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Education pioneer and founder of the Harlem Children's Zone Geoffrey Canada

Geoffrey Canada: 'Whatever It Takes' To Teach Kids

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, and New York Times journalist Paul Tough discuss the project, an audacious integrated poverty-eradication effort in New York City.

41:41

Other segments from the episode on September 15, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 15, 2008: Interview with Geoffrey Canada and Paul Tough; Obituary for David Foster Wallace.

Transcript

DATE September 15, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Social activist Geoffrey Canada and journalist Paul
Tough on Tough's book "Whatever It Takes," about Geoffrey's efforts
to reform Harlem by educating poor children
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's difficult enough for teachers in inner city schools to try to reach a few
students and help them find a way out of the cycle of poverty. My guest
Geoffrey Canada is trying to create a new system so that eventually tens of
thousands of poor children will receive a good education in a safe environment
that will lead to a better life. Canada is the founder of the Harlem
Children's Zone.

Journalist Paul Tough has written a new book about Canada called "Whatever It
Takes." Tough describes the Harlem Children's Zone as the first, and so far
the only organization in the country that pulls together under a single
umbrella integrated social and educational services for thousands of children
at once. It currently serves about 8,000 kids in a 97-block neighborhood of
Harlem. Its goal is to create what Canada describes as a conveyor belt that
takes children from pre-school through a K-to-12 charter school, along with
access to services that middle-class kids would likely have, such as family
counseling, after-school tutoring and a health clinic. The programs are free
to children and families and made possible largely by donations from
organizations and individuals.

Journalist Paul Tough will join us in the second half of the show. Let's
start with Geoffrey Canada.

The last time we spoke, Geoff Canada, you had been heading the Rheedlen
Centers, which was, you know, a group of basically after-school centers for
young people. Why did you think that wasn't enough anymore, that you wanted
to have a whole set of schools and pre-schools and college support programs?

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA: Well, Terry, you know, what happened was that I had
been chugging along for about 12 years at the same job. By the way, I've now
been there 25 years. And so about 12 or 13 years ago, I began to really look
at how effective we were as an organization. And our mission was to really
change the outcomes for children who lived in Harlem, and what we found was
that not only hadn't the outcomes changed so that they were more positive,
things actually were worse for the children of Harlem than when I started this
work. And it wasn't that for individual children in my program things were
worse, but when you looked at the outcomes for children in the community, we
had more children ending up in jail, more children ending up unable to read,
unable to write, involved in activities which were going to really hinder
their ability to develop, to grow, to compete in this country. And we said we
had to step back and reevaluate whether what we were doing was actually making
a difference. And the answer to that was no, it wasn't making a difference to
enough children so it was going to charge Harlem, and so we decided to try
this new approach.

GROSS: You know, but a lot of people would say, well, what you have to do is
narrow your approach. I mean, the problem is that you were trying to affect
too many children and you can't reach that many children in a program, so if
you just like try to reach fewer children, you'd have a bigger impact on their
lives. Why did you decide not to take that approach but to broaden the
program and try to reach more children in a more comprehensive way?

Mr. CANADA: Well, you know, part of the challenge, Terry, is that the
numbers are absolutely staggering. If you just look at New York City, I was
part of a commission put together by Mayor Bloomberg to look at the issues of
poverty, and we started looking at this group of what we called disconnected
youth, young people who were not in high school and were not employed and
really had no chance of competing in terms of this global economy. And we
predicted the numbers were somewhere around 250 to 350,000 young people in
that category. When you began to say, so what exists that is large enough to
have an impact on numbers like that, you really find that most programs are
dealing with 50 children, 100 children. A program that might be considered
extraordinary, maybe they have 500 children. This year in our Zone we will
have worked with 8,000 children, and we think that's--you know, we've got to
get that number to about 10,000 before we really are working with the numbers
of children we think really we need to touch to actually reach a tipping point
and change the actual culture of what it means to be a young person in central
Harlem.

And that's the issue all over America. Harlem is the same in respects to how
children are growing up without the ability to compete. You could be talking
about Baltimore. You could be talking about Camden. You could be talking
about South Central, I mean there are these places in this country that are
very large where huge numbers of failing and we're trying to save them in
groups of 20 or in groups of 40 or groups of forty or groups of a hundred,
while we're losing them by the tens of thousands.

GROSS: You talk about trying to change the whole culture that these children
are growing up and living in. Why don't you think it's enough to just have
like a good school? Why do you have the more ambitious idea of changing the
whole culture, and what does that mean?

Mr. CANADA: Well, here's a reality that so many of our children face, and my
children are dealing with this in Harlem, and when they don't have to deal
with this anymore, I'll now that I have been successful. So if you go to my
charter school and you're in the eighth grade, you wear a nice jacket and a
shirt and a tie. That's the requirement. If my child leaves my school, one
of my students, and goes in certain neighborhoods, he will be attacked. And
why will he be attacked? He'll be attacked because he looks like one of those
kids who's trying to do the right things.

And what is the right thing? The right thing is trying to be smart, trying to
be honest, trying to be moral and ethical, and in a teenage culture that
absolutely holds it against other children who are doing the kinds of things
that leads to success, and part of holding it against them means that they
physically beat you up, guess what happens to the young person after awhile?
They don't to act like they're smart. They don't want to act like they care
about school. They want to act in a way that they feel like they fit in. So
if we just deal with these narrow streams of children and we don't deal with
the culture in general, we create a situation where many of our children, just
through peer pressure, begin to ascribe to a set of values which won't help
them, which will actually hurt them.

GROSS: So in the Harlem Children's Zone, is everybody in a certain
neighborhood all going to your charter school so that they're all in the same
boat in that respect?

Mr. CANADA: They're not all going to my school, but we are in all of the
schools, all of the other public schools that are in our zone, and we work
with the students who leave the zone and go to middle schools if they--because
we don't have middle schools in our zone except for our own, so a lot of our
middle-school students go to other schools. But when they come back into the
zone, we bring those kids into after-school programs, summer programs, weekend
programs, to make sure that we're touching enough children to actually have an
impact on the culture in that community.

GROSS: Now, how many charter schools do you have going now?

Mr. CANADA: We have four schools that--we have two elementary schools, a
middle school, and a high school going, and this year we just enrolled our
1,000th child, so we have a 1,000 children in our schools currently.

GROSS: Tell me one of the things, one of the programs or teaching concepts
that you've developed at your charter schools that you think could catch on in
public schools, that you think could be applied in public schools.

Mr. CANADA: Well, see, here, Terry, is where I get in trouble in America
because I think the title of Paul's book, "Whatever It Takes," is exactly the
kind of mantra we have to have in public education. You cannot work in my
school if you're not successful. I don't care if you're a principal. I don't
care if you're a teacher. I don't care if you're an assistant teacher. We
get the data, we analyze it, and we see what value added you brought to this
job. One of the real challenges in public education in poor communities like
Harlem is that it is really difficult to actually get children who are behind
and coming from these troubled environments to learn as well as their peers
from upper/middle-class communities. And so it takes extraordinary effort to
do that, and whatever it takes means, we have to work weekends, we'll work
weekends. We have to work summers, we'll work summers. We have to change
staff, we'll change staff. That we have to, as adults, decide that these
children can learn, and it's our job to make sure they do so.

GROSS: How do you feel about determining whether a teacher's been successful
based on test scores? I mean, because it's not necessarily the only way to
determine whether students are learning and developing.

Mr. CANADA: No, I don't think that test scores should be the only measure in
terms of effective teaching. So when we evaluate our teachers, the test
scores count for 70 percent. And 70 percent is significant, so it allows
principals to say other great things about teachers or other lousy things
about teachers, but everybody knows in the end, we believe the test indicates
how well our children will be able to compete with other children who are
trying to enter into colleges and get jobs, and that that is the
way--unfortunately or fortunately--our culture is designed. We're in a
competitive culture, and our children must compete, and these are the
indicators of how successful our children will do in competition. So tests
really matter, and they matter a lot. It should not be the exclusive
determining factor of whether or not a teacher remains inside a school.

GROSS: Assuming the tests that you're talking about are standardized tests,
what happens in a lot of schools is if success is measured on standardized
tests, teachers start teaching the test, because test wiseness really figures
into how well you're going to do on a test, and everybody knows what kind of
questions--not what specific questions, but what type of questions are going
to be asked on a test, so the curriculum starts to become more and more
revolving around the test and doing well on the test. Do you feel like your
schools are geared toward that now, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Mr. CANADA: Well, it's interesting because I know the issue that you raise
about teaching to the test. I wish it was happening in places like Harlem. I
wish it was happening in poor communities. I wish their test scores suggested
they were teaching to the test. Their test scores suggest they're not
teaching anything close to the test. They are so far behind their peers that
if I could say, look, maybe the kids aren't smart but at least they're doing
OK on the test, I would feel like that question to me really, really mattered.
I think it does matter in communities where young people performing on grade
level is taken for granted.

In places like central Harlem, for the last--and this is the part that
frustrates me, Terry. You know, I grew up in the south Bronx. I grew up in a
poor school where most students were failing. The community I grew up in,
those schools are still failing children today, and in some places in this
country this has been going on for 40 or 50 years, and part of the issue is
being able to read as measured on a test is pretty standard. Are some tests
biased? Yes, they are. Are some culturally biased? Yes, they are. But by
and large, being able to do math, being able to write correct sentences and
being able to read--which most of these tests give you an indication of how
well a child is doing--I think are legitimate kinds of measures for
educational competence inside schools.

GROSS: My guest is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's
Zone. There's a new book about his work called "Whatever It Takes." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's
Zone. His work is the subject of the new book "Whatever It Takes."

We've talked a little bit about the work that you're doing, Geoffrey Canada,
in trying to create a new model for education for children in inner city
schools who have really fallen behind their grade level. One of the big
problems teachers face in inner city schools is that a lot of the kids really
don't want to be there--which is probably true in most schools, but in schools
that are in violent neighborhoods, kids tends to get sometimes pretty violent
in class. In a lot of urban schools, kids bring guns or knives. There's a
lot of fighting. It's dangerous in school unless you have principals and
teachers who really know how to keep the children safe. How do you deal with
troublemakers in your schools?

Mr. CANADA: I mean, that's a great question, and I think that if you asked
anyone who was working inside one of these really challenging schools all
across America, they would say the first thing you have to do is create a
sense of safety. Young children cannot learn algebra when they're afraid that
someone is going to beat them up or stab them or shoot them. It's just
impossible. We're not wired that way. So we've got to create safety. And
this is a real challenge.

So let me tell you, the biggest thing that we have found is that you have to
set real boundaries for young people, and they have to know you're serious
about them. If you don't--and I think that's one of the interesting but
painful for me to read, but interesting pieces in Paul's book is when we first
created our middle school, how difficult it was for our first principal to
control the behavior and deal with young people who came to school with issues
that really interfered with not only their learning, but with everybody else's
learning. And the inability to deal with that group of young people really
arrested education for an entire year and a half inside that middle school.

So that one of the strongest, I think, characteristics of really great leaders
in schools are people who are able to deal with this issue of how do you deal
with disruptive students, students who bring behavioral problems into school.
There is not a week that goes buy that I am not in conference with our social
worker, our school physician, and maybe with the school psychiatrist about a
child who is having real issues inside the school. Most schools in these
communities simply don't have those resources. They don't have a social
worker in the school. They don't have a pediatrician who's prepared to help
children, and they certainly don't have the psychiatric support at the school
to help young people with these kind of issues...

GROSS: You have all that?

Mr. CANADA: We have that inside--we have a partnership with The Children's
Health Fund, where we actually have a clinic inside of our middle school that
supports all of our children inside school, and we think that that is an
absolute necessity in poor communities. One of the things that really
disturbs me in this country, Terry--and your audience will notice this the
next time one of these incidents happens--in a upper-middle-class community,
whenever there is a real act of violence, a child is shot, someone is
murdered, the next day inside the public school, you see mental health workers
flooding that school, and you hear the principal talking about how, `We have
support for our children and our teachers because they've been traumatized by
this event.' Well, in almost ever poor community in this country, these young
people are exposed to events like that on a regular basis and there is no help
and no support for them whatsoever. So I think, as a model, we've got to deal
with the reality of how our young people live. Many of them are traumatized
by events that happen in their life, by violence to their parents, to their
peers, to their siblings. And we've got to have supports inside of the
schools to help these young people; otherwise, they won't learn.

GROSS: Geoffrey Canada, you mentioned that you had a change in strategy, that
one of the principals didn't really know how to set limits for students and
how to deal with violence in the school, and then, you know, he was replaced
and things changed. What changed in terms of the leadership style, or the
kinds of limits that were set for the students?

Mr. CANADA: First, you know, the most, I think, critical, characteristic for
a school leader is someone who can be loving and firm at the same time. It's
really--when someone moves too much in one direction, if someone has a lot of
love for these kids, but they actually don't know how to be firm and set
limits, or someone knows how to be firm and set limits, but the kids feel no
sense that this person loves and cares about them. I think in both cases in a
school like ours, that that won't work. We have our principal,
Mr...(unintelligible)...is a man who both cares deeply and loves these kids,
but came in saying, `There's a new sheriff in town and it's me, and I'm going
to make sure the adults are in control of this situation.'

And I think that's really what our young people want to see. They want to see
the adults take a leadership role, set the boundaries and then not be
hypocritical about it, meaning, once I say `we don't allow this,' I don't play
favorites, I don't let some teachers do it and others don't do it, that I
really take this as serious. And when we tell our young people there's no
fighting allowed, we mean there's no fighting allowed. In school, we mean,
`You may not take this out of school. You can't go around the corner and
fight. You can't go six blocks from here and fight. We just don't allow
violence.' And young people begin to understand that we're really serious
about it.

A lot of times what happens in schools is people say, `Well, you're not
allowed to fight,' but that just means, `You're not allowed to fight while we
can see you. But if you go outside or around the corner, oh yeah, the kid's
going to be out there waiting to beat you up.' That can't happen in our
schools. We don't allow any kind of violence, and they know we are always in
the streets with them because most of my staff live right in the communities
to make sure our young people are behaving in ways that we think are
appropriate for the young men and women that they are.

GROSS: So if somebody does beat somebody up after school six blocks away,
what happens?

Mr. CANADA: Oh, parents right in the school. Threats are being made that,
`If your child is going to do this, they can't be in our school.' I do a lot
of yelling and screaming in those kinds of situations, and young people--you
know what? The thing that happens, Terry, is not only do it so that the
parents get it, meaning that the parents understand, OK, look, they're not
kidding about this. They're not letting you deal with the violence. But the
word filters out to all the other kids.

You know, one of the things that I have been known to do--very few kids are
disrespectful to me, but a few kids have been disrespectful to me, and I tell
them in front of their peers, `OK, I'll see you at your house tonight.' Now,
the child is sitting there thinking, `I live up in the projects. Geoff's not
coming up there. Who's he kidding?' Oh, guess what? Six o'clock, guess who's
knocking on your door? It's me, and the word gets out very quickly with young
people that you are serious about this and you're not kidding; and when you're
not kidding, you know what? Their behavior changes, and it--I don't want to
make it sound simple, because it takes a lot of adults acting in a consistent
way and going the extra step with young people, but young people know that I
will go to their homes, I will go in their communities. If there is a problem
on their block, I will have me or my staff on their block. We're unafraid to
be in Harlem dealing with these kinds of issues, making sure our young people
all both are safe and obey, I think, our rules.

GROSS: Geoffrey Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. He'll
be back in the second half of the show, along with journalist Paul Tough, the
author of a new book about Canada's work called "Whatever It Takes." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Geoffrey Canada, the
founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, an experiment in education reform that
provides both social and educational services for about 8,000 poor children in
a 97-square block area of New York City. Also joining us is Paul Tough, the
author of a new book about Canada's work called "Whatever It Takes." Tough is
an editor of The New York Times magazine.

Paul Tough, you write about education for The New York Times magazine, and
you've written a new book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone
that he's created. What are some of the things that he's created in his
schools and in his after-school programs that you think can be applied in
other schools and other communities?

Mr. PAUL TOUGH: I think there are lots of things, but I think probably, from
my point of view, the most important one is what he's able to do early on in a
child's life. It's this system that he calls the conveyor belt. And this is
something that I think just is not happening in very many communities, and I
think is a big part of the reason why a lot of kids are showing up in school,
and showing up especially in middle school doing very badly. So he has an
all-day intensive pre-kindergarten program that every kid who moves onto
kindergarten, 200 a year, that they're enrolled in. And even before that he
has two different parenting programs, one called Baby College, one called The
Three-Year-Old Journey, that works really closely with the parents of kids in
these neighborhoods to give them both sort of a sense of community and support
and a sense that they are the most important person in the education of their
child.

And when you look at the data that's out there, this is something that works
in a systematic way. I mean, what's going on in just middle school and in
lots of other successful middle charter schools is that people have figured
out a way to rescue kids who are in trouble and, depending on the school,
sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it's always extremely hard
work. It's always just pulling kids right back from the brink. If you do for
kids in their earliest years what Geoff's able to do, give them the kind of
language intensity, give their parents the support, give them a school that
they can get this kind of support in right through from kindergarten all the
way on, they're not going to need that kind of rescuing. I mean, it's amazing
going to Geoff's third and fourth grade. These are some kinds who have been
in the program, some of them since birth, and it just--there just doesn't feel
like there's that sense of crisis that there feels like in the middle school.

GROSS: So, I guess, is it fair to say that you both feel that education
reform has been on a kind of a la carte basis, like maybe there's a head start
program, or maybe there's an experimental middle school, but before and after
you're in this experimental program, you're back in a community where
education isn't respected, where there's a lot of violence, and four years of
rescuing, even really good rescuing, won't necessarily save you if you're
coming from and going back to a community filled with really impossible
problems?

Mr. CANADA: Terry, I just couldn't agree with you more. Now, I'll give you
an example of how critical it is. For many years, I thought if I got kids
through high school, they would be fine because the research seemed to suggest
if you got through high school, you had much better outcomes on the positive
sides, much fewer on the negative side. And then we began to sort of look and
see what real job opportunities young people had, and we said, OK, we have to
get them in college. And so we got our kids in college, and I said, OK, there
you go. That's done. Well, guess what happened? The kids didn't finish
college. I mean, 85, 90 percent of them weren't finishing college. So even
when we think our kids look great, right? After they finish high school, I
got this kid into college, there were some many challenges these poor families
face--economic challenges, cultural challenges, and kids going away to
different environments they're not prepared for--that we've got to stay with
kids through college to make sure that they not only get into college but they
graduate from college.

Mr. TOUGH: Terry, one thing that really struck me doing research for this
book is that, on the other end of the scale, in the early years, you know,
there are all these sort of famous experiments out there where scientists will
take a, let's say, a pre-kindergarten class and give this one set of poor kids
all sorts of supports and see how much they can pull them along, you know,
when they're four years old, how well they can be doing. And the results were
always, you know, after that first year they're doing great. They get to
kindergarten and they are on grade level or close to grade level with--equal
to their middle-class peers. But then when they continued to study these
kids, so they end up in just a normal public school, and each year they do a
little bit worse, until by the time they're in fifth or sixth grade, they're
completely indistinguishable from the other kids in the poor community where
they lived.

And there's some people who point to this research to say, you know, well, so
those pre-kindergarten programs don't really work after all. What really
struck me looking at this research was, why don't you just keep going? You
know, if it worked so well when a kid is four years old, why not give him that
same sort of support when he's five and six and seven? And that's really, I
think, what Geoff is trying to do in the Harlem Children's Zone, to take these
best practice models and not just have them exist at one period in a kid's
life, but run them all the way through.

GROSS: Now, as you've pointed out, the Harlem Children's Zone isn't just
about teaching children, it's also about teaching the parents of young
children how to be better parents, and, Geoffrey Canada, one of the things
that you've tried to accomplish in these programs for parents, is convincing
them that when they have to discipline their kids, not to hit them, not to use
corporal punishment. That strikes me as something that might be a really hard
sell in a neighborhood where you have to hold your own physically and where
you can't show weakness and you can't back down, that physical punishment
might be a natural part of that.

Mr. CANADA: Well, so many of our parents really are raising their children
the way they were raised. And here's a very interesting thing I've found,
Terry. You know, when we first tackled this issue of trying to teach our
parents other skills so that they wouldn't resort to corporal punishment and
still can help change the child's behavior, we were really struggling with
this, and I got a bunch of my staff together and we were talking about this,
and I finally asked them, `How many of you in this room were beaten when you
were children?' and almost everybody raised their hand. And then I said,
`Well, how many of you really think that that helped you?' and almost
everybody raised their hand. And I realized that it is so embedded in a
certain group of people growing up that actually the corporal punishment is
probably what made the difference. Those who weren't beaten were the ones who
got in trouble. Well, you know, there's no data. There's no research that
says that, but people really believe it, and so now you're right up against a
set of beliefs which are reinforced not just with their peers, but also with
their parents.

And so we found this a really difficult challenge to take on, but it was
important for this reason. If you start off believing that the way you change
behavior is through physical force, it almost leads you to a set of, I think,
strategies which are self-defeating for this population. Because while your
child might listen to you because you're about to smack them, they're not
going to listen to the teacher because the teacher can't smack them. And so
you've created, I think, a set of expectations in this child about the way the
world works, which, when they find out, well, no one else does this, it makes
it much more difficult, I think, for people to use the other kinds of strategy
in terms of how you talk to kids, how you use time out, to really help change
behavior among young people.

GROSS: Do you think when parents like hit their kids, it kind of reinforces
the idea of that's the way you get respect, by being able to physically
overpower somebody or punish somebody?

Mr. CANADA: You know, you know, this is something that I know people make
jokes about, but I cannot tell you how many times I have watched a parent
smack a kid and tell them, `I told you don't hit them!' And the contradiction
is just not obvious to the parent in what they're saying and what they're
doing. And I think that what we have tried to do at Baby College when we're
working with our parents, zero to three, is just share with them the science
of why. Because simply saying "don't do it" doesn't work. We actually try
and explain, `We want you to be giving your child clues about the world. This
is why we don't do this. This is why we don't do that.' That once you begin
to explain these things, you're actually building a logic model in your
child's world which they will then use to make certain predictions about their
world in the future. Simply by smacking or hitting, you're giving your child
no ability to get a deeper understanding of the codes, the expectations, the
mores that we have in our society.

GROSS: My guests are Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's
Zone, and journalist Paul Tough, the author of a new book about Canada's work.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's
Zone, and journalist Paul Tough, the author of a new book about Canada's work
called "Whatever It Takes."

Are the No Child Left Behind regulations affecting your ability to teach the
way you want to teach, Geoffrey Canada?

Mr. TOUGH: No. You know, it's fascinating. In terms of instruction, there
is no impact that No Child Left Behind has on our school. If schools don't
meet certain standards, then there are a series of remedies they must come up
with under a specified period of time under No Child Left Behind. They're
sort of, they get put on, in quotes, "probation." But the important thing
about No Child Left Behind--I think the part of it that's somewhat
controversial right now--not to me, but to others--is the use of data and the
accountability measures. No Child Left behind makes states sort of lay out
where their children are right now and say what they're going to do to get
their children to reach certain levels by certain specified periods of time.
And there has been a movement afoot to strip the sort of accountability
measures out of No Child Left Behind, and I think that's a mistake.

I thought No Child Left Behind needed some real resources added to it and
needed a more robust strategic plan around how you go into poor communities
and help children to be successful. So I had my real, I think, challenges,
with the legislation, the things I didn't agree with. The part that I did
agree with was it made all schools disaggregate the data so that you had to
report on how you were doing with children who were African-American, children
who had English as a second language, children who had special needs, and then
that you were held accountable for improving the performance of those
children; and I think that that is a piece of legislation that the
accountability part has to stay in.

GROSS: Well, Paul Tough, as a journalist who's written a lot about education,
what strikes you most about what the presidential candidates are saying about
education or what they're not saying about education?

Mr. TOUGH: Well, my impression is that John McCain isn't saying a whole lot
about education. I mean, I think that he has adopted some of the basic
Republican approaches--vouchers, a school choice, which I think can help in
some small ways in certain places. But my sense is that, that alone, it's
going to be hard to make the kind of changes to the education system that are
necessary.

Barack Obama recently gave a speech about education in which--to my mind,
anyway--he took a much more comprehensive approach, and that I think he's
trying to come to some kind of grand bargain, some sort of big deal where, you
know, maybe teacher contracts are made a little more flexible, where it
becomes easier to fire a teacher but at the same time teachers are paid a lot
more. Where there are accountability measures in place, but teachers have
some say in how they work and how they're exercised. And then I think that
one of the most important things that Obama has said about education is that
he has said that he wants to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone. He said in
his speech that he wants to create 20 of them in cities across the country.

GROSS: Now, while we're on the subject of politics, Geoffrey Canada, I
thought about you when I first heard Sarah Palin described in a positive way
as a "pistol-packing mama," and that's become something of a Republican
talking point in praise of her. I was just wondering how you'd react to that,
because you're somebody who's worked so hard to keep guns away from children.
You've known so many young people who have been killed by guns.

Mr. TOUGH: Yeah, you know, this issue, I think reinforces a set of beliefs
which I am just really worried about. In lots of places, you know, guns are
for sport and recreation and, you know, people don't worry about the outcome
of what happens when you have a confluence of profit and violence and cheap
handguns all at one time, and the end results we see in places like New York
City and Philadelphia, or in Newark and other places--and you can go across
the country.

I just had a child murdered, 13-year-old, innocently. I will guarantee you it
was an illegal handgun. There is a whole community in grief right now because
of that, and there will be children who will be scarred the rest of their life
because they witnessed this event. It happened in front of lots of people.
And so, you know, we still have this challenge in this country where, you
know, a sort of celebration of firearms is done at the highest levels in
America as if these things--poor children weren't being slaughtered all over
our streets, and I think that we've got to always remember when we see those
images portrayed as so American, that there's another image of mothers, and
this mother who actually worked for me, the question she has asked everybody
is, `Why did this happen?' And we've got to do something about that as a
country. You know, there ought to be a right in America for children to grow
up without being slaughtered for no reason whatsoever, and that's a handgun
issue.

GROSS: Paul Tough, I'd like to conclude by asking you what you think are some
of the kind of takeaways of Geoffrey Canada's story and of the Harlem
Children's Zone that he created that the rest of us should be thinking about?

Mr. TOUGH: Well, I think the big one is just that solving these problems is
a lot easier than it might seem. I think that there are a lot of people in
this country who have given up on communities like Harlem and lots of other
inner city communities around the country. And transforming those communities
and giving the kids in those communities an opportunity to succeed will take a
lot of hard work, it's going to take a very different way of doing things, but
it's possible. I think what I take away from it is that it's time, I think,
for this country to have a much more serious conversation about how to solve
these problems, not just to take sort of a convenient excuse of blaming
parents or blaming inner city culture or even blaming teachers and schools,
but instead looking for what solutions are actually out there and trying to
figure out how we can best utilize our national resources to make them happen.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you,
Geoffrey Canada and Paul Tough.

Mr. CANADA: Thank you.

GROSS: Geoffrey Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. Paul
Tough is the author of a book about Canada's work called "Whatever It Takes."

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with writer David Foster Wallace.
He took life Friday. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David Foster Wallace, who took his life last Friday,
from 1997
TERRY GROSS, host:

We were very saddened by the death of David Foster Wallace. The novelist,
short story writer and essayist apparently hanged himself Friday. He was 46.
New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote an appreciation today in
which he said, "Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer, his manic,
exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse
avant garde techniques with old fashioned moral seriousness, to create a
series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs
of entertainment and self-gratification." In The New York Times obituary Bruce
Weber described Wallace as "an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon
and Don Delillo, and an influence on younger tour de force stylists like Dave
Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of
the interview I recorded with David Foster Wallace in 1997.

You know, I really like the way you write about pleasure and how difficult it
can be to really achieve. You write about pleasure in the "Infinite Jest,"
and I'm thinking, you know, one of the things relating to that in "Infinite
Jest," one of the characters finds that marijuana is no longer a pleasurable
experience; it just makes him terribly self-conscious and therefore anxious.
And I'm wondering what happens to you when you do something that's supposed to
give you pleasure and that just makes you uncomfortable or anxious.

Mr. DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Boy, I'm not really even sure how to respond to
that. I think--look, a lot of the impetus for writing "Infinite Jest" was
just the fact that I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30
and we'd all, you know, been grotesquely overeducated and privileged our whole
lives and had better health care and more money than our parents did, and we
were all extraordinarily sad. And I think it has something to do with being
raised in an era when really the ultimate value seems to be--I mean, a
successful life, is, let's see, you make a lot of money and you have a really
attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it's a
life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible--which ends
up being sort of empty and low calorie. But the reason I don't like taking
about it discursively is it sounds very banal and cliche, you know, when you
say it out loud that way. Believe it or not, this came as something of an
epiphany to us at around age 30, sitting around talking about why on earth we
were so miserable when we'd been so lucky.

GROSS: Well, when did you realize that all the benefits you had in an
educated middle-class life weren't bringing you happiness?

Mr. WALLACE: Well, I--look, I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by
happiness. I mean, it's not like we were walking around fingering razor
blades or anything like that, but it just sort of seems as if--we sort of knew
how happy our parents were, and we would compare our lives with our parents
and see that, at least on the surface, or according to the criteria that the
culture lays down for a successful, happy life, we were actually doing better
than a lot of them were, and so why on earth were, you know, we so miserable?
I don't think--you know, I don't mean to suggest that it was, you know, a
state of constant clinical depression, or that we all felt that we were
supposed to be blissfully happy all the time. There was just--I have a very
weird and amateur sense that an enormous part of like my generation and the
generation right after mine is just an extremely sad sort of lost generation,
which when you think about the material comforts and the political freedoms
that we enjoy is just strange.

GROSS: You write about how irony can become not only tiresome, but even
tyrannical. What are some of the problems you see with the ironic voice,
whether you're a viewer watching television or a writer using it in your
fiction or essays?

Mr. WALLACE: Well, a vivid example to use right now is how I feel in here
answering some of the questions you were asking about pleasure. The beads of
perspiration I get on my forehead. I'm so terrified of sounding like Bill
Bennett, or you know, Church Lady, who's been parodied on "Saturday Night
Live," or, God forbid, Stuart Smalley, who's been parodied on "Saturday Night
Live," that this entire "how to talk straight about anything that really means
anything that might sound cliche, that might sound uncool, might sound unhip,"
I mean, there's an absolute terror that goes along with it. And I know,
because most of my friends are my age and younger that this is not just me,
that there is some weird way that if the greatest sin in the past was, you
know, obscenity, or shock, the greatest sin now is appearing naive or old
fashioned, so that somebody now can give you a sort of a very cool arch smile
and devastate you with one extraordinarily crafted line that puts kind of a
hole in your pretentious balloon.

GROSS: Now, is that a problem for you as a writer. Do you feel that there
are certain sentiments, certain like heartfelt sentiments that you're afraid
to deal with because it might sound square and corny?

Mr. WALLACE: Well, it's more complicated than that, because usually if
you're writing fiction, you're dealing with characters who themselves will
have heartfelt sentiments, but who themselves live in this culture right now
and thus face all the impediments to sort of dealing with those parts of their
lives, you know, that we did. So it would be not only silly but unrealistic
to have a character saying that kind of stuff. I don't know. I mean, other
writers with whom I talk about this stuff, it's more just this--a lot of
writers are tired of doing kind of hip, slick, funny, dark, exploding
hypocrisy underlining once again the point that life is a farce and we're all
in it for ourselves and that the point of life is to amass as much
money/fame/sexual gratification, you know, whatever your personal thing is,
and that everything else is just glitter or PR imagine that we're tired of
sort of doing that stuff over and over and over again. Yet to do stuff that
flies in the face of that is to risk becoming the "Bridges of Madison County"
guy.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALLACE: I mean, a lot of the stuff that would seem on the surface of it
to counteract that is gooey, hideous, horrible, retrograde, cynical stuff.

GROSS: One of the characters in "Infinite Jest" is a tennis player, and you
were a champion tennis player when you...

Mr. WALLACE: I was not. I deny...

GROSS: OK. Not champion.

Mr. WALLACE: I deny steadfastly that I was a champion. I played competitive
tennis on a regional junior level.

GROSS: You were...

Mr. WALLACE: I was not a champion, and I don't want anybody from my
hometown...

GROSS: OK.

Mr. WALLACE: ....to hear me profess the word champion.

GROSS: You were a darned good tennis player.

Mr. WALLACE: I was decent by competitive standards.

GROSS: OK. Good. And this is when you were about, what, age 12 to 15?

Mr. WALLACE: Something like that, yeah.

GROSS: Now, did all your self-consciousness interfere with your performance
on the court?

Mr. WALLACE: This is a marvelous set of--well, of course. I mean, one of
the great mysterious about athletes and why I think they appear dumb to some
of us is that they seem to have this ability to turn off--I don't know how
many of your listeners have this part in their brain, but, `What if I double
fault on this point? Or what if I miss this free throw? Or what if I don't
get this strike with the entire bowling team, you know, hanging there?' The
professional athletes and great athletes--at first, I thought it was that that
stuff doesn't occur to them, but, you know, when I hung out with the pro
tennis player for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that it's more like they
have some sort of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off. But that is
literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny, you know, in the
headlights of an oncoming car if you do that to yourself enough.

GROSS: Did you have that ability to turn it off?

Mr. WALLACE: No. And that is--I was a middlingly talented athlete, but my
big problem, and the coach told me at age 13, `Kid, you got a bad head.' And
what he meant was I would choke. I would begin thinking about, `Oh no, what
if this happens?' And then I would say, well, shut up! Don't think about it,
and then I would say to myself, but how can I not think about it if I'm not
thinking about it? And meanwhile you know, I'm standing, drooling on the
baseline going through this whole not very interesting game of mental pingpong
while the other guy is briskly going about the business of winning the match.

GROSS: David Foster Wallace, recorded in 1997. He took his life Friday at
the age of 46.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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