From where I sit above Michigan Avenue, I see from my window the tops of emerald trees waving in the summer breeze and the white foam of a passing speedboat on the city's blue lake rise and fall against a hazy horizon.
My office here at Roosevelt University where I teach as a journalism professor nowadays is a little farther south than it used to be when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune and later as a Chicago-based national correspondent at the New York Times—its 29th-floor perch above Wacker Drive, the river and the lake—just one symbol of how far a ghetto boy had come from the impoverished West Side where I grew up and where the dreams of many of my friends lived and died.
Whatever the true measure of my accomplishments, I am reminded these days, especially this time of year, as fall winds swirl and children return to school—and old conversations linger about the failure of public education—of a place where I once found the tools to dream. Of a place where I found safety from the gangs and violence that engulfed my neighborhood known as North Lawndale—only a 15-minute drive from my office, but a world away and once dubbed by the Tribune as the "American Millstone."
I am reminded of that refuge I found at age 14. It was a towering, yellowish brick castle known as Providence-St. Mel. And it is a place that 31 years since I graduated, my heart and mind are so fully aware helped save my life and so many others whom society says never had a fighting chance, particularly those of us born into the so-called "permanent underclass."
I am admittedly biased, an advocate of St. Mel—the little school that could—located in West Garfield. The Archdiocese of Chicago, led in 1978 by Archbishop John Cardinal Cody, sought to close the school, citing low enrollment and rising costs. That happened to be my senior year. Paul Adams III, the school's principal—a fearless black man with an afro that resembled a lion's mane—and a strict disciplinarian revered even by neighborhood thugs, the protector and visionary of the school, decided instead to fight, believing that St. Mel and the children it served were worth saving.
So we marched—outside Holy Name Cathedral, and we protested (parents, teachers, students and administrators.) And our fight gained local and national media attention and eventually donors and later a visit by then President Ronald Reagan, who came back a second time. It was the miracle of St. Mel that he and others wanted to witness, the miracle of an inner-city school surrounded by the elements of poverty and blight and hopelessness but that steadfastly sent its graduates to major colleges and universities.
Except those of us who went to St. Mel knew the real truth of its miracle: That it was not as much a miracle as it was hard work. That it was not as much a miracle as having administrators and teachers raise the bar with unrelenting expectation. Most of us understood that to be a student at St. Mel was a privilege. That for many of us, the choice of our parents to pay tuition to send us to Catholic school was the choice sometimes between household necessities and even their own. That is was a sacrifice, a stretch. My own mother went without stockings and my stepfather without a winter coat for years, though scrounging and writing checks to keep me in school.
Back then, there were—and there remain today—few viable alternatives to failing schools for the masses of black and brown children growing up in poor urban neighborhoods. For the exceptionally smart and gifted, there are slots at select magnet schools for which they can gain admission through competitive entrance exams. But what about average or marginal students? What chance do they have?