The Details of Life
"The right kind of investment," says the former CEO of a large corporation that sells toothpaste and detergent, "from conception to age 5, will pay back every dollar we spend at least four for one, plus interest, plus inflation. I don't know of a factory anybody can build that will give that kind of return." However intended, it seems a peculiar way to speak of children.
The trouble with this is that "investment values," whether in petroleum, in soy or in the children of poor people, rise and fall. What if a future generation of geneticists, economists or both should come to the conclusion that the children of St. Ann's don't offer a sufficient payoff to a corporation's bottom line to warrant serious investment? We hear the stirrings of such notions even now in writings that allude to IQ differentials between racial and religious subgroups of the population. The subgroup living in Mott Haven does not stand too high within these rankings. If investment value is the governing determination here, black and Hispanic boys and girls like Elio and Pineapple are certain to be given less of almost everything that can bring purpose or fulfillment to existence than the seemingly "more valuable" white and Asian children who get into schools like Stuyvesant, New York's most famous high school for the academic elite.
Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business. "A dollar spent on Head Start," they repeat time and again, "will save our government six dollars over twenty years" in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It's a point worth making if it's true, although it's hard to prove; and, still, it is a pretty dreadful way to have to think about 4-year-olds. The fact that such a program allows a child the size of Mariposa--one of the littlest children at St. Ann's and one of many in the neighborhood who suffer from chronic asthma--several hundred mornings with warmhearted people in a safe and friendly pastel-painted setting seems to be regarded as too "soft," too sentimental, to be mentioned in the course of these discussions. "We should invest in kids like these," we're told, "because it will be more expensive not to." Why does our natural compassion or religious inclination need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on? Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they're children and deserve to have some fun while they're still less than four feet high?
Or is the point here that we don't believe this? Sometimes it seems that "having fun" is seen as a luxurious entitlement that cannot be accorded to the child of a woman who relies on welfare lest it make dependent status too enjoyable. It seems at times that happiness itself is viewed as an extravagance and that our sole concerns in dealing with such children must be discipline, efficiency and future worth.
The problem is not only that low-income children are devalued by these mercantile criteria; childhood itself is also redefined. It ceases to hold value for its own sake but is valued only as a "necessary prologue" to utilitarian adulthood. The first ten, twelve or fifteen years of life are excavated of inherent moral worth in order to accommodate a regimen of basic training for the adult years that many of the poorest children may not even live to know. There is no reference to investing in the present--in the childhood of children--only in a later incarnation of the child as a "product" or "producer."
"We must start to think about these inner-city children as our future entry-level workers," we are told by business leaders as they forge their various alliances and partnerships with poorly funded urban schools. It's fair to ask why we are being urged to see "these" children in that quite specific way. Why are we to look at Elio and see a future entry-level worker rather than to see him, as we see our own kids, as perhaps a future doctor, dancer, artist, poet, priest, psychologist or teacher, or whatever else he might someday desire to be? Why not, for that matter, look at him and see the only thing he really is: a 7-year-old child? Mariposa is not simply thirty-seven pounds of raw material that wants a certain "processing" and "finishing" before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is 12 years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning.
St. Ann's runs an excellent afterschool and literacy program for approximately eighty children. Civic leaders from the downtown business world stop by at times to meet the children and for conversations with the priest. They often get more than they bargained for.
Mother Martha is a fearless woman who speaks truth to power and does not allow her strong political beliefs to be subdued or suffocated by the pretense of civility so common in the upper reaches of the press and power structure in New York. She cuts right through the philanthropic piety of many visitors. "Charity is not a substitute for justice," she says frequently. She's unsparing also in her reference to the seemingly eternalized apartheid of New York--99.8 percent of children in the schools that serve this neighborhood are black or brown, and she does not let visitors forget this. Even the most tough-minded CEOs look shaken sometimes after they have talked with her.
But the presence and the sheer vitality of all these children have a powerful effect upon the visitors as well. Once they're here, it seems, their ideologies disintegrate. An intimate reality does often have this power to collapse or modify belief. Nobody seems to want to advocate a "lean and mean" approach to public services for children while they're sitting in the chapel of St. Ann's with Elio or being drilled with questions by Pineapple.