The first chapter of Bill Strickland’s book Make the Impossible Possible is extremely powerful and tells the story of how a nineteen year old kid at the University of Pittsburgh started one of the most critically acclaimed community outreach centers in the United States. And it isn’t a story about the business paths he chose, or the investments he made that ultimately changed his program—it was is a story of expectations. Strickland had no expectations of creating a center that would serve thousands of teenagers and adults; he started in a building he renovated himself, with some clay and high expectations in the kids he was hoping to connect with. He wasn’t doing any of his outreach with the expectation of receiving awards, national recognition or praise. This is, however, a story of expectations—a story of the high expectations that Strickland and the staff at the Manchester Bidwell center had for the kids involved and the remarkable impact it had on their lives.
One of the most critical and significant passages of this chapter occurs on page seventeen when Strickland is describing the way the center strives to break down the ideas society has about at-risk youth and people in poverty. He writes,
“Is it possible, in fact, that poor folks of all ages, including our adult students at Bidwell, have spirits that, despite the ravages of poverty, still respond to and flourish in an environment that provides them with order, purpose, opportunity and beauty? To me, the answer is clear: We show our students trust and they learn they can be trusted. We treat them with respect and get respectful behavior in return. We put them in a beautiful place, give them a small taste of what a decent, dignified future might feel like, and that makes all the difference” (17).
This passage essentially argues that if you want students to behave like young, intelligent adults with talent and potential, you have to treat them with accordingly. Give them trust, give them respect and treat them as intellectuals! When I worked at an inner-city school in Newark, New Jersey this summer, the sophomore English teacher I worked with referred to all of her students as scholars. She saw an incredible difference in their interest in school once she started doing so. Students and adults alike are desperate for validation, interest and success. By keeping them confined in schools with metal detectors, barred windows and armed security at every entry what messages are we sending to them? You’re dangerous, you can’t be trusted, you need to be constantly supervised, this is a jail, you have no capacity to learn etc.
Strickland says in the passage I’ve highlighted that he strives to put his students in “a beautiful place” which he hopes will show them “what a decent, dignified future might feel like” (17). I’m not arguing that as a country we should throw millions of dollars into the interior decoration of public schools. However, I’m certainly not going to argue with the ideas of a man who has managed to inspire 90 percent of his students to graduate high school.
These ideas about treating students like real people and learning to listen to them we heard from the powerful speech given by Jonathan Kozol, and now we’re hearing them again. Kids are screaming to be heard when they graffiti the walls and act out in school---and we have to ask ourselves if we’re really listening? Strickland held high expectations for these kids and adults. He didn’t listen to statistics about urban youth. He didn’t believe society’s claim about minorities or welfare mothers. He saw looked into his community and saw that people were hurting, and they needed someone, something and some place to revive that feeling of humanity within them.
As students, teachers and citizens of this great country who have a passion for kids and for education, I think we need to ask ourselves,
“What would a place with order, purpose, opportunity and beauty look like in a public school? And how could we create that kind of atmosphere/environment/community?”
Back in the 1980s, New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark transformed a seemingly hopeless school by demanding very high standards from his students and staff. He accepted from his students nothing short of his high expectations and ultimately the students started to believe in themselves and work together as a school. A movie was created based on the story of Joe Clark. Please click on the "Lean On Me" trailer link below if you would like a little taste of Clark's mission.