Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post

How weird that Coulter picked up on this very old case. Without having clicked on your links, I recognize it as the story of Eddie Perry, who was a scholarship student at Exeter. It seemed to me that Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities relied on the story for its central plot line, although Wolfe took a lot of poetic license with the details. The writer Robert Anson, whose son was then a classmate of Perry’s, found the story shocking and researched it. His book, Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry, is a classic. Meticulously researched, it dropped a bomb that all the New York newspapers failed to turn up and tried to answer the obvious question: how could all these good intentions, from the non-profit scholarship foundations, the public school teachers who nurtured Mr. Perry and got him into Exeter, the staff and students at Exeter themselves– have resulted in such a massive tragedy?

Before I delve into the Eddie Perry story, I will just note a parallel with the Marathon Bomber story that Mark wrote about in blasting Rolling Stone Magazine.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was led astray by his angry older brother who did not assimilate as well as Dzhokar.  Same with Eddie Perry.  Eddie’s older brother, also smart but less advantaged, was his connection to the world of crime and drugs from which Eddie’s supporters hoped to save him.  If there’s a lesson here it’s not to forget the powerful pull of family and culture.  We can welcome different people with open arms, we can offer them our resources, but we should not ask them to turn their backs on their origins or condemn them entirely. Even the most destitute, crime-ridden community has its moments of warmth and love.  In All Souls, A Family Story From Southie, Michael Patrick MacDonald writes movingly about how he can look back on a brutal upbringing riddled with neglect, poverty, crime and prejudice, and still believe that his Southie project was the greatest place to grow up.

The Eddie Perry story resonated with me because I recalled my own days at Exeter, where many black students kept themselves apart. They couldn’t do it completely, but in places like the dining halls, you often saw a table with black students sitting together exclusively. Doonesbury had a brilliant strip when Mike approached a similar table at Walden College because he thought the black students needed to know they were welcome, and was finally told something like, “Look, we don’t feel the need to provide you with a multi-cultural educational experience, okay?”  I had black friends, inasmuch as I had any friends, but I never really knew them for real.  Not down deep.

Is it a good idea to pluck African American kids out of their families and communities and ship them off to historically white schools and then hope for the best? I did not know a single racist at Exeter (I sure met a lot of misogynists, but that’s a story for another day), or later at Bryn Mawr, although there might have been some, but even those of us with good intentions had no idea how to connect with each other.  Should the teachers and administrators have cared more about what was going on when term ended and Eddie Perry took the train home to New York?  When I returned to my home in Vermont?

Private schools and colleges served me well, but as time passes, I remain unsure that it’s a great idea to send every talented student off to these hothouse, pressure cooker environments.  For some of us, those environments are part of the culture.  Kids are raised at home with primary education provided by private but local schools, to be followed by sleep-away camp and boarding schools leading to private colleges often far away.  It’s all part of the master plan.  Not so much for other cultures, who regard the scholarship students with attitudes ranging from admiration to condemnation. Of course it is laudable to extend scholarships to children of poor families (and Exeter does this better than most– scholarship students are not denied any of the benefits of the program) but is it the best way way to offer a helping hand to them?  Everything we can do to help public schools is a good thing.  (Go Harold!).

We are learning that community-based corrections work better than prisons to discourage recidivism, and this is utterly obvious if you’ve worked in that arena.  Most people can do well in prison, participating in the programs that are available and earning respect of their peers and the administration, but they fall apart when they get home and are hit in the face with the reality of a community that has not changed.  They need to learn how to avoid crime at home, not just behind the wall. Similarly, children pulled out of the only culture they know are sure to experience deep shocks when dropped into rarefied and utterly different places and repeatedly told how fortunate they are to be there.  We need to support them at home, not just at school, because that’s where they live, in the truest sense.  Those communities may not be ideal, but they are powerful, original sources of the human connection, and if we expect people to turn their backs on them, the result is bad.

There are no absolute answers here.  You can’t blame Exeter for Eddie Perry’s downfall, nor his mom, who wanted the best for him, nor really even his brother for leading him astray.  No amount of public funding could make the New York public schools the academic equivalent of Exeter and the other “ivy” schools.  We should continue to offer financial aid to all qualified students who want to attend expensive and exclusive private schools.  I suspect, however, that if we all took a deep breath and plunged into the awful, terrifying area of actually understanding each other deep down, we might do better at realizing the stresses and conflicts going on behind the surface. If we know what’s going on, we might be able to help.  When I look back on the WASPy culture at Exeter, I cannot imagine a teacher or counselor having enough nerve to ask Eddie about his life in Harlem, his plans for the L-O-N-G prep school vacations, or what his family thought about his departure. It was not part of our culture to ask.  It would have seemed terribly intrusive.  We don’t ask personal questions in my culture– but that’s mostly because we assume everyone is just like us.  Bad idea.

Author: Lowry Heussler

Lowry Heussler is a lawyer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Having participated in the RBC as a guest-blogger, she made it official in 2012. Her most important contribution to the field of public policy to date was her 1994 instruction to Mark Kleiman, "Read Ann Landers every day. You need to learn about real people." Her essay on the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates went viral and brought about one of her proudest moments, being described as "just another twit along the lines of Sharpton, Jackson, Gates, etc." (Small Dead Animals Blog). Currently serving as General Counsel to BOTEC Analysis Corp., she has been a public housing lawyer, a prosecutor for the Board of Registration in Medicine, a large-firm associate and a small-firm partner. She serves as a board member for NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a charity that trains service dogs to increase independence for people with disabilities.

4 thoughts on “Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post”

  1. Juxtaposition and chance do sometimes (not enough) break down barriers and lead to lasting bonds. A fine French movie from 2011, Les Intouchables, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a rich paraplegic man and his black African carer, played superbly by François Cluzet and Omar Sy. It could be a conventional weepie but there’s enough astringency to make it genuinely moving. What allows me to bring this in as anecdatum is that the plot is based on a true story – there’s an interview with the real characters on the (French) DVD. The real carer is Abdel Sellou, a North African; this makes little difference in the French context, as racism is directed just about equally at dark- and pale-skinned immigrants.

    Also, sex and love are the great solvents. Ex Google, interracial dating seems to have increased in the USA, without reaching British levels yet; and you date people on your own campus, separate dining table or not.

  2. Just a nitpick: some of New York City’s public schools are the academic equals or superiors of the prep schools, but they’re mostly not open to average new yorkers.

  3. Paul, if you are going to nitpick, get your facts right. There is not one school in the New York public school system that is remotely close to being “the academic equal or superior” of Exeter. The jewels of the New York system– Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and LaGuardia– are excellent public high schools, but the education offered at Exeter is in another league entirely.

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