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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.

{ 15 } Comments

  1. AKC | March 23, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate and agree with your perspective on the cultural and societal situation we live in, one in which poor youth of color are blocked off by barriers at every turn.

    I’m a little confused by your post, though, because I think Chana J-W would agree with you about it too. You seem to be interpreting her final comments in the episode exactly the opposite way that I interpreted them, and that I think she meant them.

    I think she was saying that it is not that “something unusual happened,” but instead that “this happens all the time”; ie that the system is rigged against young POC trying to make it in the world. In other words, I think she is saying that our “pathological American optimism” is unjustified and wrong, and that she herself does NOT share that optimism, but that Angela, the teacher with the incorrect memory, did.

    Thanks for your writing and commentary!

  2. antero | March 24, 2015 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment! I’m really glad you brought this up as I go back and forth one what I think Chana is saying/implying in this closing statement. On the one hand, I’ve listened and thought that she’s turning Angela’s words into a critique of optimism. On the other hand, I get stuck feeling frustrated in the same way I explained in the post. At the end of the day, I think I come back to Chana’s line, “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.” In placing her views alongside Angela’s, I think she takes the teeth out of this conclusion. What could be a condemnation of this problematic optimism doesn’t become fulfilled.

    Again, I could be wrong. I’d really like your interpretation to be the one that holds water here. But if it is, Chana does a poor job of backing it up/making this realization clearer for a largely privileged NPR/podcast-listening audience.

    I’m really glad you brought this up! Thanks.

  3. Chase | March 24, 2015 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t listened to the recording yet, but will later today to reevaluate things. But just based on your quote from Chana J-W, I would agree that she is referencing the success-story “optimism” mind-set that is commonly held at least here in the US. Beyond issues of race, and just looking at poverty, it is a narrative that has been interpolated from pop movies, television and literature. I t sounds like Chana was noting how she too is drawn toward this underdog success assumption, whether it is accurate or not…which it of course isn’t, because of the way these stories are portrayed in our culture. You never see the movie about the teacher or coach, and the rag-tag crew of misfits, that faced nearly-impossible odds and failed, and the same is true for fluff news stories. So, as a result, the very real systemic issues you discuss go unnoticed. More than that, we are left with a mentality that makes it difficult to even tackle inequality, because the “Disney movie-fool-hearted-optimism” sits in our subconscious telling us that it will all work out in the end. My guess is that Chana, might have cut her reflection a bit short leaving her perspective ambiguous. But like I said, Ill listen to it myself soon, and reply back.

  4. Shanee | April 2, 2015 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I interpreted the comment in a completely opposite way. J-W acknowledged your point by labeling it pathological. In America, we do have a pathological optimism despite the data showing us otherwise. We still expect things to be fair and for hard work to win despite the evidence to the contrary. I’m a former teacher, and I still hold out for hope for many of my students who odds are will never see economic mobility. Further, I J-W’s statement is powerful: when WILL we wake up, and really face the fact that our kids aren’t making it. It’s only then, when it’s finally seared into the public consciousness that we will be able to address the inequities that block entire swaths of our country from opportunity.

  5. antero | April 2, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Yep, I’m still torn about the final comment. See my response to the first commenter above. Thanks for responding!

  6. Sarah | June 4, 2015 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I felt it was incredibly odd that there was no mention of ACT or SAT scores in the episode. I don’t even believe they addressed Melanie’s GPA. I also felt the part where the Fieldston girl spoke so highly of Melanie’s understanding of John Locke “she was clearly the smartest person in the room [at Fieldston]” was a retrospective exaggeration.

    All of the UH students appeared to be Pell Grant eligible, so with decent marks and URM-status they qualify for tremendous financial aid packages. Do the counselors not tell students to fill out a FAFSA? Puzzling.

    I think Melanie teased out the reality of the situation when she said, “You know, maybe you [I was] just somebody exceptional because of the environment [I was] in, not necessarily because [I was] exceptional.” Which brings me back to the lack of ACT/SAT score discussion in the episode. It seems that was intentional, as the scores would tease out that these “gifted” students aren’t actually that gifted when they’re about to finish HS. The time to really help them isn’t with college admissions, it’s in grades 8-9.

    I see this a lot in my students. A low 20s ACT score makes a student in my building one the smartest in the room. But they go to a half-decent university and they get exposed to *really* smart kids who earned 28-32s, have all the intangibles, devour material at a fast pace and they’re eaten alive.

    With regard to the closing of the episode, I feel this highlights the host’s lack of research. Unfortunately late bloomers and “catching up” happen far less frequently than we think: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/education/edlife/why-you-cant-catch-up.html

  7. Michael Armstrong | June 5, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Antero, I’m glad I found this post, because I was left with mixed feelings about this conclusion she draws. I loved the podcast, but was almost left more perplexed at the end than when I started the podcast.

    Do you think it would be worthwhile to contact her and ask her?

  8. Jason Williams | June 17, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I just listened to the story. The last line is her self-acknowledging her optimism and then going on to explain that through this experience she realizes those feelings to be naive. In the quote she is self-criticizing for the same reasons you have criticized her; so in one sense you are correct she is naive, but she is coming to terms with it in that statement. That is the main conclusion of the story, to point out exactly what you are saying.

  9. ellen diamond | January 6, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Dear Melanie,
    I listened today to the quite amazing rebroadcast of your 3-miles story. Way, way back, I transferred to Fieldston from public school in 3rd grade and continued thru HS on a partial, then full scholarship after my father died. I dropped out of college after 1 year and finished little by little while working days. Last year, I went to my 60th HS reunion and have had many thoughts about Fieldston through the years. I’m not sure why, but I think I may have a life perspective that can add something to your “narrative.” If you wish, you can look at my recently started blog at the above website and if you like what you see, I only have about 6 followers and you could leave your email address without fear of losing privacy! Among other things, I’d like to share a wonderful book with you by my sister’s longtime friend and Fieldston classmate about her duplicitous life as one of the few Black students in her class. I knew her, but clearly knew nothing of her real life. I recognize, listening to you, the strength of your intuition, insight and conclusions, and still feel it would be worthwhile for us to meet. With best wishes, Ellen

  10. Darice | January 7, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I just heard the Three Mile episode and it resonated with me deeply. I didn’t attend an “inner city” school but growing up I knew what it was like to utilities cut off and I’ve had caregivers with substance abuse problems. I identified with Melanie because school for me was a positive outlet and without putting forth much effort I did well. With my homelife I didn’t get the same support that “middle class” and “privileged” kids get but I did go to an elementary (and junior high) in a middle class neighborhood. Long story short–at 22 I married, 24 had a baby. 28 divorced and from age 23 I attended community college while I maintained a full time job–a white collar job at a good public university. By age 39 (and my kid was 14) I quit full time job and attended university full time (got part time staff job at my school). I finished in 2.5 years and a year later enrolled in a graduate program so I could become a librarian (my passion).

    In spite of my “accomplishments” it’s been such a struggle for me. It’s like the high school teacher in that episode talked about still having to overcome feeling “inadequate”. I hate that feeling but listening to that episode helped me understand that it’s not just “me”…what I feel is real to an extent. All I can do is like that teacher said and “move forward”. My child isn’t like me…so much. She grew up poor but not the same level of poverty I dealt with a kid. Also, she ended up attending a public university straight out of high school (about to graduate). Me being 40, half Black-half Native American, female, and single parent….I just felt out of place in my university classes. I still feel out of place. But one thing that helps me overcome my “inadequacy” is reflecting on what I have come through. I persevered and in a way my work paid off. Plus, the graduate program I attend is competitive. I had to have a certain GPA, I took the GRE, and I wrote a Statement of Purpose…plus I understand some of the admission process. So since that school let me in, they must have believed that I could succeed–and it’s a strong enough institution where they have programs and “extras” to help students succeed. It’s a struggle but in the end I suppose it’s worth it. Again, that story just let me know that what I feel isn’t so bad and that I am still worthy of success, as long as I have confidence and work for it.

  11. Jasmine | January 7, 2018 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I really think you have misread her ending. Chana is not justifying her thoughts, only recognizing her own misplaced optimism that so many Americans also have. By calling the optimism “pathological” she understands how it can be damaging, but also admits that she makes the same mistake as well.

  12. Steve | January 10, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    This isn’t a problem with the episode. The issues you’re talking about are the core of the episode and are addressed throughout.

  13. Mrs Lippy | January 12, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    As many have pointed out, you and your student have completely misread/misuderstood the reporter’s conclusion. Good luck with the reading comprehension section of the test! You’ll need it.

  14. Matt | January 15, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    @MrsLippy – Your sarcasm is unnecessary and unhelpful! These are big problems and will only be solved with open minds, hearts and a huge amount of positive energy. Please rethink – especially if you’re in education.

  15. Hamid | January 26, 2018 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    I also recently heard this story (~Jan. 6th or so). My comment is not about Channa J-W’s conclusion/theory. As others have commented, I don’t believe she intended to say anything that would undermine all the work she had done in producing this report. Her comments are probably easy to misinterpret.
    But my own comments are about some of the things I heard in this story, like that whole “program” that I think the State of NY (or was it a Federal program? not sure) had put together to have these under-privileged students receive full scholarships to attend some of the top, top private universities (Columbia, Harvard, etc.). She mentions several people from the Bronx school who went to these top universities and dropped out. And with that, naturally, a huge sense of failure and disappointment.
    While it might seem like it’s for a very good “cause” to have these scholarship programs, I wonder if these were part of some socio-psychological research studies to see if these kids would succeed or fail. (Sort of like the movie “Trading Places”.)
    Otherwise, I think it would have been far, far better to give these kids a full scholarship to go to a “State University”, where the classes are much easier, the students would feel much more comfortable, and have a much higher chance of success. While the teachers at the Bronx High School were very caring and devoted, chances are the school didn’t have good teaching materials and books, and these kids simply didn’t get “prepared” for university studies the same way as other high schools. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with their color, race, or national origin. It probably had a lot more to do with their “environment”.

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  1. […] who is doing the writing and representing of stories that feature nonwhite communities, check out this blog written about the Three Miles podcast. What do you think? were there some missteps made due […]

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