Saturday, August 31, 2019

Book Reviews: Goodbye Homeboy

Goodbye Homeboy
by Steve Mariotti with Debra Devi
I am always intrigued to find that a person talented in one field is also skilled in another. The musician Debra Devi's new book demonstrates that Devi should be just as well known as an author as a musician. I had a strong sense of six degrees of separation reading this book as the other author and primary subject, Steve Mariotti, is a Michigan native and University of Michigan graduate.

This book is a memoir by a white teacher who helped mostly Black and Latino impoverished students better themselves and improve their lives. Some people will immediately dismiss it on those grounds alone. That would be a mistake, I think. The story is real. I didn't pick up any white savior vibe. This book makes the implicit and occasionally explicit argument that teachers need higher salaries and better social/workplace support.

In his younger days (I have no idea of his politics now) Mariotti had a libertarian streak. The book features amusing stories about Mariotti's meetings--really more head butts-- with Objectivist philosopher, author and Libertarian inspiration Ayn Rand. I thought Rand was a horrible person on a personal level and a philosophical one. 

Near the end of her life Rand wasn't that different from a cult leader. When Mariotti shared his ideas or principles with Rand, she insulted him and dismissed him from her presence. Rand went out of her way to write nasty letters to Mariotti calling him a loser and ordering him to never darken her door again.

I found this darkly amusing only because at the time of Mariotti's interaction with her, Rand was at an advanced age and was certainly not, to put it mildly, a beauty. Rand was a mean narcissist who apparently found it important to use her time to attempt to crush a young man's ego. Some people.

Anyway, Mariotti wasn't originally interested in teaching. In the late seventies Mariotti was an up and coming financial analyst and economist for an iconic Fortune 100 Michigan based company. Unfortunately for Mariotti his sense of morality wouldn't allow him to be quiet about that company's business dealings with apartheid South Africa. The internal company politics were against Mariotti; he was fired after just two years with this company.

Moving to New York City to reinvent himself Mariotti started an import-export company. After Mariotti was mugged by teens a psychologist suggested he become a teacher in order to deal with his fears. And so Mariotti did. 

Having no seniority and actually wanting the job, Mariotti became a teacher of special ed students in some of the worst areas of Bed-Sty and the South Bronx. Some of his students were legitimately challenged intellectually. Many of them however had been mislabelled by a hostile school system. Others were real physical threats. Standing only 5'6", Mariotti wasn't going to be able to win his students' respect via physical intimidation. Most of the students had experienced or were currently facing far worse challenges than Mariotti could have imagined.

The book details how Mariotti struggled to find lesson plans and subjects to interest and motivate his students before realizing that money and a sense of control, something that many of his students lacked were things he could help them attain via education about and immersion in entrepreneurship. To put it mildly this wasn't easy to accomplish.

Some students were already earning illicit cash and saw no reason to change. Many school administrators refused to spend energy or money on students they had written off as future criminals or single mothers. Some condescending racist philanthropists were wary of helping Black children become smarter better competitors against white children. They didn't mind training people to be better employees but shied away from creating future business owners. Mariotti ultimately rose above all this to create the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). NFTE gives students life skills, shows them how to create and run a business, and transforms those business skills into greater scholastic achievement. It's not an easy ride. Not every student is a success. 

I think NFTE or similar programs can be useful tools among many to help close the achievement gaps. Unfortunately, and the book deftly touches on this, some people then and now who either support or oppose Mariotti's work do so for ideological reasons, not because they care about the children.

This is ultimately a positive book. The reader sees the benefit of self-confidence, community support and determination. The book has many humorous incidents, whether it be Mariotti hitting on (and utterly failing to impress) actress Edie Falco of The Sopranos fame, back when she was a struggling waitress at his favorite restaurant, the aforementioned Ayn Rand encounters, or being held upside down outside a tenement window by enraged drug dealers (I guess that was only funny in retrospect). At just under three hundred pages, this is a brisk read. As with Cooley High, Mariotti provides updates on many of his first batch of students. Read this book.
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