This American Life: #550: Three Miles
March 16, 2015 10:59 AM - Subscribe

There's a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country's poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can't get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better. (Beeped version)

This episode isn't so much about the topic mentioned so much as it is about the hunt for Melanie, a girl who was considered a good student and who was so traumatized (or not?) by the experience that she ran away, and as far as most people knew, disappeared.

Turned out that Melanie graduated early, was in the finals for a prestigious scholarship and never got it, and has ended up a retail worker. Everyone expected better of her and it never happened.

This is what kicked me in the ass, the quote about how nothing has happened to her for ten years. You expect a better story ending than that, but nothing has happened and she's ended up like every other kid. So much for all the hopes.

I wish I could go drink now.
posted by jenfullmoon (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, what a depressing episode that makes many of us confront the cruelty of holding out that dream to people who we haven't prepared.

It's like those stories of the Japanese businessmen who go on holiday to Paris and just can't mentally take it. Culture shock is real...and so is imposter syndrome and so is money making a huge difference.

I mean, how do you send a kid to college on a full scholarship and not cover his books?

(On a complete aside, I hate when Ira refers to the podcast as them having unbeeped the language. Why beep it to unbeep it? But now I'm one of those public radio language snobs...)
posted by inturnaround at 11:06 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

This whole show was so sad and infuriating (because truth!), but this quote from the transcript just made me see red:

"I really got scared. I thought she was going to pass out. We were not sure what to do. So it was just an awful situation. None of us had anticipated such a strong reaction."

When you lay out a feast in front of a starving person, you shouldn't be surprised if they're a bit upset when they can't sit down and have something to eat. Of course she's going to be angry and upset! That is the correct reaction! The awful thing is that more of us don't feel this way, particularly people who could actually do something about it.
posted by longdaysjourney at 2:05 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I mean, how do you send a kid to college on a full scholarship and not cover his books?

That issue was unclear to me. Was it certain that they didn't cover the books or did the young man just not know how to get the money out of his scholarship or arrange for his books to be paid for by his scholarship? It seemed like maybe he was too ashamed and embarrassed to ask for necessary information and help. But if the problem really was that they only covered the tuition and housing, then yeah, that was a huge issue because books are expensive even for kids who can afford them. It seems so ridiculously thoughtless if the kids weren't told beforehand what to expect to pay out of their own pockets.

I also had a hard time grasping the whole multi-interview and culling process to get into the Posse program. While I understand there were limited slots/funds versus the many competitors--thus the need to pare down the numbers--it seemed sort of cruel to get a kid to the final step and then just leave them hanging if they weren't selected. Wasn't anyone helping those who weren't selected figure out how to get other scholarships and apply to other schools?
posted by fuse theorem at 7:41 PM on March 16, 2015

There's been a great discussion of this ep over at Jay Smooth's (who was a public school kid who went to Fieldston on a scholarship) Facebook page.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 5:53 PM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh god, this episode. I listened to it while running errands this weekend and literally sat in the car for 10 or 15 minutes to hear the end of Melanie's part of the story. It was so damning of the entire system that privileges some kids and punishes others sheerly by some accident of birth. I really loved how clear-headed and righteously angry Melanie was, too. If things had just been a little bit different, I could easily have seen her channeling that into some sort of brilliant career as a changemaker, maybe a lawyer, maybe a community organizer/rabble-rouser. It's such a loss.

But I also kind of still have hope that she can do something great, because she's still pretty young.
posted by lunasol at 6:20 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, both Melanie and the other kid's story made me think about how much leeway economic privilege gives kids. I knew middle-class kids who freaked out from the pressure and dropped out or tried to their senior year - they had safety nets and ways to get back into the system once they got over it.

Similarly, the kid who was too proud or whatever to ask about money for books - so many 18-year-olds, especially boys, are cocky and don't like to ask for help at that age, but if they have families who went to college and know how the system works and are helping them navigate it, then they have someone they trust they can ask - or they just have their parents to buy their books for them. But neither of these kids had any leeway to make mistakes.

One other thing: I wonder why Melanie wasn't in an exam school like Bronx Science. She clearly was an exceptional student and loved learning. I suppose she just wasn't prepared well enough for the exam - another way the system failed her.
posted by lunasol at 6:27 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Heartwrenching. This is a powerful case study in imposter syndrome and stereotype threat that every educator should listen to.
posted by painquale at 6:38 PM on March 17, 2015

I thought the first half of the episode had a real "Serial" feel to it. I was worried for a while that they wouldn't find Melanie. I'm glad that they did.

I know that there's no easy answers, but it's hard for me to even begin to imagine the contours of what could really have helped Melanie or Jonathan. I guess Melanie's guidance counselor or college advisor or whatever could and should have been encouraging her to pursue other routes to college alongside the Posse competition (this is assuming, of course that said guidance person isn't disgustingly overworked and underpaid and too overwhelmed to really provide true counsel as was probably the case).

But Jonathan? The whole point of the Posse system was to send him to school with a bunch of socio-economic peers so that when he ran into problems he didn't have to try to navigate the system when he ran into problems. Can the system be changed to better detect and therefore help people who don't ask for help? Can the system be changed so that kids like Jonathan are better equipped with the tools that they need so that they do feel comfortable asking for help?
posted by sparklemotion at 11:20 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

The last moments, when we wheel back around to that high school teacher who so desperately wanted the system to work and Melanie to have succeeded that she MADE UP A MEMORY, and the maddening privilege inherent in that ability to reimagine the world into a fairer place instead of facing the reality that supermarkets are full of Melanies... It's tempting to launch into paroxysms of white guilt and demonstrations of privilege-acknowledgments, so all I'll say is she deserved so much more, more than so many others got.
posted by Freyja at 7:34 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

This episode was one that really left me wondering what exactly this kind of journalism is and should be for.

It was very well executed, thoughtful, open, clearly built a case and conveyed a painful message without feeling manipulative or overly dogmatic. Just really well built, smart episode.

But then... what? It really brings out this feeling for me of like, what do we have to do to get some change? If you can have such excellent journalism out there, that doesn't feel like it is helping move us toward social change, what is?

I guess we just keep getting more information out there. And keep working on changing institutions and structures. And you never know what will make an impact, so you keep trying, but somehow I found this to be an extra depressing episode not just because the structural inequalities it highlights are intensely crushing, but because it somehow highlighted this feeling I have that no matter how good we get at making a case for change, nothing will change.

Bleh, I don't want to believe that.
posted by latkes at 7:58 PM on March 21, 2015

Latkes, you make a very important point - it's something that drove me crazy about Serial, too. Part of making a journalistic case is committing to some kind of public advocacy. OK, we've revealed this, you know this, so now what? I'm not saying journalism should prescribe change, but it should at least enlighten you as to ways people are working to make change on the issue just covered - instead of just dropping the reporting on you and leaving you there.

mean, how do you send a kid to college on a full scholarship and not cover his books?

Well, all the time. This is a very normal structure for scholarships. I went to school on a [different] full scholarship, and it did not cover books or student fees. "Full scholarship" is shorthand for full-tuition scholarship, which is different from a full-ride scholarship. Posse doesn't cover books. It's part of the design - they want families to commit and make a sacrifice and have equity. The solution in the story - use the library - is a decent one. For me, the much bigger problem with Posse is that it doesn't cover room and board. That's many times what books cost. They ask families to apply for financial aid, which should work, but the whole structure assumes a functional family. Maybe that's intentional; people with functional families are more likely to complete college.

Can the system be changed to better detect and therefore help people who don't ask for help? Can the system be changed so that kids like Jonathan are better equipped with the tools that they need so that they do feel comfortable asking for help?

As I listened, I was cringing - it sets up a window that almost invites a blame-the-victim response. People who don't ask for help are not abnormal among first-generation degree earners. Learned helplessness is part of economic oppression. Also, expectations of help are partially economically determined. Privileged kids - and their parents - have no compunction about showing up at offices and making calls and getting their problems solved. Impoverished kids absorb different lessons, ones about not making yourself stand out, never asking for special accommodations, doing everything in your wherewithal to meet the standards without looking for special dispensation. This is society's double-edged sword, the message we give high-achieving poor kids. Don't ask for help, or you'll look like another sad sack looking for undeserved handouts; do ask for help, or we'll shake our heads at how little self-determination you're showing and use it to prove you never deserved a boost in the first place.
posted by Miko at 6:55 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wanted to quickly jot down here that Melanie's reaction to not getting into the scholarship program, we eventually find out, was partially a sense of self-failing. She asks why they didn't think she was good enough. And she all but gives up on higher education after that.

But it leaves me wondering what the selection criteria for the posse program actually is. Was she maybe not selected because unlike, later, Jonathan, she came off as someone more likely to thrive even without the group support that program provides?
posted by nobody at 12:11 PM on March 25, 2015

Yeah, it's too bad they didn't interview Posse about all of those questions.
posted by Miko at 6:51 PM on March 30, 2015

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