This American Life's brilliant radio documentary about Harper High School describes a "Turnaround" school as it comes off a year in which 29 current and recent students were shot. Eight died, and there were dozens of other incidents where bullets were thrown.
Reporter Alex Kotlowitz, author of the masterpiece, There Are No Children Here, reporting with Linda Lutton, Ben Calhoun, and Ira Glass, spent five months at Harper.
Nearly every time Kotlowitz visited the school's social work office, a student named Thomas would be there. Asked why he hangs out there so much, Thomas replied in a "muffled and sluggish" voice, as if he's "speaking from deep inside a cave:"
"Nay, I ain't gonna give you no answer for that. Every time I come here, you come. And I'm for real."
Thomas sounds like the type of black male who frightens so many people who don't understand his world. "His braided hair hangs over his eyes. He often has a hood on. He won't look you in the eye." And perhaps society should worry about Thomas' expressed fears that he will "try to hurt somebody." Angered by a bully, Thomas punched the aggressor so hard that one of the boy's teeth got stuck in Thomas hand
But what most strangers don't know is that, last June, Thomas was standing on a porch, talking with another Harper student, Shakaki Asphy, when she was shot and killed. In 2006, at a birthday party for 10-year-old girl, "Nugget," Thomas saw her brains laying on the floor after she was shot. And according to his social worker, there have been "many, many in between."
The suffering I witnessed over, say, a decade in my high school has been compressed into just a few years at Harper. "Harper High School" explains a world that is even indecipherable to many educators. Ira Glass stresses that Harper is not alone and gives voice to seven other school administrators who described the more typical levels of violence that our kids have endured.
Perhaps society has imposed a school reform experiment devoted to remediating academic weaknesses because we dare not confront the emotions of Harper High School.