Words by Artair Rogers
Photos by Rayneutron
I recently read an article entitled “An Urban Myth That Should Be True”in the Atlantic.
After reading that piece, I realized I never knew how pivotal the third grade was for me and my classmates. The premise of this article explored the correlation between third grade reading scores and future inmate populations. The relationship between low reading scores and incarceration rates is powerfully evident and the association is even stronger with impoverished students. As I reflect on my time in the third grade, I know that as a 9 year-old I honestly could not comprehend the implications my third grade reading level had on my future. I am sure my classmates did not either. Even more, I never understood how my environment conditioned me, even at that age, to relate to poverty until now.
I was bullied throughout my time in school, especially in elementary school. I was the different kid—the small, skinny boy who wore huge glasses (thanks a lot, dad). As a kid living in a two-parent home in rural, poverty-stricken Mississippi, I was considered rich no matter what the circumstances were. I was an easy target. There was one bully who seemed to salivate over the thought of terrorizing me. He knew how to taunt, tease, and torture me in a way that made me cringe when I saw him. In my youth, I could only see how his terror affected me, but now I can see how our environment affected him. Failing to keep up with school work, he often acted out, which led to a continuous cycle of detention and suspensions for him. Actually, he later transferred to an alternative school away from me and my classmates, and frankly, his departure was celebrated by me. I was just in the third grade; I could not grasp the implications and consequences behind his departure. I felt justified in my response to his departure because my environment (my school system) and I labeled him as trouble. Even though we wouldn’t admit it then, we subconsciously felt we were better off without him.
His new school welcomed him with open arms because of his athletic ability. Despite his gift, he remained separate from everyone else because he still carried the “trouble” label. Ironically, no matter how much he excelled athletically, he never integrated back into a normal classroom experience. I believe he became frustrated with school because his behavior never changed; he still obtained numerous suspensions. He ultimately dropped out of school. A few years later, he was arrested and continues to serve his sentence to this day.
After reading the Atlantic article, I realized that I, along with my school, had isolated my bully from general society in our own microcosm. Of course, I didn’t understand the implications of my bully not reading at the appropriate grade level of a third grader, but I fully comprehended that it was viewed befitting culturally to dismiss him even at a young age. Reflecting now, he experienced social isolation for the entirety of his educational career. He was labeled an outsider and had no entry point back into general society (our class). Thus, I cannot be surprised that he is incarcerated now—my environment and I helped to cultivate that result.
John Legend, Grammy and Academy Award winning performer, stated, “We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country… we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.” “Culturally dealing with poverty” was the phrase that continued to ring and resound in my mind. I have been exposed to poverty all of my life growing up in Mississippi—even the most rural neighborhoods are divided by race and socioeconomic status. Many of my classmates were raised in extreme poverty, which made me ponder how I have chosen to relate to poverty, especially after being exposed to it all my life.
As an African-American, I realized at a young age that I had to leave my environment if I wanted to succeed. There were limited opportunities, and I noticed the trend for many of the black guys who stayed in my environment was often drugs, violence, and crime. Therefore, it was imperative in my mind to isolate myself from those who I felt could potentially hinder me. For my own survival, I was culturally conditioned to isolate myself from those who were difficult—in my case these individuals typically came from poverty-stricken, troubled homes. I am able to do that today in my selection of where I live, work, and play. Society has shown me that this an appropriate response, too. However, I now know that my lack of engagement with those who are considered “difficult” and poverty-stricken contributes to the deterioration of communities. The isolation that we create now reflects the same isolation jails create today. If we self-isolate today, can we be really be surprised that incarceration rates are high? Furthermore, in our efforts to isolate ourselves, we must reflect on who we are isolating ourselves from. Is it the poor? Can we be surprised that our prisons are filled with individuals who come from poverty?
In society today, we are obsessed with digging up proof to show that we do not contribute to the problem. Ultimately, our preoccupation with analysis leads to inactivity, which leads to a lack of engagement. Thus, we inevitably seclude ourselves from the problem. People are no longer people—they are those people. Their issues are their issues—not ours.
We become crippled and feel as if there are no solutions to public issues, like poverty, illiteracy, and incarceration. This is false. The Atlantic article clearly shows there is a connection between literacy, poverty, and incarceration rates. Thus, our strategy to address all three of these problems must start within our schools. Many parents understandably do not rush to place their children in a failing school. However, we must realize that if we do not find ways to assist our failing schools, the schools continue to fail our children. These schools are more likely to produce students who are not reading at the appropriate grade level, leading to a higher dropout rate and, eventually, higher rates of incarceration. Yet, we consistently seem dumbfounded by this cycle. We fail to understand how our social isolation has contributed to these horrific outcomes.
Instead of developing programs to address reading scores, we turn to developing commentary and social media outlets. I find myself guilty of this too. We judge; we advocate; but we rarely act.
If we can’t see how our lack of engagement and our self-constructed isolation contributes to social issues, like poverty and incarceration, we will never see progress.
Evaluate: do you isolate the unwanted?