Expectations are powerful things. We strive to live up to them. We will push ourselves and try things we never thought we could do, simply because a friend or mentor believed in us, and made us believe in ourselves. They give us the courage sometimes to make life-changing decisions.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a novel about how one kid took a chance and broke free of the crushing poverty of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. It takes a special kind of courage to pull oneself out of the morass of poverty. From inner city neighborhoods to deep woods Appalachia, concentrated poverty and the social problems it breeds have a way of latching on to people and making it almost impossible to find a way out. Broken families, substance abuse, and a general lack of hope permeate communities and create a barrier to finding the gumption to move out and make a better life.
Surrounded by poverty, hunger, and alcohol abuse, Alexie’s protagonist, Arnold Spirit, Jr., decides to leave the reservation school and attend Reardan High School, an all-white school in a town 20 miles away. The book—based on Alexie’s experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation—is a coming-of-age tale about how Arnold learns to navigate both the world of his tribe and the world of his white classmates without fully belonging in either of them.
Alexie doesn’t flinch from the underlying social issues that prompted Arnold to leave the reservation to get his education. In her recent book, The New Trail of Tears, Naomi Schaefer Riley takes an in-depth look at the challenges facing Native Americans living on reservations today. Riley shows us a world that is eerily similar to Alexie’s depiction of the reservation where Arnold lives. She describes families torn apart by abuse and alcoholism and schools plagued by violence and apathy. It’s a textbook case of what George W. Bush criticized once as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Expectations are powerful things, remember, and we can live down to them if the bar is set too low.
Which brings us back to Arnold Spirit, Jr. Arnold has an epiphany of sorts on his first day at the reservation high school when he gets his geometry book in math class. One glance at his mom’s name on the inside cover—the book was more than 30 years old—and he realizes that the neglect rampant in the reservation school will reduce his opportunities to escape the dysfunction he sees around him. In a moment of anger, he throws the book, accidentally hits his teacher in the face with it, and gets himself suspended. A veteran of years in the reservation classroom, his teacher, grasping Arnold’s frustration, encourages him to leave the reservation and go where he can find hope for a better future.
And so Arnold leaves. We hear this in story after story of people who have made it out of the tough neighborhoods of inner cities or the small towns of the Rust Belt. Hope is on the outside. When your worldview is limited to your neighborhood, the possibilities you see for yourself are limited too.
Clearly, the detrimental effects of poverty are not limited to America’s Indian reservations. We see them in other pockets of concentrated poverty in communities everywhere. These communities tend to be insular, banded together by family ties or identity politics that embrace an aura of victimhood over self-actualization. It is impossible to know what success looks like when you don’t see it in the culture around you, so it is not surprising when kids don’t know how to find it. The pull of community is hard to overcome, particularly if that community is the only one you’ve ever known.
The question for us, then, is how do we create opportunities for children who, like the fictional Arnold Spirit, Jr., need to leave the toxic cultures of their upbringing and find a way out of poverty?
For Arnold, his opportunity came from expanding his worldview outside of the reservation and finding adults and fellow students who believed in him and made him believe in himself. It wasn’t easy. Some days he had to hitchhike to school when his parents didn’t wake up to take him, and he walked the 22 miles home when they forgot to come pick him up. Arnold chalks up his success to the high expectations of his basketball coach and teammates: “They expected me to be good. And so I became good.” Expectations are powerful things.
Locally, we can start with individuals taking the time to mentor young people—something each of us can do. When we have kids of our own it is easy. We can lead their Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops or coach Little League. We can teach Sunday school classes and volunteer in their school classrooms. You don’t have to have kids to be a mentor, though. One of the most well known youth mentoring programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, is active in many communities, and a quick Google search will put you in touch with the youth mentoring programs in your area. You don’t have to have a child in the troop to be a Girl Scout or Boy Scout leader either. The key is to find a local organization and get involved.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian gets better for me each time I read it. Publisher Little, Brown and Company is releasing a tenth anniversary hardcover edition in September of this year that is available on Kindle now. Arnold Spirit, Jr. is a charming narrator, and although it’s a little scary to be inside the head of a fourteen-year-old boy, Arnold’s pluck is inspiring. Through him, we experience the poverty of his people and the challenges of finding hope in a community that is greatly lacking it. It is a poignant reminder of the power we have to mentor and encourage the kids in our lives.