Tales of the young, gifted and flat broke

GROWING UP POOR: a literary anthology. Edited by Robert Coles and Randy Testa, with Michael Coles. The New Press pound;18.95

John was one of two black pupils chosen to transfer to a previously whites-only high school in the southern United States in the early Sixties, having volunteered to be a pioneer of desegregation - not because of the civil rights movement, but to impress his mates. His struggle to cope with racist abuse, isolation and academic pressure is chronicled by Robert Coles, co-editor of this fine anthology documenting the lives of America's poor and powerless.

John appears in an extract from Coles's Children of Crisis: a study of courage and fear, his 1967 collection of interviews with black and white high-school students about their experiences of desegregation, compiled while he was practising as a child psychiatrist.

Coles describes how John is changed for life by his two years in the white school. His first confrontation is with his parents, whose ability to challenge the system has been eroded by poverty as well as racism. "They wanted me to be glad I could walk on the sidewalk because they used to have to move into the gutter when a white man approached them. But I told them that once you walk on the sidewalk you look in at the windows of the stores and restaurants and you want to go there too. They said, maybe my children, and I said me."

Children of Crisis became a five-book series that won Coles the Pulitzer Prize. In the other 1960s extract here, from the Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers volume, he talks to Sally, from an Appalachian family in which seven children share four shoes, six gloves and a hard-drinking father. She reveals, he says, "a mixture of intelligence and hurt that are really inseparable"; having learned to expect no help from adults, she has worked out that whenever circumstances become unbearable, she can escape to the top of a hill near their cabin.

The fiction and non-fiction pieces have all been used with students on the "Literature of Social Reflection" course Coles teaches at Harvard. Many could be read to or with pupils but their main effect is to inspire and enrage anyone who works with young people.

They are mostly from the second half of the 20th century, around 45 per cent from the Nineties, so the overall sense is of immediacy rather than of a historical survey, and the feelings they evoke will translate seamlessly to the situations of UK children growing up poor. The overwhelming impression is of youthful despair turning to anger and resolve, even where voice is an adult's (as in Dorothy Allison's account of the long-term effects of her childhood in a poor, white southern community: "To resist destruction, self-hatred or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the 'they' that is talked about so dismissively").

Education is omnipresent in this volume, as a ticket out of poverty, and a source of further grief. Some pieces show the response of students living on the margins to the timeless conventions and rites of passage of US school life. "Show and Tell", by Andrew Lam, follows a Vietnamese refugee boy through his first few days in a US high school. Gary Soto's 1990 story "Mother and Daughter" captures the misery of a girl with no new dress for the prom. A Native American contributor, Sherman Alexie, valedictorian of his high school, gives a grade-by-grade report on his "Indian Education". An extract from Ralph Waldo Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man, sees a young black student (also valedictorian) end his graduation day by boxing for a scholarship.

In a witty parody of the multiple-choice test-paper format, Chicago high-school teacher Deborah Stern and her pupils compile an exam in which they will all get 100 per cent: a quiz on drug culture and street slang.

There are role models here too. Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navaho woman to qualify as a surgeon, describes her journey from reservation to Ivy League college and her attempts to balance her ambition with her culture's aversion to competition. Dean Torres, a high-school student in New York's Lower East Side, resolves in his recent essay, "Doing What it Takes to Survive", to "stay out of trouble by not hanging around negative people and not hanging in my neighborhood", having seen friends destroyed by drugs. Dean's appreciation of the new trees and benches in his housing project ("It didn't cost the government too much to make the people in my neighborhood feel a little better about their lives") enhances his argument that societies ignore poverty at their peril. Like all the contributors in this volume, he demands to be heard.

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