Transcript

550:

Three Miles
Transcript

Originally aired 03.13.2015

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey, everybody. If you're listening on our podcast or the internet, there are words in this episode that we have unbeeped. If you prefer a beeped version of the show, you can find that on our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Ira Glass here. It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago. I'm just here for a minute to say we have a special show for you today. One of our producers, Chana Joffe-Walt, has been reporting lately on schools and education. You may remember a show she did on discipline in schools a little while back.

Well, for the past few months, Chana's been working on this other story. It's about a part of education that everybody knows about but we do not talk about much at all, not in a way that feels like anything. This is a story full of surprise turns and twists, and I don't want to waste anymore time here setting this up. I'm just going to hand the show over to Chana so we can get to it. Here's Chana.

Act One.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Lisa and Angela are both teachers, both in the Bronx in New York City, both relentlessly energetic women who make generous use of their arms while talking. They met years ago. They liked each other.

And they started to talk about bringing their students together, some sort of classroom exchange. They just thought their students could get a lot out of meeting each other and learning about one another's schools, because their students spend their school days in two very different places.

Lisa Greenbaum's school, University Heights High School, is a public school. It's 97% black and Hispanic. It's located in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx.

Angela Vassos' school, Fieldston, is also in the Bronx, but it's one of New York City's elite private schools. It's 70% white. It's known as a progressive school. One in five kids gets financial aid, which is helpful, because last year tuition was $43,000.

These two schools were three miles from each other, but the students basically needed a foreign exchange program to meet each other. So the teachers started by having their students write each other letters. They were pen pals for a while. That was going well.

So Lisa and Angela thought, let's get them together, visit each other. They honestly didn't think it'd be a big deal. But then Lisa, the public school teacher, says the moment her kids got off the bus at Fieldston, the private school, they had a dramatic reaction to what they saw.

Lisa Greenbaum

They couldn't believe the campus. They felt like everyone was looking at them. And one of the students started screaming and crying-- like, this is unfair. I don't want to be here. I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going home.

We were like, Melanie, it's OK. You should stay with the group. Let's talk.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Some context-- University Heights, the public school these kids were coming from, it's small and friendly. There are no metal detectors. But it's a public school in a poor neighborhood. The kids share a building and a gym with another school. There's not a lot of frills.

The private school, Fieldston, has an 18-acre campus on a hill. Stone buildings are connected by landscaped paths. Every few windows is the size of a garage door. There's a dance studio, an art gallery, a pool.

So on that first day, the public school kids, almost all of them Puerto Rican and Dominican kids from the South Bronx, walk onto the campus, look around at the quad, the trees, see the school's mission etched into the stone arches. Angela, the private school teacher from Fieldston, came to greet them and immediately noticed that one of the girls seemed upset.

Angela Vassos

And I went over to talk to her, as did Lisa. And she jumped up and she said, we've got to get out of here. We've got to get out of here. We've got to get out of here.

And I thought it was a joke at the beginning. I didn't realize, you know? And it really was-- I mean, she went white, like completely white. Blood drained from her face. And her friend was holding her, saying, calm down, Melanie. Calm down, Melanie.

I really got scared. I thought she was going to pass out. We were not sure what to do. So it was just an awful situation. None of us had anticipated such a strong reaction.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There are hundreds of programs right now that are trying to do some version of this exchange program to help people connect across a growing divide. For a lot of students, American public schools are more segregated than they were a generation ago, not less. The gap between rich and poor is wider than it's been since the Great Depression.

Basically, whatever gap you hear about-- income gap, achievement gap, racial divide-- these two groups of kids from University Heights and Fieldston exist on opposite sides. And just seeing across that divide, something so many of us never do, can be incredibly powerful.

In this case, from the very first few minutes, it was definitely dramatic. This incident when the kids visited Fieldston happened 10 years ago, and I heard this story from so many different people-- the teachers, kids from both schools. Allison Roland was a junior at the private school, Fieldston, at the time. She remembers the girl who freaked out.

Allison Roland

People were like, what happened? That was, like, weird. But nobody really-- it was very behind the scenes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Even more, she remembers the feeling she had seeing the girl freak out, feeling helpless.

Allison Roland

It's uncomfortable when you can't help someone not be uncomfortable. No one wants to feel like they're on the hill school on the top of the hill. It's uncomfortable.

But at the same time, I totally understood where she was coming from in terms of-- like, it is messed up. It's crazy. Like, our educations have been so drastically different, and that's completely unfair. But what do you do in the moment when you're still a high school student and you don't have the power-- like, I couldn't become a politician in that moment and change. Making change can take a long time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

A lot of Fieldston students do go on to be politicians and run Walt Disney and The New York Times and host evening news programs and design major American cities. And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is-- seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses-- it's good for them to know not everybody's life looks like theirs.

But of course, then there's the question-- what do the public school kids get out of it? Right now there's a popular idea in education-- it pops up all over the place-- about exposure, that exposure is particularly important for poor kids. Not just important-- that it can change destinies. You know, you take a group of kids to tour a college campus, they'll be more likely to go to college. Or if you just know someone who went to college, that'll help.

The idea is that if you want a kid to move from one social class to another, that kid has to see what it looks like over there on the other side. Exposure is a tool for social change and economic mobility.

Or it just sucks. You see how much you did not get, and it's shocking and painful. And you freak out, like that one girl, Melanie.

The people who run programs like these hope that even if it's upsetting in the moment, ultimately this kind of experience helps more than it hurts. But nobody really knows, because this is the kind of thing that plays out over time.

It occurred to me that the group of kids who are part of that first year exchange between Fieldston and University Heights could answer this question. Does it hurt or help the public school kids? It's been 10 years. They're in their mid 20s now, so they've gone to college, gotten apartments and jobs, and it turns out this one experience really has shaped some of the public school kids in profound ways, ways I did not see coming. Today's show-- what happens when you see the other side and it looks a lot better.

Let's begin with Melanie, the girl who freaked out. I wondered about Melanie because she had such a strong immediate reaction that everyone remembered, but also because listen to what happened after that. So apparently Melanie started crying the moment she got to Fieldston, wanted to leave. But the teachers managed to calm her down, and for a while, it seemed like the moment had passed and they were fine.

They partnered all the students up, so the University Heights kids could go with the Fieldston kids to some of their classes. Marlena Edelstein, a Fieldston student, told me the girl who shadowed her-- she doesn't remember her name, but other people told me it was Melanie-- Marlena has never forgotten her.

Marlena Edelstein

I remember we were studying the Enlightenment. And we were looking at it through paintings. And I remember her making connections between the painting and Enlightenment era philosophers, and quoting John Locke and just schooling all of us-- you know, making connections that I would have been completely incapable of making, and just clearly the smartest person in the room.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Then, after wowing everyone in this class with her intellect, Melanie left, ran away. She found the experience of being at Fieldston so upsetting, she ultimately could not stand to be there. And Lisa Greenbaum, her teacher, told me Melanie did not just run away from Fieldston that day. She also seemed to run away from high school. She doesn't remember seeing her much after that.

Lisa Greenbaum

I would love to know. I would love to know how she feels about who she is, and if that moment in her life in any way shaped the way she thinks today.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Lisa told me she had no idea where Melanie was. But she said, you know who you should call, Ashleigh Wallace. That was Melanie's best friend. She'll know what happened.

Ashleigh Wallace

So me and Melanie were pissed off.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What happened?

Ashleigh Wallace

We were definitely pissed off. I mean, have you ever seen Edward Scissorhands?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Seen what?

Ashleigh Wallace

Edward Scissorhands.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, yeah.

Ashleigh Wallace

And you know how his house is at the top of the hill and it's all dark and gloomy, and then you have the rest of the town where all the houses are colorful, and it's sunny all day and bright, or whatever the case is? It was just like that. Like, we were leaving the Bronx and going into some complete, totally different Utopian existence.

You know, Lisa kept telling us while we were pen-palling these kids that, oh, they go to a private school, but they're just like us. And "just like us" is you live in a bad neighborhood like we do, you go to a bullshit, shitty-ass school like we do, where we have no cafeteria because it's been converted into a classroom. We have a daycare for mothers who have children. There's, what, one, two, three floors in our school. She's like, oh, they're just like us. They're nothing like us, nothing at all.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I asked Ashleigh, so where is Melanie now?

Ashleigh Wallace

She actually graduated a little earlier, and I've been looking for her since then, because me and her used to be very, very close.

Chana Joffe-Walt

For a while, it seemed like maybe they just lost touch. That happens after high school. Ashleigh's mom moved to Atlanta. Eventually Ashleigh did too and had a baby.

But after a while, it stopped feeling to Ashleigh like the two of them had just drifted apart and started to feel more like Melanie did not want to be found. Her phone number changed. She's nowhere online. Ashleigh has checked Facebook so many times.

Ashleigh Wallace

My mom always asks about her and stuff, but I could not find her.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you know if she went to college?

Ashleigh Wallace

No, I really don't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But Ashleigh says, she must have. How else does someone disappear like that unless they make it out of the Bronx and never look back?

There is a New York City number listed under Melanie's name, but of course--

Operator

--does not accept calls at this time. We're sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There's a woman with the same name who manages a real estate firm in Corpus Christi. There's a dental lab technician in Harrisburg, an executive Office Professional in Las Vegas, a woman on Twitter who I think lives in Mexico and has devoted her account to re-tweeting Justin Bieber's Twitter account. They all seem to be about the right age, all not her.

A background check on Melanie's name lists a current and former address. I went to the current one. She does not live there. Sent letters to both-- no luck.

Ashleigh, her friend from high school, gave me a couple names of people she thought might have kept up with Melanie. And top of the list was Pablo Muriel, their high school history teacher. He's Puerto Rican like Melanie, from the neighborhood. Ashleigh says, we all loved Pablo, but especially Melanie.

Pablo Muriel

Yes, hello?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Hi, it's Chana Joffe-Walt, the reporter.

Pablo Muriel

Oh! Yes, hi. How are you? You called me at the perfect time. There're these people calling me to meetings. I was like, oh, thank god. How are you?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Pablo said Melanie is one of those kids you remember, because she was very, very, very smart-- three "verys"-- and full of potential. She stood out to him for other reasons too.

Pablo Muriel

She was a bit out there-- like, her personality was out there. However, her intellect surpassed most of her peers at the time. Interesting enough, I think she passed by the school to visit maybe four years ago, and I remember her coming back with me to say hello to me. And I was with another teacher sitting down. I won't forget this day because it was just so odd. She came and spoke to me, and I told her, hold on, I'll talk to you in a minute. I think she took it as me brushing her off, and she just kind of stormed out, and I never saw her again.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You were just, like, busy and like, happy to see you, just hang on a second?

Pablo Muriel

Yeah, because she caught me between classes. Hi, Pablo. Oh, hey, Melanie. Hold on. I'll talk to you in a minute. And then she just said, OK, whatever. And she just left. And I never saw her again.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I began contacting former classmates, and I became sort of obsessed, because it was weird how invisible she was. Everyone else was super-easy to find. These are 25 year olds, and we have the internet.

And the classmates' memories of Melanie were all similarly mythic. She spoke her mind. She was brilliant. She was fierce. She was going to make it. And no one had heard from her.

Weirdly, the one person I contacted who had a real idea of what happened to Melanie was the teacher from Fieldston, the private school, Angela Vassos. Someone told me Angela had taken a special interest in Melanie after she got so upset at Fieldston. And a decade later when I met Angela and first asked about Melanie, she started crying.

Angela Vassos

I'm sorry. It's just-- Melanie's a-- because a part of me, I guess--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Angela got a box of tissues, then sat down.

Angela Vassos

I had a real soft spot for that kid. I still have a soft spot for that kid. She was smart, really smart. I don't know if she realized. She knew she was powerful, but I don't know if she knew she was smart.

Chana Joffe-Walt

After that first encounter at Fieldston, Angela tried hard to gain Melanie's trust. I think she felt partially responsible, and she really wanted to help Melanie, even though she wasn't Melanie's teacher.

The program kept going throughout the year. Angela would bring her private school students over to the public school, and sometimes she'd visit on her own. And every time, she'd make a special point to check in on Melanie.

The last time Angela ever saw Melanie was in the public school. Angela was over there visiting, and Lillian, the college advisor, comes in.

Angela Vassos

She walked in, and Melanie was really on a tear about white bitches, and they don't know anything about the world. And Lillian walks in, and she waves a piece of paper. And she says, Melanie, come here.

Melanie goes up. There are, like, 50 people in the room. She says, Middlebury accepted you, full scholarship. And Melanie started crying. I started crying. We all did. We were so excited.

And Lillian, she said, we made it, we made it, we made it, you know? Incredible news. And Middlebury, we're talking about a serious, serious school-- full scholarship. And Melanie buried her face in Lillian's shoulder here. And they hugged for such a long time-- not one of these hugs. It must have been, like, a two-minute hug.

And Lillian was swinging her around, and Melanie had her arms around her. And I thought, that's so great. And you knew at that moment-- it was moving because you knew at that moment Melanie felt safe, and that's when Melanie disappeared, because she did not finish the last month of the year. She disappeared. To this day, they don't know where she is. She probably just got scared.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, she got into Middlebury but she didn't go?

Angela Vassos

She didn't finish the last month of school either. She left.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, wow.

Angela Vassos

Yeah, literally disappeared. No one could find her.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I called Middlebury to see if maybe Melanie did attend. They said no. Did she get in? They said, we have no record showing that she received an offer of admission. I didn't know if that meant she wasn't admitted, or they just had no record either way, but that's all they would say.

And this was strange because Angela had such a vivid memory of Melanie getting in. And Angela herself went to Middlebury, so she probably didn't mix up the name of the college. Plus the college advisor at Melanie's school seemed to remember it.

So at this point, I went back to Melanie's high school friend Ashleigh and just asked if it sounded like Melanie to psych herself out like that. And she said, no way. I only made it to my GED, but Melanie was singularly focused on college. She'd curse me out when I cut class.

Ashleigh Wallace

When it came down to me and her, I was what she was trying to avoid.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie was not going to fail at high school. She would go to college with no babies and live far, far from New York City, period.

Automated Operator

You can say things like, when is my recycling picked up, or report a noisy neighbor. Go ahead.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Death record.

Automated Operator

All right. I can help you learn how to request a certificate for a death reported in the state.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I didn't think Melanie was dead. But a friend asked, and once that seed was planted, I could not get the idea out of my head. That same day, I went in person to the city's office for vital records. I also want to an old address listed on a background check, one I'd sent letters to.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I don't think she lives here anymore.

The buzzer didn't have Melanie's name on it, and I pressed it anyway. No answer. Stood by the door to the building.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Hey.

Jonathan

Hey.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you know somebody named Melanie?

Jonathan

Yes, that's my girlfriend, actually.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, really?

Jonathan

Yes.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh.

Jonathan

You've been searching for her, I see.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I have.

Jonathan

She got your letters. She's actually at work right now.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That's his girlfriend. She's at work.

Jonathan

She says she's been busy with school and work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Jonathan

She hasn't really got a chance to reach out to you.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And she did get my letters?

Jonathan

Yes, she got your letters.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, great. Oh, I'm so glad I asked you. What's your name?

Jonathan

[INAUDIBLE] ask. Jonathan.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'm Chana. Nice to meet you.

He told me she'd call when she got off work. He didn't want to tell me anything more. But he did tell me Melanie worked at a supermarket on Sixth Avenue. It happens to be around the corner from my office.

It took three days for Melanie to call me. And when she did, she carefully said, I've given this a lot of thought, and I'm ready to talk.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I can't believe you're here.

Melanie

[CHUCKLING] I can't believe I'm here.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah? Are you nervous?

Melanie

I mean, I looked on the website. I mean, it's probably something that people are going to hear, people are going to listen to. If they could see me, they'd know I'm different. You know I'm different. I'm sitting here with, like, blue-green hair.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She's also wearing pink sweatpants and a hoodie. Her hair is actually under a hat, so all I can see are some green bangs peeking out. The "they" she's talking about, that's you listening right now. Melanie has considered you a lot, who you are, how you'll hear her.

I asked Melanie about the visit to Fieldston pretty early on in our conversation, but her answer began with her first day of high school. She says she was just one of those kids who always loved school. She got good grades, and she'd been anticipating high school years before she got there. She had a clear image in her mind of how exciting it would be. She'd become a better writer, read, read, and read, and go to games, maybe join the dance team. And her first day of freshman year--

Melanie

Well I remember going in. And I was just like, what is this? Like, this has got to be a joke.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, the school felt like a joke?

Melanie

Yeah, completely. I was sitting in a classroom with seniors when I was a freshman. They didn't even have a Math B course.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What's Math B? I don't even know what that is.

Melanie

It's like the second level to Math A-- I would say prior to taking trigonometry or even statistics or something like that. They don't offer any AP classes. You know, another thing that was really tormenting to me was that we didn't have a library, and I love books. This is like, wow. We're really in a poor part of the Bronx where we're not being considered.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Then in 10th grade, Melanie's English teacher said they were going to start a pen pal program with a school called Fieldston. Melanie was open to it. She wrote a sincere letter describing herself and her dreams and climbed onto the bus with the rest of her classmates to go to Fieldston.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So what happened when you went there?

Melanie

When we went there, we looked like a bunch of hooligans. I would say we looked like the Goonies walking in a Wall Street building. I felt like you knew we weren't from there-- like, oh, who are these ghetto kids walking in?

We knew we didn't fit in. We didn't look like the rest of the students. It was a very organized school.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, what did you look like? What do you mean [INAUDIBLE]?

Melanie

Well, when I went there, I had bright red hair, cherry red, Charli Baltimore, which was a female rapper at that time. I had my nails super-long, out here, really colorful, like, 20 colors on them. All of us wore Jordans, everybody in the hood. Oh, Jordans is, like, the big thing. You could tell. You knew off the bat, these students are not from this school.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What did you feel like that day?

Melanie

I felt like a ratchet-ass girl from the hood. I felt like I didn't belong there. I just felt like-- you know, I had no business in this building. I don't remember them. They were just a sea of white, blonde, blue-green eyes. I couldn't possibly bring myself into my body to actually engage with these kids. I didn't want to engage with them.

Chana Joffe-Walt

For so many University Heights kids I talked to, seeing Fieldston was shocking because of the stark difference. It was a surprise. They could not have imagined a place like Fieldston. For Melanie, it wasn't that. Melanie had imagined it.

Melanie

This was what I envisioned as high school, what these kids are experiencing. This is what I wanted to see myself going through as a high school experience.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh, that's what you expected high school to be.

Melanie

Yeah, definitely.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So what felt surprising to you was just, like, this is the first time that I'm seeing a thing in real life that I thought was what I was going to walk into in ninth grade?

Melanie

Yep. And it was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It's like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have.

I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we're only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald's or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we'll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You thought that when you were at Fieldston?

Melanie

Definitely. So it was like when the shit hits the fan.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you imagined--

Melanie

The future, yeah. Seeing what we would all be like as adults.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So that's what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we're all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn't know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.

But Melanie had her own plan after Fieldston, as soon as she could get out of high school. And her friend plan did not involve holding doors. She had enough credits to graduate high school early, as a junior.

Melanie

So I just want to hurry up and get my high school diploma to say, here, I'm educated. I got it. I'm going to get into a four year school. I already saw myself with a masters degree, which means 16 to 24, eight years-- yep, check.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie's vision was so clear, and the adults around her could see it too. Pablo Muriel, the teacher, and all the teachers at her school, knew their job was to fill in the gaps, make up for the fact that Melanie did not get to be a Fieldston kid and get her to college anyway.

So a few months before graduation, the high school guidance counselor nominated Melanie for something called a Posse Scholarship. The Posse Foundation sends kids from 10 cities to private, elite colleges, full scholarship-- schools like Cornell, Dartmouth, and Middlebury. Melanie had her eyes set on Middlebury, just like Angela Vassos remembered. And the thing that could get her there was the Posse Scholarship.

Melanie

It's really competitive. There's hundreds of kids all over New York City, and this one floor of a building that you go to.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you remember what you wore?

Melanie

I think the first day I wore high heels and a skirt. Maybe I wore a tie with a shirt, a dress-up shirt. Oh, I was very professional when I went there. Like, what is considered office apparel.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Posse sends groups of kids to college together, a posse. And they're trying to choose kids who would otherwise be missed because their test scores aren't great or because they go to bad schools. After the first round, half the students get called back. The next round, half the remaining students. Then that group gets cut again. Trying to figure out how to get into college is stressful for everyone. But for most people, it does not look like reality TV.

Melanie

I kept getting to the next stage. And each time you go back, they just send you a letter in the mail, letting you know, OK, you made it through the next round. We expect you here at this day, this time. The final time is when you meet the college.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Middlebury-- do you remember what they asked you in the interview?

Melanie

No, I don't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Were you nervous?

Melanie

I was nervous, very nervous.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This year, I sat in on the Posse finalists' interviews. And I can tell you that by this point in the process, the only kids left in them could do your job with a week of training. We are sitting in this room with 25 amazing kids. 15 of them were about to get voted off the island. They get a letter, like Melanie did, saying no.

Melanie

You know, unfortunately you didn't get picked. I believe I still have that letter hiding somewhere.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie did not get in. She made it to the very last round, but in the end, she did not get it.

I don't know why Angela Vassos remembers Melanie getting into Middlebury, except that what she and the school college counselor must be remembering is the moment Melanie was selected as a finalist. Because that would've been an exciting moment, and it would make sense that they did not know the very last step, that in the end Melanie did not make it, because they never saw her again. They couldn't have known seeing Fieldston was not what made Melanie want to run away. It was this.

Melanie

You go through something to just get turned down is a waste too. It's like, would you have been better off not going through this experience?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is that how you feel?

Melanie

I mean, maybe I would have been better off not going through that experience. Once that happened, I just wrote it off, out of my life.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Because it's too painful?

Melanie

I think because it's just a moment of disappointment.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, I can see that.

Melanie

Mm-hmm. But it's a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that's the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I'd say, why didn't I get it? What was wrong with me?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie could see an elite college was a long shot, especially for a kid from a poor public school. But she was going to make it because she was exceptional. Her teachers saw it. She knew it. That was the ground she stood on, until this moment.

Melanie

You know, maybe you were just somebody exceptional because of the environment you were in, not necessarily because you are exceptional. People are like, oh, you're so smart. You're going to be this, you're going to be that, you're going to be somebody, you're going to change the world. And it's like, be realistic.

Pablo wanted me to apply for Harvard. I was like, be fucking realistic. I'm never going to get accepted to Harvard. This is a school that doesn't even have fucking statistics offered, you know, AP classes-- versus a kid like Fieldston. You walk out in four years, you're prepared to go to a school like that.

This is not happening for me. I don't think anything is going to change that. After that, I definitely knew that I wanted to run out of that high school as fast as possible. I ended up graduating spring semester of that year, and I was gone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Really gone.

Melanie

Yeah, really gone. Gone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Like, off the map gone.

Melanie

Yep.

This has to be her.

Lisa Greenbaum

(ON PHONE) Hi, Melanie. This is Lisa. I taught you English--

Chana Joffe-Walt

I was walking with Melanie one day recently when she played a voice mail for me she got from Lisa Greenbaum, her old high school teacher. I hadn't given Lisa Melanie's number. I hadn't even told her yet about being in touch. It turned out, just a few days before, Melanie had called the front desk of the high school to get a copy of her diploma. And people from the school started getting back in touch.

Lisa Greenbaum

(ON PHONE) I would love to hear what's going on with you. Call me when you can.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie is shaking her head listening.

Lisa Greenbaum

(ON PHONE) --looking forward to talking to you. Bye bye.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Are you going to call her back?

Melanie

Probably. By the end of the week.

Chana Joffe-Walt

No, you're not. Are you going to?

Melanie

No, I'll probably call. I just want to go about my business, do what I've got to do for myself.

Chana Joffe-Walt

In other words, yeah, absolutely not. Melanie never called Lisa.

Melanie

I'm surprised that my number even got passed to these people. I'm like, they're just calling because I happened to call the school. It's not like anybody is really reaching out to me.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This, of course, makes no sense. Somebody calling your mobile device and saying I would love to hear what's going on with you, that's the definition of someone reaching out. But this is where Melanie is right now. For the last decade of her life, she's been working at the supermarket, taking local college courses part time, stopping every few semesters when she needs money or sleep, and thinking about where she went wrong.

She didn't apply to any other private colleges after Middlebury turned her down. She did not reach out to Lisa or Pablo or Ashleigh or Angela. She graduated early and checked out of high school, and she's furious at herself for doing that.

Melanie

I accepted it, basically. And I guess I just grew very angry with myself for making that choice of saying, well, I'm going to accept this instead of fighting against it, or maybe bringing change into that situation. But I didn't. I accepted it.

That's always in the back of my head. I know I fucked that up, because I could have probably gotten something out of that extra year of school.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What would you have gotten?

Melanie

I don't know. What if I would have reached out? What if they would have sent me to CUNY for free college courses? There could have been another opportunity. I just got so frustrated to the point that I didn't want to look for the opportunity. I was just like, I want this shit over and done with, because I felt like it wasn't going to change.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So now a high school teacher who remembers Melanie as having so much promise is calling and wanting to catch up. Of course Melanie doesn't want to return that call.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So for you to have people tell you you're exceptional, or for me to say people remember you as being very smart, it's just sort of like-- it's like salt on a wound or something?

Melanie

I don't-- yeah. How do I measure that intelligence? It's very hard to deal with.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Had you gone to Middlebury, do you think you would believe that you were smart?

Melanie

Yeah, why not?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Just like she felt when she visited Fieldston that first time, Melanie can sense a better alternate reality sitting right there next to her today, an alternate reality where she went to college and her life is totally different.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt. Coming up, we meet that alternate reality-- Melanie, if she went to college. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Three Miles." Chana Joffe-Walt is looking at a group of students who shared one small experience. They're students from a public school in the Bronx who took field trips three miles up the road to visit one of New York's fanciest private schools. In the first half of our program, we heard from Melanie who thinks that if she had gone to college, it would have made all the difference in her life.

In this half of the show, we're going to look at whether or not that's true. A lot of kids from her public high school, University Heights High School, lived the life that she did not. They did go to college-- 2/3 of them last year. Again, here's Chana Joffe-Walt.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I've been talking to lots of University Heights graduates, and I've had this experience a couple of times where I feel like I'm speaking to Melanie's alternate reality. The year after Melanie graduated, a handsome young black University Heights senior named Jonathan Gonzalez won the Posse Scholarship. This is a kid who grew up in Melanie's neighborhood, went to her school, was one of only a dozen or so kids picked to be part of the program with Fieldston, and he won the Posse Scholarship Melanie so desperately wanted. If anyone is alternate reality Melanie, it is Jonathan. But this is not a role Jonathan conveniently slots into.

Jonathan Gonzalez

For myself, I didn't really see college. For myself, I saw just not being a homeless guy.

Chana Joffe-Walt

At 15 years old, Melanie could see a future with college and graduate school. Not only that, everyone around her could see it too. This is not what people saw for Jonathan. This is not what Jonathan saw for Jonathan.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I didn't have a drive to go to college.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why not?

Jonathan Gonzalez

It was never-- what I thought of myself in the future was being a janitor, because I was waking up Saturday mornings mopping the house, cleaning ceiling fans, sweeping the floor, washing dishes, what have you. That was what I was experienced in. So college was like, I don't know what I would do there. And I had the blessing to have a girlfriend that was into the books.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Raquel Hardy. I wish you could see Jonathan's face when he talks about Raquel. I know that's a corny thing to say. I promise, if you could see it, you'd forget to be so cool. Jonathan says he's loved Raquel basically as long as he can remember.

Jonathan Gonzalez

A pretty long time. I've known her since I was 12. My junior high school teacher actually said that we would be married. I guess she saw it from the way we looked at each other or spent time with each other in the classroom. And we always played it down. Like, no, no.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But that summer, right before high school, Raquel and Jonathan got together, and it stopped feeling like a joke that they might just stay together. Jonathan and Raquel both found being at home stressful. Jonathan was given up to foster care as a baby. His foster mom adopted him. He says she loved him, but she could be very cruel.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I held a lot of things in. And the way I got them out was by sometimes punching a wall or punching other people, getting into fights, or acting out in the classroom. And for Raquel, she was into school. I think her outlet was doing work, being in the books so she didn't have to think about it. And my outlet was thinking about it, being sad about it, and not speaking to anybody and just being quiet.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I think that's called having no outlet.

Jonathan Gonzalez

Yeah, having no outlet, OK. Yeah, so that was our coping mechanisms.

Raquel Hardy

We were best friends. I don't know. It was great.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This, of course, is Raquel. Raquel is beautiful, driven, and just quick. She's the friend you want sitting shotgun when your lost driving.

Raquel and Jonathan were both selected for the Fieldston program. And for Raquel, seeing Fieldston was a revelation. She remembers specific details-- the trees in the quad, that the library was a freestanding building. She remembers walking up to it.

Raquel Hardy

And we get in, and there were kids hanging out on the floor, with their book bags, and kids leaving their book bags unattended. And this is unheard of. I mean, I'm sorry. In the Bronx, you don't leave your book bag on the floor and walk away, you know what I mean, with a Mac laptop inside. That just doesn't happen. And you don't get to sit on the floor at the school in a laid back, kind of relaxed way.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Raquel says she had the following thoughts all within the first few minutes. These kids are free. This is what freedom looks like. We must not deserve to be free. And finally, I am really lucky to be seeing this.

Raquel Hardy

I mean, it's one thing hearing it from Pablo, but it's another thing seeing those things. You don't know how little you have, because you don't have anything to compare it to.

So I think it motivates you. For me, that's what the connection with the Fieldston School did for me. It motivated me.

Jonathan Gonzalez

As for me, I didn't feel like I was shit anyway, and I would never be shit. So I was just like, well, this is where the rich people are.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Raquel says everyone felt bad seeing Fieldston, but Jonathan more so because he'd been taught to feel that way at home.

Raquel Hardy

We had a lot of arguments about his mom, but he knows now. He saw himself through her eyes in a lot of ways. She made him feel very low at times. So I tried to love him and show him the support.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She says she just told him over and over how special he was.

Raquel Hardy

Yeah, because he was. And he is. He's a remarkable man, and he's very talented. He deserved what this world had to offer him. He had to take it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That was how Jonathan went from imagining himself as a janitor to applying for college-- not because he saw Fieldston, because Raquel saw Fieldston. Raquel wanted to go to college where she could sit on the rug and debate with friends, laptop on the floor by her knee. Senior year, they were both nominated for a Posse Scholarship. Raquel didn't make it past the first round, but she went on to apply to lots of other schools and got into Bard College with a scholarship. And Jonathan got Posse. He got into Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I think it was a Friday. I think it was a Friday. I had the letter in the mail from Wheaton. My main thing was, who am I to be accepted into a college?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, that was your first thought?

Jonathan Gonzalez

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you have any moment of, this is great, I get into college?

Jonathan Gonzalez

No, I was scared.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You skipped right past excitement?

Jonathan Gonzalez

Yeah, there was no real excitement. I was just like, all right. So now what?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did something change from November to whenever you arrived at college, where you started to feel like, OK, I'm a person who goes to college?

Jonathan Gonzalez

I can't really say yes, you know? Because at the core, I still didn't feel like I was worthy. And when I got to college, it showed.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Jonathan's first day at Wheaton, he looked up his course syllabi and panicked. He couldn't afford the books. He also did not tell anyone he couldn't afford the books. He just never got them.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I didn't do the homework, so I'm going now into a class where, one, it's a different dynamic. Now I'm in Fieldston, where it's 12 kids to a teacher, and I'm the only black kid in some of these classes. I'm the only kid in some of these classes.

So now I'm embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn't do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I'm not going to class. It's a catch-22, because now I'm still the black kid now that just doesn't come to class, and doesn't do the work on top of that. But for me, it was-- I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?

Raquel Hardy

In the beginning I struggled too. My first year, I got C-pluses and B-minuses. It was devastating to me because I was an A-plus student in high school, and we both were like, this is a lot. This is crazy. I wasn't expecting this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And would you guys talk about that?

Raquel Hardy

Yeah, we talked about it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Was it nice to have somebody to--

Raquel Hardy

It was nice to have somebody to talk about it with, because my parents hadn't gone to college. Nobody could really help us. We just sort of needed to figure it out together. We kind of troubleshooted some problems like the book situation.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Were you the one who told him that he should go to the library?

Raquel Hardy

Yeah, because that's what I was doing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It had not occurred to either of them that the beautiful freestanding library on campus was there to serve them and had a lot of the books they needed for free. But when Raquel panicked, she went to the student center and learned about the library and the interlibrary loan system. She told Jonathan, 200 miles away, who still had not asked a soul.

And Jonathan was the one who was in Posse. Posse scholars have a 90% college graduation rate. The program is full of supports for kids just like him. He had months of training from Posse before he even went to college. He had a special campus mentor. Posse was calling him and sending him letters. He was ignoring it all. A few months into his first semester, Jonathan was barely getting outside of his room, or his head.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I need to go to class. You need to talk to somebody. And then there's another voice that's like, no, you're going to be embarrassed. It's embarrassing. Anyway, you're not going to have the money, so how is that going to help?

Asking for help is being vulnerable. And the only person I was vulnerable with was Raquel. And sometimes I would just lie, like, yeah, I did homework today.

Chana Joffe-Walt

To her?

Jonathan Gonzalez

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You started lying to her?

Jonathan Gonzalez

Yeah, because it was too much pressure. And I just don't want help from them.

Raquel Hardy

Because I wasn't in close proximity to him and I couldn't help and I couldn't save him-- and I wasn't trying to save him, but it was like, I tried everything to sort of keep him afloat even though I was barely with my head above the water as well. But we were floating together, but he seemed like at times he would drown, and I was trying to help him.

But it wasn't enough after a certain amount of the time. He was tired of me pushing him. He sort of just-- you know, I don't know-- just kind of let go.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Of you?

Raquel Hardy

Yeah, yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

In the middle of her junior year, Raquel let go of Jonathan. They broke up. By this point, Jonathan was so far behind, the school was warning him he'd be expelled. He'd already been suspended twice. He did not respond to the letters, did not tell anyone what was happening. Jonathan appeared to be unable to see how bad it was himself. He went back to school after Christmas break that year.

Jonathan Gonzalez

The way I found out that I failed out of Wheaton was by going back to the school, and my roommate opened the door. And he was like, yeah, man, they changed the lock. Somebody else is coming in.

And right then, I was like, oh, shit. And the dean was like, you need to leave immediately. You cannot be on this campus. You need to leave immediately. I felt like I had to go to my mom and say, listen, you were right. I'm not shit.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Jonathan came back to the Bronx, got a job at the front desk of a gym, and moved back in with his mom. Raquel finished her senior year without Jonathan. She unfriended him on Facebook.

But other friends she had on Facebook seemed to be struggling with the same things he had. All the time, Raquel would see the same news-- so and so flunked out of that school, or this kid partied too much and got kicked out. Her high school friends were failing at college one by one. Jonathan was not the anomaly, she was. By the time she graduated, Raquel was the only person she knew of who made it.

Raquel is now more than twice as likely as Jonathan to make it into the middle class, statistically more likely to be employed, to be healthy, to enjoy her daily work, to have a happy marriage. But most poor kids who make it to college do not make it to graduation. In fact, the number is shockingly low. Less than 1/5 finish in six years.

There are swarms of researchers trying to figure out what to do about this right now. Education is the best way to cross class barriers. And in many cases, education seems to be the barrier. Pablo Muriel, the high school teacher who all these kids remember and loved, he knows this very well. Just listen to what happened when I asked Pablo if he remembered Raquel.

Pablo Muriel

Yeah, Raquel? Of course I remember her. She went to Bard, Bard College.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, she did. She's a teacher now.

Pablo Muriel

She's already graduated?

Chana Joffe-Walt

She graduated, and she's teaching.

Pablo Muriel

I'm so proud of her. Beautiful. Oh my god, I'm so proud of her. That's beautiful. Awesome.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Pablo is Puerto Rican. He grew up in the Bronx, in the projects. So when he told kids they could make it to college, it was credible because he did it. He graduated college. He went to graduate school, traveled the world.

Pablo says it's important for kids to see someone like them succeed, but he also feels deeply ambivalent about playing this role. He still tells kids to go to college because what else is he supposed to do?

Pablo Muriel

And you know, it's sort of something to reach for. I didn't want them to feel like this is it, and there's no way out. But unfortunately, I'm going to be very sincere. With most of the kids that have graduated-- I've kept in touch with so many of them-- only a handful have actually been the Raquel Hardys. I just had someone visit me yesterday, Anthony Wentz, who Hampshire, got a full scholarship. He called me a year later and said, I can't do it. I'm sorry, I'm leaving.

Columbia University, Fordham University-- there was one young lady who was part of that program as well. She went to Fordham University, and she left. She couldn't hack it. And we're talking about the Bronx, Fordham University. She couldn't do it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Pablo says Bard College, Columbia, these are Fieldstons. And he imagines that what happened to lots of his former students is probably the same thing that happened to them at Fieldston. They were dropped into a foreign land and asked to mentally imagine themselves as belonging. That's hard to do.

In fact, the entire project of Raquel's life has been trying to convince herself she does belong. In this regard, she is a mental gladiator because this project did not end when she got into the prestigious college, it did not end when she graduated from that college, or when after college she landed an excellent job interview at a law firm to be a paralegal.

Raquel Hardy

Even though I got my foot in the door by having a good resume and maybe giving a good phone interview, when I get in there, I'm like, I don't deserve this. The pay grade salary was above what I deserved, and this is more money than either of my parents have ever made probably. And those things go through my mind came when I'm walking into a place that I'm trying to apply for work.

And so how could you convince somebody that you deserve it when you don't even believe it yourself? It's a reoccurring theme in my life. You know, I have to tell myself that I deserve this, because I work really hard for it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She has to ignore the fancy library that she did not get to enjoy in high school, the bad grades she got in college, the fact that she can't afford books, the fact that she's the only black kid in class, the fact that her peers in college already knew how to use a semicolon correctly, the Facebook stream of high school friends dropping out of college one at a time, and the boyfriend who deeply, more deeply than her, believes the message confirmed again and again by all these things-- that he is unworthy.

Raquel has to not look at the mountain of evidence that what she's working toward will not be possible and instead has to repeat to herself, you do deserve this. You deserve this. You do deserve this.

Raquel Hardy

And that's what I did while I was at Fieldston. And that's what I did when I was at Bard. And that's what I do on my job interviews now. That's what I do at work.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Raquel keeps waiting for the sense of entitlement to set in, the bravado she sees in her peers from Bard. She can fake it, but she hasn't gotten to the point where she truly feels it. I mentioned this to Pablo.

Pablo Muriel

And I'm going to be very sincere with you. I am 36 years old, and I have two masters degrees. And I'm all but dissertation at this point. I'm working on my dissertation now. And I still feel that way. It is something that will never leave.

Chana Joffe-Walt

This group of kids got their first peek over the fence a decade ago now. And Melanie, the girl who found it so upsetting as a 15 year old that she ran away, she's 25 now. She's the same person she was at 15, but there are no longer people around to tell her, you are exceptional, you're going to make something of yourself. What there is are customers in an upscale supermarket with red banners out front announcing luxury apartments upstairs.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When you described being at Fieldston and seeing, like, these kids are going to be doctors and lawyers and we're going to be the people opening doors for them and serving them, do you feel like that's you now?

Melanie

Absolutely. 100%. That's why I'm so ashamed of my job. I don't really tell people what I do for a living. I felt like we were there to service people like that, and that's what I service. I service people that definitely express that they're better than us and let you know, like, you're not on their level.

Like, I hate telling people where I work, because I hate-- it's a supermarket. And I really want to shake that off of me. That's been almost nine years of my life, and I'm just like, I have to move on. I just really want out.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There's this one thing I keep replaying in my head after talking to all these people. It's the story Angela Vassos told me about Melanie getting into Middlebury. Do you remember that, the teacher from Fieldston, the private school. Remember how vivid Angela's memory was?

Angela Vassos

And she says, Melanie, come here. Melanie goes up. There are, like, 50 people in the room. She says, Middlebury accepted you, full scholarship.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Melanie did not get into Middlebury. She doesn't remember this moment at all. But Angela does clearly. Even today, she acknowledges it must not have been what really happened, but she remembers it.

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 met Melanie in November, and I still call her most weeks just to say, so what happened with your dentist, with your grades, with that meeting with your professor? I keep expecting there to be news, like she's about to get her big break or something 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 that if it doesn't, something unusual has happened, and not just this is what happens all the time, that the supermarket might be full of Melanies.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our program.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder.

Editing on today's show from Paul Tough and Joel Lovell. Production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our office manager. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show.

Research help today from Michelle Harris. Music help Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. When Beyonce did not win Album of the Year this year, Torey walked out of our Grammys party.

Lisa Greenbaum

This is unfair. I don't want to be here. I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going home.

Ira Glass

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