“I Just Wanna Be Average” by Mike Rose
Mike Rose is a teacher and scholar who, for more than two decades, has argued quite effectively for the real potential of students often neglected and undervalued by society. “I Just Wanna Be Average” is a chapter from Rose’s award-winning book, Lives on the Boundary (1989), about the challenges to and potential of underprepared students. Rose, himself the child of working-class Italian immigrants, argues for the unrealized abilities of many students not well served by our society. Having overcome in high school his own inadequate preparation and intellectual neglect, Rose gives us insight into the lives of nontraditional students (often working class and minority students, ones who have been labelled “remedial”) and helps us reconsider our assumptions about them.
It took two buses to get to Our Lady of Mercy. The first started deep in South Los Angeles and caught me at midpoint. The second drifted through neighborhoods with trees, parks, big lawns, and lots of flowers. The rides were long but were livened up by a group of South L.A. veterans whose parents also thought that Hope had set up shop in the west end of the county. There was Christy Biggars, who, at sixteen, was dealing and was, according to rumor, a pimp as well. There were Bill Cobb and Johnny Gonzales, grease-pencil artists extraordinaire, who left Nembutal-enhanced swirls of “Cobb” and “Johnny” on the corrugated walls of the bus. And then there was Tyrrell Wilson. Tyrrell was the coolest kid I knew. He ran the dozens1 like a metric halfback, laid down a rap that outrhymed and outpointed Cobb, whose rap was good but not great-the curse of a moderately soulful kid trapped in white skin. But it was Cobb who would sneak a radio onto the bus, and thus underwrote his patter with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Coasters, and Ernie K. Doe’s mother-in-law, an awful woman who was “sent from down below.” And so it was that Christy and Cobb and Johnny G. and Tyrrell and I and assorted others picked up along the way passed our days in the back of the bus, a funny mix brought together by geography and parental desire.
Entrance to school brings with it forms and releases and assessments. Mercy relied on a series of tests…for placement, and somehow the results of my tests got confused with those of another student named Rose. The other Rose apparently didn’t do very well, for I was placed in the vocational track, a euphemism for the bottom level. Neither I nor my parents realized what this meant. We had no sense that Business Math, Typing, and English-Level D were dead ends. The current spate of reports on the schools criticizes parents for not involving themselves in the education of their children. But how would someone like Tommy Rose, with his two years of Italian schooling, know what to ask? And what sort of pressure could an exhausted waitress apply? The error went undetected, and I remained in the vocational track for two years. What a place. Continue reading