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The Problem with “Three Miles,” a recent This American Life episode

Last week, I listened to the recent This American Life episode, “Three Miles.”

The project at the heart of the episode–having students from the poorest congressional district in the U.S. visit with students of a wealthy, $43,000 a year private school. (The title refers to the fact that the schools are only three miles apart.) In good storytelling fashion, there is a strong narrative that pulls the episode together. At the same time, the episode reminded me of projects that took place while I was a teacher in Los Angeles and, particularly, of the Council of Youth Research, which explored educational inequities throughout the city.

Reflecting on the same episode, my friend-and-sometimes-nemesis Mark (co-founder of the Critical Design and Gaming School in South Central Los Angeles) asked: “how are we preparing our students to be resilient in the face of institutional and internalized systems of oppression?

While I appreciated the portraits of inequity, difficulty in college as youth of color, and the candid perspectives shared by the teachers in the episode, I was troubled by the implications of the episode’s principal reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, at the show’s conclusion.

Discussing how one young woman has struggled to succeed after high school, Joffe-Walt concludes the episode saying:

I have a theory about this: I think Angela has this memory of Melanie making it, triumphantly making it because it is really hard to believe that Melanie would not make it. And I can completely understand that. … I keep expecting there to be news like she’s about to get her big break and things will happen for her. It feels suspenseful but nothing has happened for her for 10 years. I think it’s some special brand of American pathological optimism that so many of us believe the story of Melanie has to turn out to be happy. And if it doesn’t then something unusual has happened. And not just this is what happens all the time.

Up until this final moment of the show, I fully intended for this to be an episode my students–all future teachers–would listen to and critique. But this ruined it. This “optimism” that Chana discusses, while it may be true to her feelings, also reflects a painful naïveté about the state of urban schooling in the U.S.

Talking with a friend about the episode recently, we discussed how the simple choices to go to college, work hard, and succeed are anything but transparent for many youth of color. As a teacher, I was hyper-aware of this in my classroom; even as I demanded highly of my students, the reality of many of them going to college was often low when they were faced with the expectations of supporting family members (both in the U.S. and back in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Ethiopia). As my friend (currently pursuing a doctorate in the sciences) said:

And this is why I’m so frustrated with this end of this episode. No, Chana, it’s not that “something unusual happened.” The choices and assumptions of success we place on young people are not always realistic or paint an accurate picture of students’ lives. These final words damage; the perpetuate a culture that blames youth of color for not matriculating into higher education rather than condemning a system that operates on “optimism”.” Unfortunately, Chana and This American Life, many of our youth do not conform smoothly with privileged ideologies about “making it” in today’s society.

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