Two lives separated by city's social gap


AS IS often the case at work-related social functions, I recently found myself ensnared in a conversation with a relative stranger. One of the few things I knew about the woman was that she had a son, so I asked about him and her family in general. Her response left me struggling to maintain a semblance of nonchalance while inside I was reeling from disbelief.

In one long breath, she elaborated on her son's most recent undertaking -- Saturday morning French lessons -- and of his pending interview at an elite private school upon which his academic fate rests.

A mother's sigh

Obviously nervous about the outcome of the interview, she eventually let out a sigh of resignation and said, "I'm just going to send him in there [to the interview] and let him do his thing."

I couldn't help but wonder what "thing" it is that a child who is barely 4 years old does. Afraid of what her response might be, I simply nodded as if in agreement and made a mad dash for the hors d'oeuvres.

It wasn't until later, in the quiet of my car, that my mind wandered back to her story. It led me to compare it, mentally, to something I'd witnessed a few weeks earlier: an equally telling vignette about another young child's upbringing. The two families live just a few miles apart in Baltimore. Yet their stories -- equally disconcerting -- are completely opposite.

I was coordinating a photo shoot of an inner-city mother and her baby, participants in a program that wanted their picture for a publication. The mother bounced her bright-eyed toddler on her knee, trying to maintain his focus on the camera.

Disturbing reaction

To keep the boy from wiggling away from his mother, I suggested she engage him in a book that happened to be collecting dust on a nearby shelf. Like a deer caught in headlights, she looked up at me, blinking as she blurted out, "Do I have to read him the story?"

Sensing her discomfort at the idea that she read to her child, I realized -- too late -- the callousness of my suggestion. (How could I presume that she knew how to read?) I assured her that it would be just as effective for her to point to the pictures and make up a story line. A look of relief spread across her face. She immediately drew the toddler's attention to the book, showing him the colorful pictures and narrating the story, as she saw it, in a lively voice.

I wonder about the fate of boys like the 4-year-old who speaks French. Will his early exposure to the classics and his placement, assuming he's accepted, in an elite pre-school guarantee him a comfortable lot in life? Or will he burn out early, rebelling against the rigid lifestyle his parents have chosen for him, and carve out a path of his own?

I wonder, too, about the future of boys like the bright-eyed youngster at the photo session. What will his options be? If he takes after his mother, where will life lead him? If he rebels against his upbringing, where will he find himself?

A chance meeting

There's a chance that the two boys could encounter each other at some point. Eventually, if they were to meet on the street or in a cafe or in an office building in their hometown, will they exchange ideas or even pleasantries? Or will the gap in their upbringings prevent them from understanding each other?

And now for the hardest question of all: How can we close this gap without blaming things like whole language reading instruction and out-of-date textbooks? In perspective, they seem inconsequential to the future of our city.

Elizabeth Heubeck writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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