Transcript

364:

Going Big
Transcript

Originally aired 09.26.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/364

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In every low-income neighborhood in every city in the United States, there are people trying to make things better. Ministers, teachers, social workers. If you have one of those jobs, sometimes the best way to get through each day is to think small. Get this one parent off drugs. Get this one kid through the school year. Deal with stuff you can actually fix. But Geoffrey Canada grew up poor in the South Bronx raised by a single mom on welfare. Somehow he managed to make it out of the neighborhood to a good college in Maine, then off to Harvard.

But he wanted to help kids like the ones he'd grown up with. So he came back to New York City, took over a community organization in Harlem. This group did a really good job. They helped a lot of kids stay in school, keep out of trouble. But after a decade in this job, Geoffrey Canada started to get frustrated. Things were getting worse in Harlem. Fewer kids were graduating high school. Incarceration rates were rising, poverty was on the rise. And that's when he decided to make a change and go big.

Today on our radio show, we have three stories of people deciding that they are going to pull out all the stops. They're going to go to extreme, audacious lengths. They're going to do things that not only have they never heard of, I think nobody's ever heard of, for their communities, for their families, for the people they care for. It is This American Life, by the way, from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. In Act two of today's show, we have somebody going to really absurd lengths-- I think I can say that-- to win over a woman. In Act three, we have a daughter reaching out to her mom using means I believe anyone would find extraordinary. And let's get right to it.

Act One. Harlem Renaissance.

Ira Glass

Act one, an act that we're calling Harlem Renaissance, we have the story of Geoffrey Canada and what happened when he decided to go big. Paul Tough tells that story.

Paul Tough

The thing that changed Geoffrey Canada's thinking about the best way to help poor children was having a child of his own. This was 10 years ago, when he was in his mid-40s. It wasn't his first time being a father. That was a whole generation earlier, when he was still in college, a poor kid from a rough neighborhood on scholarship. That first marriage didn't last long, but in his early 40s, he remarried. And a couple of years later, he and his new wife had a son they named Geoffrey Jr.

Things were a lot different in his second go-around as a dad. He was no longer a struggling young father trying to make ends meet. He was now a well-educated, upper middle class guy living in a big home in the suburbs, surrounded by trees and lawns and golf courses. His life had changed in the 25 years since his first child was born. And he found out that parenting had changed too, for his neighbors at least. There was a ton of new research on the importance of stimulating your child's brain early on. And apparently every parent in the suburbs had heard about these studies because they were obsessed with preparing their infants. Baby Einstein tapes, flash cards, brain-building toys. Everyone was doing it.

Geoffrey Canada

I just found it fascinating that since I had raised my first children, the amount of information about what we should be doing in that period of time was really quite staggering. And I thought I was a pretty good parent in the early years. But now I'm looking and thinking I was not a great parent at all if you really looked at what they said is happening in a child's developmental process between zero and three. And I found that Yvonne, my wife, and I were spending all kinds of time thinking about how to get little Geoffrey prepared for the world he was going to inherit when he became a grown man.

Paul Tough

And Geoff started to think, well, if he was overwhelmed by all this new information, what about the parents he was working with in Harlem? He turned to his staff at the organization he ran and asked them to canvas the neighborhood and find out what this new parenting revolution looked like from the streets of Harlem.

Geoffrey Canada

There was nothing. We couldn't find one place that was teaching anything to children zero to three. And it suddenly struck me that places like Central Harlem are often left out of the science around youth development. All of us were just absorbing this. It was in magazines and on TV and on the radio. Everybody was saying, oh, yeah yeah yeah. I've got to be thinking about this child's brain. At the same time, it was skipping by Central Harlem.

Paul Tough

During this same period, Geoff's thinking was evolving in another way as well. After so many years of frustration, of saving one kid and watching 10 more slip through his fingers, he begin to wonder. What if instead of reaching 5% or 10% of the kids in Harlem, he could reach 40 or 50 or 60% of them? Maybe there was a tipping point where the whole culture of the neighborhood would start to change, where teenage pregnancy and going to prison and dropping out would be considered strange behaviors, instead of something you just expect, the normal course of events. So with all these ideas in his head, he went before his board of directors and said we have to rethink everything.

Geoffrey Canada

In order to truly make a difference, in order to change the outcome for this community, to end the generational poverty, saving 500 kids, 1,000 kids, 1,500 kids simply was not going to make a difference. We were going to have to operate in a really different way. We had to really think big. So we were going to have to work with children in the thousands and going to 10,000 children. But we also were going to have to work with children starting from birth right through until they graduated from college.

Man

We're about to get started. You see staff around the room with green shirts on. First, I'd like to introduce to you the Assistant Director of Baby College, Mr. Abasi Clark.

Paul Tough

I'm in a cafeteria in a Central Harlem elementary school, surveying what, 10 years later, Geoffrey Canada's vision has become-- an organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. A program unlike anything else in the country. It represents a complete rethinking of the way we've been dealing with urban poverty. The scope of Geoff's ambition is huge, to reach almost every child living in 97 inner-city blocks in Central Harlem, 10,000 kids in all, and make sure they all graduate from high school and get through college. To give you a sense of what that means, 10 years ago, only a little more than half the kids in Harlem even finished high school.

To make this happen, he's grown his organization to 10 times its original size, built a comprehensive system of integrated services, going from cradle to college. There are two charter schools, a health clinic, a family counseling center, even a farmer's market and free tax preparation. But first, he's concluded, he needs to get Harlem's parents on board. He wants them to rethink how to raise their kids, to show them what middle class parents are doing. And that starts right here in Baby College.

Woman

All right. One, two, three. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.

Paul Tough

Scientists have concluded that the most effective time to intervene in the lives of poor kids is between the ages of zero and three, when the only people who can really give that help are the parents. And so for the last two months, a full-time team of 15 outreach workers has been roaming the streets of Harlem, going door to door in housing projects and stopping random pregnant women at the supermarket or on the subway, grabbing anyone pushing a stroller, trying to persuade them to give up nine Saturday mornings in a row to take classes on how to be a better parent.

Woman

--know it, shout hooray. Hooray! If you're happy and you know it, shout hooray. Hooray!

Paul Tough

The idea of trying to mess around in the private life of a disadvantaged family is one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It's essentially telling poor parents that there's a better way to raise your kids, and we're going to tell you how. But somehow, that's not what it feels like at Baby College. It feels like a conversation, like we're on your side. Like it'll be fun.

Woman

Hooray!

Man

Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Listen, listen. Usually I don't do this, but it's the first week, and I'm feeling good. I'm happy to see all you parents out today in this hot weather. So we're going to have some fun, just a little bit of fun, real quick.

Paul Tough

For the last five years, I've been writing a book about Geoffrey Canada's effort to go big. I spent this summer with the parents in Baby College. For most of these kids, if everything goes according to Geoffrey Canada's plan, this will be the beginning of a lifetime of involvement with the Harlem Children's Zone. And it's Baby College that sets the whole thing in motion, and in the process, challenges many assumptions about what is and isn't possible for a social program to tackle.

Man

[BEAT BOXING] Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

Paul Tough

After five years of reporting, I've come to believe, as Geoffrey Canada does, that there is a solution to poverty in America. And on this morning anyway, that solution sounds something like this.

Man

[BEAT BOXING]

Class

If you're happy and you know it, stomp your feet. If you're happy and you know it, stomp your feet. If you're happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you're happy and you know it, stomp your feet. If you're happy and you know it--

Hassan

Good morning. How are you all feeling today? Good? Does everyone have their binder with them today?

Paul Tough

In a classroom down the hall from the cafeteria, a dozen expecting parents are sitting in a half circle, perched on those hard little elementary school chairs. They're listening to their instructor, Hassan. Today's class is all about brain development. And Hassan is talking about all the ways that parents can help their children's brains to grow-- singing songs, playing games, talking, and most importantly, reading to them.

Hassan

The more you introduce language to them, the more they grab it. So at their earliest ages, your child has a brain capacity that's way past where we are.

Paul Tough

A lot of what gets taught in Baby College-- that you should read to your kid every night, use timeouts instead of corporal punishment-- is the stuff that Geoffrey Canada discovered in the suburbs. Knowledge that over the last couple of decades has made its way into pretty much every middle and upper middle class home in America, but barely penetrated low-income neighborhoods like Harlem.

Hassan

The only way that they can be acquainted with all of that is that you are doing that. And that starts now.

Paul Tough

There's lots of science to back up what Hassan is saying. One research project that underlies everything that happens in Baby College was done in the 1980s in Kansas City. A pair of psychologists did a closeup study of two sets of families. One group, in which the parents were on welfare, and another, in which the parents held professional jobs.

It turned out that the biggest difference between the two sets of homes was language. The kids with the professional parents heard 20 million more words in the first three years of their lives than the kids on welfare, mostly just the regular jabber-jabber of parents talking to their children. And those extra words had a huge effect on their verbal ability. It was stunning news that the biggest factor in determining a child's later success in school wasn't any of the things we always assumed to be true. It wasn't money. It wasn't parental education. It wasn't race. It was the sheer number of words your parents spoke to you as a child. Among scholars who study inequality, there is more and more evidence out there that the divide between the kids who make it and the kids who don't starts in the very first years of life. The researcher who has done the best job of pulling all this together is a man named James Heckman.

James Heckman

Well, like many economists and students, really, of the American labor market, one is always interested in why some people earn more and do better in the labor market, do better in life than others.

Paul Tough

Heckman is an economist at the University of Chicago. In the early '90s, he was hired to study some government programs aimed at adolescents from poor neighborhoods-- all the traditional solutions to poverty we've been using for the last 40 years. Things like job training, GED programs, programs for dropouts. And much to his surprise, he found that none of these programs were actually working. Job training was supposed to be the solution to welfare. But Heckman found that for the young adults he was studying, it wasn't doing any good at all.

The premise behind job training is that young people who can't find a good job are just missing one particular skill or body of knowledge. Teach them that and they'll be fine. What Heckman found is that the people in these programs had a much bigger problem. There were some very basic skills and abilities that they had never learned. And it was hard for them to absorb anything new without those skills. Things like--

James Heckman

--the ability to communicate, to solve simple mathematical puzzles, and to understand how to even read the newspaper. As well as the non-cognitive-- self control, motivation, ability to get out of the bed, to show up at work on time, to engage and be open to ideas. These traits were in very serious short supply for individuals that I was looking at, the disadvantaged. And so I came to ask the question, how is it that these skills get formed?

Paul Tough

As Heckman continued his research, he discovered some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that if kids don't get these very basic skills pretty early in life, ideally before reaching kindergarten, then those skills become harder and harder to acquire. If you haven't achieved basic reading fluency by eight or nine or 10, it's very hard to learn after that.

And if by adolescence you haven't learned those non-cognitive skills like patience and self control, the odds are stacked against you ever learning those. But the good news was that the reverse was also true. If you can get to a poor child early on, in the first few years of life, even small interventions can have huge effects.

Mother 1

Discipline is always a big to-do.

Paul Tough

In the course of writing my book, I went through Baby College a few times. And every time, the discipline classes were the most intense. And they were the hardest sell with the parents. That language study that discovered that well-off kids hear 20 million more words than poor kids before age three also found that the kind of language poor kids hear is different. The researchers counted the number of encouraging and discouraging remarks that children heard from their parents. And the difference between the two groups was staggering.

By age three, a child of professionals hears about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. A child of parents on welfare hears almost the exact opposite, just 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. According to the scientists who study this stuff, physical and verbal punishment has a huge effect on a child's emotional development, and on cognitive development too. For most parents in Baby College, though, these were pretty foreign ideas.

Dominique

What other ways can you-- oh, now let me see. One, two, three, four. Give me another one for ways to handle discipline.

Paul Tough

Dominique's class is for parents of children under a year old. The kids are all sitting on the carpet in the middle of a circle of chairs, playing with blocks and rattles. And the kids don't know it, but Dominique is hard at work trying to keep them from getting hit, smacked, or popped by their parents, who are all sitting in a circle around the outside of the classroom. Dominique wants the parents to talk about alternatives to corporal punishment, like negotiating, timeouts, talking to a child. The parents don't seem all that convinced. One mother speaks up and says Dominique has forgotten to mention her favorite kind of discipline.

Mother 2

Old-fashioned discipline. [SMACK]

Paul Tough

She pantomimes giving a child a smack. There's a feeling in the room that if the only tool you have to deal with your kid's acting up is to talk to them and just tell them to be good, they'll misbehave like crazy. As one mother puts it, for some children, sometimes you've just got to pop them.

Dominique

And popping them, you think, is going to stop that behavior for now. But what about later on? You're going to have to keep popping them?

Mother 3

No.

Geoffrey Canada

Well, here is, what I think, is one of the things that frustrates a lot of us who live in and work in really poor communities.

Paul Tough

Again, Geoff Canada.

Geoffrey Canada

People telling kids sit down, shut up, get over here. Don't you make me come over there and get you. Do you hear me? And you just listen. That's a two-year-old you're talking to. Who talks to a two-year-old like that? Lots of people who really believe the parent's job is to make this child listen and become passive, so the child does whatever you want. A lot of our parents really believe that a child that looks like this is really a good child. And so you see all of this energy put into shutting a child down without the realization that that is how children's brains develop. A child's brain develops through exploring their world.

Paul Tough

It's counterintuitive for many parents, this idea that a good kid isn't necessarily a quiet, well-behaved kid. So it isn't easy to convince them that this different style of parenting might actually work. But it's one of the amazing things about Baby College. You can actually see parents change their minds as the nine weeks go on. One young mother in the class speaks up and says that she's actually having second thoughts about popping her kids, the way she's done until now.

Mother 4

Let me tell you something. Now he thinks he's grown. Now he thinks he can hit his brother when his brother behaves bad.

Dominique

And why do you think--

Mother 4

He'll stand there and he'll go, come here, Chris. Come here. Let's go, let's go. I'm like, oh, wow.

Dominique

So wait a minute. Why do you think he's doing that?

Mother 4

Because I-- that doesn't work. He hits back now.

Dominique

Unfortunately that's what you've taught him.

Mother 4

Yeah.

Paul Tough

This idea that the habits of a parent are passed on to the child is not lost on anyone in the classroom. A lot of the parents are worried about imitating their own parents' behavior. Like this mother, Taisha, who said her mother's favorite form of communication is yelling.

Taisha

And I'm like, talk to me. If you don't like something I did in the house as far as chores, tell me so I can correct it. But she doesn't talk. Like, when I was younger, she'd smoke cigarettes. I used to wish she would just smoke a cigarette after she starts yelling because that's when she'd calm down. So I'm like six years old, like, I hope she picks up that cigarette because I'm tired of hearing her mouth. Thinking about it now, that is crazy. I would not want my son to be thinking, oh ma, pick up that cigarette or that bottle of liquor because I'm tired of hearing your mouth. I have to do it a different way. I have--

Dominique

So what other ways are some of the ways you do it now, as a parent?

Taisha

As a parent, I haven't hit my son. Me and his father joke around, like, oh, we're going to have to hit this little boy. But I was like, let's try it the Baby College way. Let's see how this goes for a day. If their motives may not work, maybe I'll put a little of my stuff in it. But it has been working. It's tiring to keep doing the same thing over and over and over.

Paul Tough

Academics and scholars who study poor communities often talk about the cycle of poverty. And when I sat down outside of class with Taisha, I realized that she saw herself the way the academics did, as a statistic.

Taisha

I feel like I'm a statistic because I had a son, I was pregnant at 19. My mother was a young mother, was pregnant at 15. And I feel like every time I hold back another semester of college, it's like I'm never going to make it there. I was supposed to be the one to break that cycle. I was supposed to be the one doing right.

Paul Tough

Taisha is 20. And she and her boyfriend [? Rossi ?] have a 10-month-old son named [? Rahsaan ?]. After class I talked with them for a while to try to get a sense of how much of a difference Baby College might make in their lives. They met in high school, it turned out. Taisha was one of the best students in her class. [? Rossi ?] was mostly interested in playing basketball. But when he started falling for Taisha, he knew he needed to pull up his grades to win her heart, so he hit the books. And when he graduated, he had a B average and a steady girlfriend. Taisha started college that fall. And then in December, she found out she was pregnant.

Taisha

We initially planned to have an abortion. Well, I planned to have the abortion.

Rossi

I actually started crying when we were in the hospital, when she was about to get the abortion. So it was a hard decision.

Paul Tough

Wow, so you were that close? You were in the--

Taisha

Yeah. I already convinced myself, like, this is what I'm going to do. Just go away for college and leave this in the past, leave [? Rossi ?] is the past, forget about it. But when I saw him crying, that broke me down. So I was like like, oh my God. I'm just going to do this.

Paul Tough

But the decision didn't make her feel any better. She stayed depressed, didn't know what to do, fought with [? Rossi. ?] And then last spring, Taisha read about Baby College on a poster that an outreach worker had taped up in the lobby of the housing project where she was staying with her aunt. [? Rossi ?] agreed to come with her that first day, but he figured he'd just sit in the back and be a spectator. To his surprise, though, he ended up finding a lot of the information that first day really helpful. And he hasn't missed a class since.

Rossi

It actually made our bond stronger with us. But it also gave us a greater bond with [? Rahsaan. ?] Just go back and tell him that, oh, you were in the Baby College when you were 10 months, seven months old. And we did that together as a family. I feel good about going there. I feel proud, actually, just doing this.

Taisha

Yeah, I'm proud. When I go to work, I say I just came from Baby College. I am better as a parent, if I wasn't already. It just added on to it. I read to him every single night. Every night he gets a bath since he was born. But now, I read to him every night, about two to three books a night. Two to three books a night, even when I'm tired. They obviously convinced me that it works. And I see that he's able to sit there and actually just listen to me reading a story and get amazed at the pictures and the faces. And even if it's the same book being read to him over and over, he still has this excitement because it seems like it's something new every night, even if it's the same book. It's like, oh my God, is she reading a book again? Yes. You know?

Paul Tough

When Taisha was growing up, she knew she wanted to have a different kind of life. But she didn't have anyone around her to show her what that looked like. Well, there was one family.

Taisha

The Huxtables.

Paul Tough

It was watching The Cosby Show when she was a kid that gave Taisha an alternate vision for what her life might be like.

Taisha

This family, they had a family in a brownstone, a townhouse. And the kids went to college and they had other kids. And I want that. And being that I didn't see that around too much, I'm like, everybody's doing this. And it's not helping them. So let me try another path and see where can that take me? And if I can achieve what I'm seeing on TV, if it is achievable.

Paul Tough

For most middle class kids, the path that Taisha struggled to find is so straight and well-paved that they barely even notice it's there. Geoffrey Canada knows that he probably won't be able to create a Cosby Show environment for Taisha's son [? Rahsaan ?] or for any of the thousands of other kids in his programs. But he thinks that with the help of Taisha and [? Rossi ?], he can create a pretty good substitute. It's kind of a revolutionary idea. For years, we've been trying to improve the lives of poor children by improving the lives of their parents. Getting the parents better jobs or more money or better housing.

But Geoff is saying that we may be able to counter many of the effects of poverty on children without actually lifting their parents out of poverty. Just focus on the kids, get them through college, and then they can lift themselves out of poverty. The thing he invented to do this he calls the conveyor belt. In a couple of years, [? Rahsaan ?] will be eligible for the early lottery to get into one of the charter schools that the Harlem Children's Zone runs. If he gets in, his parents will have an opportunity to go through a more advanced parenting program called The Three-Year-Old Journey. The following year, [? Rahsaan ?] will have a guaranteed spot in Harlem Gems, the all-day prekindergarten.

Then he'll start school. And he can stay in the same school all the way to college, with plenty of after-school programs and social supports along the way. When he graduates from high school, [? Rahsaan ?] should have in front of him the kind of opportunities that very few kids used to have in Harlem, even if his parents never managed to turn into the Huxtables. But when I sat down with Geoff to discuss [? Rossi ?] and Taisha and their young son [? Rahsaan, ?] I realized that although Geoff is committed to his choice, save the kids rather than the parents, it still involves some painful trade-offs for him.

Geoffrey Canada

It is probably one of the tougher decisions that I have made. But our choice is to focus on [? Rahsaan. ?] What we want to do is allow, I think, this child to have an opportunity not to repeat this same set of behaviors, meaning that he ends up getting someone pregnant and having to drop out of college to take care of them. And then you end up with the same cycle going over and over and over again.

Paul Tough

It's hard, when you're just 19 or 20, to accept the idea that you're not the one who's going to make it out of poverty, that instead, your job is to make sure your kid makes it out. Taisha, especially, really struggles with that idea. Her Cosby Show dream seemed so close just a couple of years ago. But [? Rossi ?] and Taisha both say that the most important thing is to make sure the cycle that they're caught in doesn't claim [? Rahsaan ?] too.

Rossi

I want to break the cycle. And I want to start our own. And so he'll know that when he has his own kids that, oh, my parents were there for me. So I'm going to be there for my kids, and so forth and so forth. So it's basically starting our own generation.

Geoffrey Canada

Well, if you can tell a parent, no no, you are getting that child ready right now. And this kid is actually going to have-- I know you don't have anything. And you don't have any money. I know you're worried about where the rent's going to come from. I know you're worried about, are you going to be able to provide for your child? Can you keep a roof over their head? But read to that child tonight. Just read to this child today. Just allow them an opportunity. You're doing as much for your child as that person in that nice, big house that you envy is doing for their child. As parents, you're exactly the same.

Rossi

I didn't read that much when I was younger. I watched a lot of TV. And we don't really let him watch TV like that. Maybe he watches Noggin when he gets home until it's time for him to go to bed. But if we read to him, he's going to start reading by himself. Just some little things like that, that just gets him adjusted so he could be better off.

Geoffrey Canada

If we can get this right for him, [? Rahsaan ?], and his generations that come from this point on, will have a totally different life. And he'll be going to that family reunion as a 28-year-old thinking, there's my mom and dad. And they really struggled. And they had it rough. But look how my life has been, and the life of my own children, which is what I think we're trying to do.

Paul Tough

I feel like there are some times you can look at everything that has to happen in a poor child's life to get them to successful outcomes. And you can just say, it's just enormous. There's just a ton of work that has to be done. But then there's other days where I feel I can look at it and feel the opposite. And feel like if you just read to your kid, just a couple little things are going to make a difference. And I'm wondering which way do you tend to look at it? Do you tend to be surprised at how easy it is, or tend to be surprised by how hard it is?

Geoffrey Canada

I am always surprised by how easy it is. It is not like decoding the human genome. You actually don't need eight supercomputers to do this. It takes people to really focus and concentrate. And I am always stunned-- well, how is it no one knows this? The reason it seems so incredibly difficult is that so few people have actually learned how to do it.

Paul Tough

All the experts I interviewed for this story, and for my book, told me the same thing. It's much easier than people think. And so far, Geoff's efforts bear that out. The experiment is working. Think of what that means. For decades, we've thought that raising large numbers of kids out of poverty was basically impossible, that the best we could possibly hope to do was to pluck a few over-achievers out of the ghetto and airlift them into the middle class. But it turns out the only reason we thought it was so impossible to pull off was because we were doing it wrong.

Here's the data. Last year, the first group of kids in Geoff Canada's charter school made it to third grade, where they took their first New York state achievement tests. The results were astonishing. The class was all poor and African American, most in single-parent homes, some with parents who had been teenage mothers or high school dropouts or had trouble with the law. And they had reading scores above the New York City average. Their math scores were phenomenal, more than 95% of them on grade level. And these are kids who got to kindergarten before the conveyor belt was fully constructed. Most of them didn't attend the pre-kindergarten and their parents didn't go to Baby College.

But the kids entering kindergarten now have been with the program since birth. They've been on the conveyor belt their whole lives. Which is why Geoff says that his best work is still to come. When these kids get to third grade, he says, look out. It's one of those things where it seems impossible until you see it done. It's not like we don't know how to raise a kid to succeed. We do it all the time in middle class neighborhoods. All it would take for things to change in Harlem is for us to decide that we want to do for kids there what we do for kids everywhere else.

Ira Glass

Paul Tough. He's one of the original editors of our radio show. His book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone is called Whatever It Takes. It just came out in paperback with a new afterword updating the story. And a lot has happened in that update. For starters, back when Barack Obama was running for president, he praised the Harlem Children's Zone for saving a generation of children up in Harlem.

Barack Obama

There's no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem. And that's why when I'm President of the United States of America, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country.

Ira Glass

As president, he's trying to follow through, calling his program Promise Neighborhoods, and he is is targeting 20 cities with an initial investment of $10 million for planning grants and feasibility studies. If Congress approves his 2010 budget, the first planning grants could go out as early as this fall.

Coming up, when the most romantic possible thing you can do is also the least romantic possible thing you can do. That's from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Lonely Hearts Club Band...Of One.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Going Big. Stories of people going full out, pulling out all the stops for those they care for. We have arrived at Act Two, Lonely Hearts Club Band... of One.

Not long ago, a musician named David Berkeley got a call from his booking agent, asking if he wanted to take a job that would be unlike any concert he had ever played. Berkeley is a singer-songwriter on the indie music circuit. He gets showcased at South by Southwest. He's toured with Rufus Wainwright and Billy Bragg and Ben Folds, people like that. And though he has played tons of shows all over the country, this one was different. He would fly to San Diego and play inside an apartment for just two people. And his goal would be to reunite the two as a couple.

Now of course, most songwriters want to believe their music has the power to move people's hearts. But rarely does anybody test just how far that goes in such a clear-cut goal-oriented way. The guy in this couple wanted to be together. The woman, apparently, did not. Could David Berkeley sing them back together? Could this work? He wanted to believe it could.

David Berkeley

He had sent me a long email with the battle plan, which the more I read, the more absurd it seemed. The couple had either met at one of my concerts in California, or their first date. I think their first date was at one of my concerts. And he was going to do everything he could to get her back. And I think that he decided that one huge gesture was probably what it would take. And so he planned this night from start to finish, which included going to their favorite restaurant and the wine that they were going to order. And then the culmination was going to be the nightcap in their apartment, where I was going to pop through the door and sing them their concert.

And then he just gave me the plan for how I was going to sneak into the apartment without them knowing, and how I was going to have to actually sneak into the garage. Which literally involved me following a car in. And trying to get through the gate before the gate closed, and then up a back elevator onto the eighth floor, where I would then knock on his apartment door.

Ira Glass

Not to ask a dumb question, but couldn't he just send you a key?

David Berkeley

Yeah, I guess that didn't cross his or my mind. But yeah, he should have. And I was actually nervous. I play a lot of concerts, and rarely have I been nervous like this. And I guess it was because I had no idea what I was walking into. And I was about to knock on the door. And I started to think about, what is she going to do when I walk in? And I guess I expected that she was, despite feeling like things weren't going well, I thought she was going to be really excited to see me. And she would, I don't know what. She would give me a hug, or she would laugh, or something like that.

And in fact, I opened the door and she just sort of crumpled. She sort of collapsed. Her head fell into her hands. And I think she might have said, I can't believe you did this. He shouldn't have done this. And it was hard for me, at this point, not to take that a little personally. Because without knowing it, I had kind of joined sides with this guy. I was on his team. We were coming in to do a job.

Ira Glass

OK, so what do you do?

David Berkeley

I think I said something like, hi. I thought I might play you a few songs. And it just felt gross. Why was I even here? And the guy asked me if I wanted to sit or stand. Which I normally stand when I perform, but that seemed completely absurd to me, that I was going to stand and perform to these two people in their living room. So I said I would sit. And he pulled a chair up for me. And I was across a small coffee table from them. And they sat down on the couch. And I sat down on my chair. And I started to play.

Ira Glass

And so they're on the couch. And are they sitting close together?

David Berkeley

God, no. I think it was just a three-cushion couch and they were on the left and the right cushions. And there was a big cushion in between.

Ira Glass

Now, you have your guitar there. You and I are speaking to each other from different locations. Do you want to just play a couple lines of the song so we have a sense of what this was?

David Berkeley

Let me just tune real quick. OK.

[PLAYING GUITAR]

And I should stop right there. Because I got about that far in the song and glanced up. And that was enough for her to recognize the song and she started to cry, which wasn't what I had hoped would happen.

[PLAYING GUITAR AND SINGING] A couple on a bridge, a stone bridge in some European town. And after all the years, I see we all fall down. The knock at the front door, the crack in the wall. [END SINGING]

And right when I sang that part of the chorus-- the knock on the front door-- it seemed like suddenly I was actually singing a song that was the story of this night.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah. This is a song about a couple for whom things are not going very well.

David Berkeley

Yeah. And why I didn't know that and think about that before I started to play it, I don't know. But it was too late. And this happens, at times, in a performance where you recognize you've made the wrong choice of a song. And you can never really go back. I had to just barrel through.

Ira Glass

And so where do you go? What do you play next? What do you do?

David Berkeley

Well, I think I played a song that was a story song that was more lighthearted. And I got through that. But the night wasn't getting any easier. And also you have to understand that after a song finishes, two people clapping a couple of times after you finish a song sounds really, really depressing.

Ira Glass

I guess I didn't really stop to think about the fact that the song would end and they would either have to clap or not.

David Berkeley

Well, that's why this was so weird. The time in between the songs became as painful as the songs themselves.

Ira Glass

And so what do you do to try to turn the situation around?

David Berkeley

Well, let me first say that as I'm singing that song, right after I sang the first lyric, I regretted the choice. And I started thinking ahead. And when I started racing through, in my mind, the other songs that I was going to be able to play this night, I started to get really scared. Because I realized that not only might it not have been a good idea to hire a musician to come across the country and sing to get back your girl, but I was probably the wrong musician to have hired.

Ira Glass

Because of your melancholic--

David Berkeley

Exactly.

Ira Glass

--repertoire.

David Berkeley

Exactly. And he knew this, because he knows my music. So maybe on the third or fourth song I played, the song "Straw Man," which is one of the ones that he had asked for-- and I'll play a little bit of it.

[GUITAR PLAYING AND SINGING] Never quite so clean. She makes the world around me seem lavender and winter green. When we're side by side. [END SINGING]

And that chorus repeats several times. And after about the second chorus, I looked up. And I felt like she softened a little bit. And it seemed like the song was doing a little bit more of its job. And by the end of the song, it really did feel like it had changed something in the room. And she was sitting up a little straighter, maybe. And she was looking at me more. And I even saw her look at him a little and give a little smile. And that was a tiny gesture, but it was so good to see.

Ira Glass

And so from there, was it better?

David Berkeley

Well, so then we got on a little bit of a roll. But with each song-- and even smaller increments, with each verse-- it seemed like they were symbolically and literally moving closer together. And in fact, by maybe song five or six, they actually were sitting next to each other. And I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I really didn't think there was any chance, and certainly from the beginning of the night until that point, there seemed like there was zero chance. But they started holding hands. And at one point in a song, she lay her head on his shoulder.

So it's working. And I play a song thaT-- actually, they kiss. And that was a shock. And at that point, I thought this is it. We've done it. I wanted to slap the guy's hand. I felt great. But the mood had changed, but it was still painfully awkward. And if anything, more so now. Because I was now right across the coffee table from a couple who's making out as I'm singing. And now it felt totally wrong that I was there, just for different reasons. At one point they kissed and I locked eyes with her, right as they're kissing. And we both looked away immediately. But it happened.

And at one point, he and I met eyes at just a really badly-timed moment, where he was giving her one of these looks like, I'm your man. And I will be there for you forever. And we'll have beautiful children together. And there I am, and he and I are looking at each other suddenly for a second, but a very, very bad second of my life.

Ira Glass

So things move from horrible to exuberant to straight out creepy, it sounds like.

David Berkeley

I think that's fair. But at least what I'm singing, I can just get lost in the fact that the music is sort of working for them. And so as I finish the concert, she hugs me and he walks me out of the apartment and down into the elevator. I get to take the main elevator down this time. And he tells me something to the effect of, you never know how things are going to work out. But I think that you may have been the tipping point tonight. And that felt great. I was so happy.

Ira Glass

Right. Your music brought these people together.

David Berkeley

Brought them together in the first place, maybe, brought them back together now. It was perfect. Even when I had tried to serenade ex-girlfriends to get them back, directly, that hadn't worked.

Ira Glass

A few months after all this, David Berkeley was back in California, doing a show in Los Angeles. And the guy emailed him, asking if David would give him two spots on the guest list. But the guy did not bring the girl. He came with a buddy. And he told David afterwards that things didn't work out. Incredibly, David says that he would do this all over again if somebody else asked him to do it. And as for the guy--

Ira Glass

OK, after this failure, would he try another concert in his apartment?

David Berkeley

I know he would. And, in fact, I know that he would do it again with me, because he's made that clear.

Ira Glass

What?

David Berkeley

He's made it clear that if he has another girl, he hopes the situation will arise where he can have me come and do another serenade.

Ira Glass

But wait, would you go?

David Berkeley

What would be funny is that my exclusive knowledge of him is related to this other episode that we wouldn't be able to talk about, this other girl where I did the same thing. And of course, the new girl isn't going to want to know about the old girl, and is certainly not going to want to know that he did the same trick.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I was just thinking that. It definitely takes the romantic idealism off the whole thing.

David Berkeley

Yeah. Then it starts to get bizarre in a whole other way. Because now I'm sort of his guy. And I'm not sure about that.

Ira Glass

David Berkeley. His newest album is called Strange Light. Marshall Lewy helped us produce that story.

[MUSIC - "ISN'T IT ROMANTIC" BY ELLA FITZGERALD]

Act Three. Prisoner Of The Heart.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Prisoner of the Heart. So we've had parents in Harlem going all out to change the lives of their kids. We've had a guy going all out to get a girl. Now in this act, we have a daughter who goes all out, goes as far as anybody possibly could to get close to her mom. Douglas McGray tells the story.

Douglas McGray

21 years ago, Daisy Benson brought a gun to an argument. She says she didn't mean to shoot, and that may be true. But you bring a gun to an argument, a lot can go wrong. Daisy was convicted of murder, given 15 to life, and sent away to prison hundreds of miles from her home, a small, poor town in Northern California. Seven years later, her family saved up enough to visit. That's when her daughter Robin, she was in her 20s at the time, hatched a plan that sounded so crazy when Daisy first told me about it, I thought, this can't be true. But then I tracked down Robin, and they both remember it starting exactly the same way. Here's Daisy, then Robin.

Daisy Benson

I'd had one visit. My ex-husband had come. He brought my daughter. And she stood with her fingers in the chicken wire, looking out over the yard. And I could see, she was just taking inventory from side to side, what she could see. And she said to me, and I'll never forget it, this wouldn't be too bad for the two of us, mom. She said, we could be here together. And I said--

Robin

She said, don't even think about. She already knew what I was thinking when I got there.

Daisy Benson

Because I could see it working in her head. You can tell when kids are doing something. Don't even think about it.

Douglas McGray

And what did she say?

Daisy Benson

She was just solemn. She was very serious about what she was saying.

Robin

She was trying to get me to look at her. And I was just looking around.

Douglas McGray

Well, what where you looking around for? Were you looking to see, could I do this?

Robin

Yeah. And I was like, this ain't so bad.

Douglas McGray

Was life outside pretty bad then?

Robin

Life outside was probably a lot worse than in there at the time. I was just in a drug life. I did drugs. I was on the street. And so I would do what I had to do. And all kinds of stuff. It was hard.

Douglas McGray

So Robin was already living the kind of life that might lead to prison. She didn't care. But then suddenly, she did. She could go to jail and be with her mom. A year later, when she and her friends got hauled in for stealing, she told me she confessed to everything, even things she hadn't done.

Robin

When my mom went prison, it was almost like my mom died to me. I missed her so bad, I got in trouble just to get in trouble. Because I didn't really have nothin' out there. I just got in trouble to get in trouble, and kept getting in trouble until they caught me. I told the judge, I said, I did it. He said, no wait a minute, you need representation. I said, no, I did it. I want you to sentence me. I want to go to prison. Because I wanted to go see my mom.

Douglas McGray

When Daisy went away, California had one small prison for women called CIW. But longer sentences and a three strikes law helped set off a prison boom. The state had to build two more. Robin got sentenced to one of the new ones, up north-- not part of the plan. Now she had to finagle a transfer somehow. She roamed the yard, looking for advice.

Robin

I started asking people, how do I get to CIW? My mom's down there.

Douglas McGray

Eventually, someone told her about a prison work program that would get her shipped south where Daisy was. One day, a letter came for Daisy, postmarked from another prison. She couldn't believe what it said. And the letter had taken so long to get there, that the same day it arrived-- well, I'll let Daisy tell it.

Daisy Benson

I came to the front office. And I rounded the corner, and there was my child, standing there in a muumuu. And my legs just buckled.

Robin

She acted like she was going to fall apart or something. Oh my God, my baby. She acted like she was going to faint, and all kinds of stuff.

Daisy Benson

It was the greatest moment, but it was the saddest moment-- ooh-- to be able to see her. But to see her in this setting was overwhelming. And I was just hanging on to her. We just locked up. She had her arms around me. And I had my arms around her. And everybody was crying. The cop was crying. Everybody around us was crying. And I know that every one of them wanted it to be their daughter. Everybody wanted-- it was the joy--

Douglas McGray

These are other prisoners?

Daisy Benson

Yeah. Not to have your child in prison, but to have your arms around her. My legs were so weak. I stood back and I just asked, what the hell are you doing here? And she just grabbed me again. And she was holding on to me, loving me. She said, I need my mom. It was wonderful. Because I don't let people touch me in here. People don't hug me. People don't squeeze me. But she hugs me and squeezes me.

Douglas McGray

Mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins-- they cross paths in here more than you'd think. The stories aren't always happy. A staff person told me, yeah, we had identical twins in here one time. And one of them lit herself on fire. Mother/daughter cell mates? That he'd never seen. But when Daisy asked, the administration said yes. So Robin moved in. They shared eight feet square, if that, with bunk beds. A year after she first stared out at the prison yard, Robin got her wish. Prison was a lot harsher than Robin expected, just like her mom had said it would be.

Robin

I think when I first went to prison, I was going down there to protect her, but she protected me. She introduced me and pointed to everyone that was on the yard-- people, what they were there for. And stay away from that one. And then she'd introduce me to them. The ones that she told me to stay away from, she'd say, this is my daughter, and I'll kill you if you mess with her.

Daisy Benson

I was probably trying to control her. I was keeping her away from the riff-raff.

Douglas McGray

A lot of their time together was just fun, for prison anyway.

Daisy Benson

We did pedicures. She did my toes, I did her toes. It was just girls, just girls.

Robin

One time we had Thanksgiving dinner around the yard. Just come on, mom. Just lay down and I'll take you on a trip. We'll go to the river. Close your eyes.

Douglas McGray

And then what? And then you would describe it?

Robin

Yeah. And I'd tell her, OK, we're on the river. Can you hear the water? Do you hear the birds? Just that was enough.

Douglas McGray

Even before she went to prison, Daisy had been gone a lot, working at the canneries or the turkey plant, driving a bus. Now there was none of that, no distractions.

Daisy Benson

I think that that's probably some of the best times in our lives together. Because nobody could get in between us. There was nothing to interfere with the relationship of mom and daughter.

Douglas McGray

They were in together for almost a year. When the time came for Robin to be released, she was ready. Daisy wasn't.

Daisy Benson

There was such an emptiness when she was gone. And it was almost like a dream that she had been here. You know, like I'd dreamed the whole dang thing up. But I get another sweet and sour moment. You're so happy that it happened. But you're so sorry that they're going to go.

Douglas McGray

Robin's not doing so well these days. Since her time with her mom, more than 10 years ago, she's been in and out of prison. The more time a person spends inside, the harder it is to make a life outside.

Robin

I never felt like I'd be right until my mom gets out. I'm not going to be right. Here I'm 42 years old, just staying where I can, don't have a job. Nothing, nothing. I mean, I've tried to complete my GED and stuff quite a few times. And I went to beauty college and I graduated. But I didn't go to state board. And it's just like, I never think I'm going to win.

Douglas McGray

Is there anything that gives you hope?

Robin

Just my mom getting out. That's the only hope I've got anymore.

Douglas McGray

A couple months ago, Daisy wrote me a letter that said she might be home by Thanksgiving. The parole board approved her for release, but the governor has the final say. And it's easier to say no. Earlier this year, facing a budget crisis, and a prison system that costs $10 billion a year-- five times more than Texas spends-- the governor tried to let some nonviolent offenders out early. Legislators revolted. They cut from schools instead.

Daisy's 59 now. But like most of the lifers, she seems a lot older. A walker keeps her upright. A pacemaker keeps her heart going. She's lost most of her front teeth. When she laughs, she covers her mouth. Robin writes to her mother, but she's only gone back to see her once since she boarded a prison bus and drove out through the gate. Her mom told her not to look back, but she did. She does.

Ira Glass

Douglas McGray. He's an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Seth Lind is our Production Manager. Production help from P.J. Vogt and Aaron Scott. Jessica Hopper is our Music Consultant. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ Management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who tells me all the time--

David Berkeley

I'm your man. And I will be there for you forever. And we'll have beautiful children together.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.