Off the shelf

8th August 1997 at 01:00
In one of my favourite poems, "Youth and Love" Robert Louis Stevenson saw youth as an optimistic highway where, "on either hand, deep in the gardens, Golden pavilions hide, nestle in orchard bloom,

And far on the level land, call him with lighted lamp In the eventide"

If we are honest, though, we know it was never really like that at the time. Why, otherwise, are an estimated 20,000 young people a year admitted to hospital as the result of deliberate self-injury or self-poisoning? Why do more than 4 per cent of 14-year-olds fear being bullied at school? Why are 15 per cent of young people not content with their lives? Is it all to do with sex? (a quarter of young people have intercourse before 16. More than eight girls in every 1,000 under 15 become pregnant). Or drugs? (45 per cent of young people have been offered drugs. 65 per cent know someone who uses them).

These thoughts are inspired by - and the figures taken from - Key Data on Adolescence by John Coleman (Trust for the Study of Adolescence Pounds 14.99 plus Pounds 1.50 postage from the Trust at 23 New Road, Brighton BN1 1WZ). It is a fascinating document which achieves just the right balance between statistical detail and comment. There are chapters called Families, Education and Training, Physical, Sexual and Mental Health, and Crime. This is what you need to reinforce your own arguments and to demolish the prejudices of others.

Someone who gave real hope and opportunity to underprivileged adolescents was Ruth Wright Hayre. A black woman from America's South, she had a distinguished career in education as teacher, principal and president of the Philadelphia Board of Education. Then, in 1988, at the age of 72, as she presented the awards at a Philadelphia elementary school named after her grandfather, Richard Robert Wright, she made a remarkable announcement. "That day I promised 116 sixth grade graduates from two schools in the city's toughest neighbourhoods that when they completed high school I would pay their college tuition. "

It was a magnificent gesture, the culmination of all that Ruth Wright Hayre had worked for and believed in, inspired by the work of her grandfather and by the dream which her father had had for her. She called her boys and girls "Risers" after her grandfather's famous message to the Northern states - "Sir, tell them we are rising."

There were failures and disappointments in the "Risers" programme of course, but there were also many inspirational successes. It is a superb, authentically American tale which, at the age of 83, she has now told, with Alexis Moore in Tell Them We are Rising (Wiley Pounds 19.99).

I could not find Ruth Wright Hayre in Peter Gordon and Richard Aldrich's Biographical Dictionary of North American and European Educationists (Woburn Press Pounds 47.50 hardback, Pounds 22.50 paperback) which seemed a pity until I realised that all of the 500 entries allude to people who are dead, which does at least give many contributors to The TES something to look forward to.

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