Here’s what I remember: a little face, curious as a baby bird. A hand that shot up fast in class. A mouth that always gave the answer. Hair in braids, white beads on the ends, that clattered when she shook her head. Once, in the swelter of a borrowed Wentworth Institute classroom, which contained eight third-graders and a sickly pet frog, I used chocolate chip cookies to teach the concepts of capitalism and communism. The girl I’ll call Keisha, age 9, understood right away. “If she makes it to college, Boston schools aren’t completely broken,” I declared to my Harvard classmates. “If she disappoints us, it will be because she chooses Yale.”
Little did I know how much she would disappoint us, but for a far different reason.
We heard from her 10 years later through the networks that connect the students who ran that summer camp to the kids from the Mission Hill public housing project who attended it.
Keisha got into Spelman, the e-mail said, but she needed money to get to Atlanta. We raised about $1,000 for her.
“I am so proud of you,” I e-mailed her. “I can’t wait to see you all grown up.”
“I can’t wait to see me all grown up either,” she wrote back. “I always have distractions at school but I am pretty good at ignoring them . . . I don’t let them conquer me.”
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She disappeared for a while. Telephone numbers for her stopped working. E-mails went unreturned. Then she popped up again, explaining that Spelman had messed up her financial aid. She had been forced to transfer to Berkeley College in New York.
“Life isn’t too great, but I’m surviving,” she wrote.
I mentioned that I’d had been living in Kenya. She replied: “I wish I could have gone.”
A year later, she wrote again. This time, she said she wished she could get an internship in Africa.
I’m going to Kenya this summer, I told her. Come be my intern.
I sang her praises to friends who administered a fellowship. They awarded her $1,500 for a plane ticket. Another counselor who had worked at the camp helped her get her passport. I got excited, and nervous. I’d taken many middle-class, white Americans to Kenya, but never someone like Keisha.
Finally, the day arrived. I jumped in a cab in Nairobi to meet the plane.
“I can’t be late,” I told the cab driver. “She’s never traveled overseas before. If I’m not there when she walks off the plane, she won’t know what to do.”
The driver sped up. Thorn trees hurtled past on the highway. The giant face of a beautiful black woman smiling at laundry detergent loomed on a billboard, then disappeared. I imagined Keisha seeing Africa for the first time.
It was an unlikely journey for a girl who grew up in Mission Hill. Not the mixed-income, gussied-up townhouses of today, but the squat old brick projects of the early 1990s; when you assumed the staccato bursts piercing the air were gunshots, not firecrackers; when you avoided hypodermic needles, not dog poop, on the playground.
Mission Hill had such a bad reputation back then that we heard Keisha’s third grade teacher had offered to take her to Vermont for the summer. Her mother’s response — no — meant that Keisha spent that summer at our camp, in my group. She remained in my group, year after year.
I got to the airport just in time to see the first few passengers trickle out. Tourists in safari clothes. Kenyans hugging long-lost relatives. An hour went by. Two hours. The last of stragglers departed. I found myself alone, panicking. Where was Keisha? Did she get off the plane?
In my mind, she was still a little girl, sprouting like an improbable seedling in an inhospitable asphalt crack.
The US embassy could not trace her. Neither could Kenyan immigration authorities. Finally, three weeks later, a message came, from someone who said he was Keisha’s professor at Berkeley. It claimed she had missed me at the airport, lost her luggage and money, contracted malaria, and returned home.
But it didn’t make any sense. It’s easy to send an e-mail in Nairobi. Surely she would have done so, had she arrived. It dawned on me then that I hadn’t really spent any time with Keisha since she was a child. Who was she, now that she’d grown up?
I tracked down the Berkeley professor, who acknowledged that Keisha had been in his class but said the e-mail bearing his name had been faked. I called Spelman, and was told that the school had no record of her.
By the time Keisha’s own e-mail came, describing an impossible chain of misfortunes, I was deep in a do-gooder’s existential crisis.
“Words really can’t express enough how appreciative and thankful I am to have people in my life who care so much,” she wrote. “I offer my deepest apologies for all of the frustration . . . and effort put forth in searching for my whereabouts.”
Were we so eager to see Keisha succeed that we fell for the crudest of illusions? I marveled at how quickly she had traded away decade-long connections for $1,500. Surely, those connections would have been worth far more, in the long run. Then came this disorienting thought: During those long hot summers in Mission Hill, I don’t think any of us were ever robbed or harmed. Yet my own star pupil had fleeced us. Was she proud of it? Or did she feel ashamed?
Edward Banfield, a political scientist, studied an impoverished town in Italy in the 1950s and concluded that it was poor because everybody in it schemed and backstabbed and refused to help each other, unless they got something in return. His 1958 book, “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society” concluded that trustworthiness — the ability to trust and be trusted — is a key ingredient for a prosperous community. To Banfield, poor people were poor because of their culture.
That notion ignited one our nation’s fiercest debates. Ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an assistant labor secretary, cited it in his 1965 report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Americans have argued about whether culture produces poverty, or poverty produces culture. That question remains a critical fault line between liberals and conservatives.
Today, sociologists are exploring the middle ground between the two. Robert J. Sampson measured the level of cynicism and willingness to work for the common good by dropping stamped letters across Chicago and seeing how many he got back. In one neighborhood, more than 80 percent came back. In others, almost none did.
Sampson saw those results as evidence that poverty, violence, and police harassment often breed “moral cynicism” that makes people less likely to act altruistically, or to respond appropriately when others do.
“People just don’t trust,” he said. “It’s corrosive. You feel like someone is always trying to get over on you.”
Was Keisha just making the most of the bad hand she had been dealt? Were we the stupid ones for trying to help? I vowed to find out more about Keisha and what happened to her.
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.