he can smell), a camouflage designed to conceal his homelessness from his classmates; Lucille, a fragile 13-year-old survivor of a childhood that “she didn’t like to talk about much and usually brushed aside questions with a wave of her hand before rattling off a list of abuses as though she was bored even with the anger such memories still evoked: “Crackhead mother. Drunkard father. Abused. Mother too (same man). Ran away.”
There is also the larger-than-life Sandra, who finds an outlet for her forceful personality as a major figure in the Netas, the city’s second biggest Latino gang; the handsome Manny, who supports his Ralph Lauren Polo habit by selling $2 bags of heroin on a Brooklyn street; Roland, with his private menagerie of exotic reptiles and Rottweiler pups; and Alana, whose father is a hit man currently working in Haiti.
Half-British, half-Cuban, fluent in Spanish, Ms. Rathbone has not only the language skills but the personality-patient, resilient, brave; still very much in touch, as they say, with her own rebellious adolescence; willing to be patronized by her endearingly superior teenage friends-to win the trust of Ed Reynolds’ Family Group, the most problematic homeroom. She knocks on students’ doors when they cut school, accompanies Manny to his court hearing after he’s been busted, takes Cristy to Macy’s to shop for a dress, uses her own name to get the underage Lucille a do-it-yourself pregnancy test without parental consent, and waits in the school bathroom with Lucille for the test results. She attends tense convocations of the Netas and has a long, friendly chat with the gang’s charismatic, wheelchair-bound leader. She follows a group on a special program that sends them to live on an Israeli kibbutz and records the purity of their outrage and horror at what they learn, for the first time, at the Holocaust memorial. Throughout, she monitors the superhuman efforts of Ed Reynolds, the work of dedicated teachers, the political infighting and empty posturing in Albany and City Hall, the budget cuts that put new pressures on West Side High. And she captures the kids’ voices-their humor and anger, their youth, their verbal inventiveness, their lightning switches between the secretive and the shockingly honest.
Ms. Rathbone’s lucid writing is up to the task of communicating her increasingly profound understanding of the students and their domestic situations-an informal survey reveals that “of the 25 kids in Family Group that day, only four had never been thrown out of their apartments by their parents”-and the growing intensity of her own desire to intervene and help. What’s striking is how quickly she comes to see the world through their eyes. She watches the boys’ basketball team go silent with awe and dread as their bus heads into the terra incognita of Brooklyn, and diagnoses the mass depression that infects the student body as the holidays approach: “Attendance had been in decline since the end of November, ever since Macy’s put up their Christmas decorations. I’ll never know for sure if this was just a coincidence, but many of the kids had to walk past the store on their way to school in the morning, and the boughs of elaborately lit pine and the spray snow and the red and gold ribbons drove some of them crazy because it wasn’t for them, they knew. None of it was for them.”
Nor can she help noticing how the kids tailor their personalities to fit society’s expectations: “They made a joke out of everything: being harassed by shopkeepers anxious for them to leave; emptying out the subway cars when more than four of them boarded at one time; even being beat up. And when I heard a guard accosting a female student at 10:30 one morning-‘Where are you going?’ ‘Home.’ ‘Home? Why?’ ”Cause I got a backache from having sex all night’-I began to understand that by way of protection, most of the kids were buying into what older people suspected them of being anyway, and then in a wild twist of imagination and self-confidence, they were throwing the images laughingly back in our faces.” Of course, the more Ms. Rathbone learns about the students, their families and their school, the less hope she has for simple solutions to their problems, or for any solutions at all. And yet, despite the bad news it brings, her book is exhilarating, mostly because of the teenagers’ unquenchable vitality, and because of Ms. Rathbone’s lively respect for their energy and resilience. On the Outside Looking In is an important and moving work, instructive and eye-opening in the most essential and valuable ways. It teaches us to see those kids on the subways and the streets, those kids whose faces, whose glances we’ve taught ourselves to avoid.