This morning I finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (and by that I mean I finished like a week ago and am only now getting to blog about it). In previous entries I lamented somewhat that it seems that certain individuals are dealt from an extremely stacked deck, to the detriment of anyone who isn’t born into the right family, at the right time, with the right set of aptitudes. As any writer of fiction must do, even Gladwell’s nonfiction saved the big plot twist for the very end. The final chapter relates the story of an extraordinary school in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City.
90% of their students (half black, half Hispanic) at the KIPP Academy (Knowledge Is Power Program) qualify for free or reduced lunch. Three-quarters come from a single-parent home. Yet the environment inside the school is a paragon of respect, orderliness, and academic achievement that makes KIPP one of the most desired public schools in New York City. Students are well above grade level in their math skills – 7th graders are starting high school algebra!
But the reality unfolds when you see exactly how these students, who otherwise would likely have experienced similar levels of dropouts and failure as their peers who didn’t get selected in the lottery that determines admission to KIPP, earn their success. They are at school for up to 12 hours a day, often on Saturdays as well, and do not take an extended summer break like affluent suburban schoolchildren would. In short, they work their tails off.
The day of my last blog entry, I subbed for a P.E. teacher at a junior high school. He is the head basketball coach of an extremely successful program – multiple 8th and 9th grade city championships to its credit. I saw a slogan on a t-shirt of one of the players that resonated with what I had been absorbing from Gladwell – “Do Work.” (I saw the slogan again on another shirt in Tulsa this past weekend.) I think it may boil down to just that.
Whether a child, student, athlete, employee, or any of us, comes from a background of privilege or has been born at just the right time and place, or is caught in a perfect storm of poverty, neglect, and disadvantage, we must each do work. With whatever opportunities we have, we must work hard. But as Gladwell so aptly challenges us, “We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth… The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.” Success is where chances given meet hard work done.