IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, Cris Pizarro’s teacher owned a watch so expensive it stayed locked in a drawer. Cris, who lived in the Mission Hill public housing development, didn’t know anyone else with a watch like that. It dawned on him that there were people in this world who could afford everything they needed, and more.
The last time I saw Cris, he was six, the youngest child in a summer camp I was directing with a fellow college student who became my friend for life. Today, Cris is 23. He’s a rising senior at Newbury College in Brookline, and he’s directing the same summer camp with a white, middle-class Harvard junior who, I predict, will be his friend for life.
They make a perfect team: His co-director, A.J. Protin, has fund-raising contacts and the ability to teach physics, using paper airplanes. “He fills in the holes in my personality,” Cris said. As for Cris, he grew up in the camp. He knows everybody, and has mastered the art of silencing a classroom by looking just the right amount of angry. More important, though, is that he understands things that outsiders don’t — things that lie at the core of what it takes to build a path out of poverty.
I dreamed all my campers would go to college. But Cris is painfully aware how costly that is. He’s taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. This week, he got a letter saying he owes $600 from last year, and must pay it if he wants to register in the fall. Even with his modest earnings as a camp director, that’s going to be a struggle.
I dreamed that my kids would get out of Mission Hill. But Cris doesn’t want to leave. I cheered the new mixed-income development, but he sees its downsides.
Violent and impoverished as the old Mission Hill was, it was still a place where people watched each other get born, grow up, and die, all within the space of nine square blocks. It had its criminals, but also its entrepreneurs: The candy man, who hawked sweets for a penny. The meat pie lady, who sold Jamaican patties out of her front door. Those doomed barracks, made of bricks as weathered as a wise woman’s face, offered asylum to their own patron saints: neighbors who fixed you supper, just because they knew you were hungry and pregnant, and that your mama wasn’t right in the head.
Now those apartments are filled with college kids who only look at you to decide if you’re a threat. Surveillance cameras guard their possessions, like so many expensive watches. Security guards strut down St. Alphonsus Street as if they were the ones who grew up there, as if you were the stranger.
To Cris, the summer camp is a way to preserve a sense of community for kids. He wants them to be successful, but to him, that simply means being happy: “Not successful like the government definition of success — job, house, car, loans — but that they have the family they want; that they are living where they want.”
If we truly want to help poor kids, we must recognize that the path out of poverty is narrow and treacherous. Those who made it out — D and Tameka — had family support. They were smart and driven, but they were also lucky. The journey paid off. Others — like Shawna and Cris — are still on that path. They took loans to get college degrees, on the promise that it would equal a job. Now they’re in a no-man’s land between two economies: They no longer qualify for the benefits given to the poorest, but have yet to reap the benefits enjoyed by the middle-class folks they are competing with. As a society, we must make sure their gamble on education pays off. When you look at the struggle that even college graduates face, you can understand why others — like Jennifer and Nataly — didn’t venture down that path.
The one former camper I found who appears to have made it out of poverty without strong family support was Keisha, the one who’d disappointed me. I helped her get a fellowship to work with me in Africa. She cashed the check and never showed.
Maybe the shrewdness that led her to pocket the money was exactly what it took for her to get ahead. Today, she lives with her baby daughter in a well-kept triple decker in Dorchester. She dropped out of college, but eventually earned a degree. She worked at a gym in Grove Hall and then as a case manager for a local community-development nonprofit, according to a resume posted online. According to Facebook, she’s partied in places that others only dream about: Club Gravity in New York. The W Hotel in Chicago. The Griswold Snacketeria, in Nevada. Mexico, where she celebrated her 28th birthday.
Recently, I rang her doorbell. It seemed no one was home. Then I noticed a crimp in the blinds, where a finger parted them. I waved. A man ventured out. I introduced myself as Keisha’s old camp counselor.
“She was one of my brightest students,” I said.
“She still is,” he told me.
I left my number, but she never called.
The closest I’ve found to an explanation is an e-mail she wrote the summer of our ill-fated trip: “I don’t intentionally mean to make you worry. It’s that I have been handling all of my affairs all by myself since I was about 14, and I never had to answer to anyone. I made any and all decisions for myself, and I didn’t have to explain, so dealing with someone like you, who actually cares and provides guidance, is very new to me and sometimes strange.”
Maybe Keisha opted not to come to Kenya because she didn’t trust that I’d take care of her. Or maybe pocketing that $1,500 fellowship check was part of a grand plan to beat her own path out of poverty. Or maybe she sensed that she was never going to be the Ivy League graduate that I’d expected.
The truth is: There is nothing wrong with poverty. What is wrong is if there is no honorable path out of it for those who choose. Without that, the American Dream is just an illusion, for all of us. Without that, we will become a country of two tribes — poor and not poor — and two economies with diametrically opposite incentives.
Summer programs play a crucial role in keeping the path out of poverty open. During summer, kids forget between one to three months of what they’d learned in school. For poor kids, who come from homes without books, “summer learning losses” mean losing even more. Indeed, more than half of the achievement gap between low-income kids and their middle-class peers can be attributed to vast differences in how they spend their summers, according to Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander.
Recently I went back to the camp for the first time in 20 years. I was struck by how much felt the same: The bean plants growing in Dixie cups by the window. The walls, covered with colorful posters setting goals for the summer. Even some of the kids looked the same: They were the children of children I had taught at camp.
Few of my campers’ lives unfolded as I expected. That’s evidence of how young I was, and how little I knew. Now I understand that none of us can save the world. But if we believe that this is a world worth saving, we can make it our mission to preserve and widen the path out of poverty for the next generation. To do that, we must form alliances with the mothers, fathers, and teachers who are best equipped to understand the options, ambitions, and difficult trade-offs faced by kids living in poverty. We can’t assume that we’ll make progress quickly. Trust takes years to earn. We shouldn’t pretend that it will be easy. This is the hardest work there is. We shouldn’t imagine that we’ll be heroes. Victories will be incremental at best. But this is the mission before us, and all of us must play our part.