Mike Rose: A Conversation on Poverty and Education in Los Angeles

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In this episode of World of Ideas, Bill Moyers talked with Mike Rose, a decades-long advocate for those on the margins of Los Angeles. After attending a poor neighborhood school where no one expected him to succeed, Rose because the associate director of the UCLA writing program. His book, Lives on the Boundary, describes his students, many of them poor, all of them labeled failures.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Mike Rose was raised here on the streets of Los Angeles in a poor neighborhood, in a school that did not expect him to succeed. But succeed he did. He became a teacher, and for more than 20 years he has worked with people on the margin, inner-city children, Vietnam veterans, students in a poor community college, adults trying to overcome a lifetime of disadvantage.

Now Rose is the associate director of the UCLA Writing Program, where he teaches students how to enter and succeed in the academy. In Lives on the Boundary, he writes about his students, many of them poor, all of them labeled failures. We talked at his home in Los Angeles.

[interviewing] You said in your book, “The more I come to understand education, the more I come to believe in the power of invitation.” Why invitation?

MIKE ROSE: The way I view education, it’s an invitation, it is an attempt to bring people into a kind of conversation, into a set of ideas, into ways of thinking and conversing, reading and writing, that’s new to them.

BILL MOYERS: I like that term, entering a conversation.


BILL MOYERS: Education does that, doesn’t it? It invites you into the democratic conversation.

MIKE ROSE: Well, when it’s done right, I think it does that.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve been teaching how long now?

MIKE ROSE: Twenty years.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I’m intrigued, because you said before we began this conversation that you just didn’t think you had the right to be heard by the people listening to this discussion of education.

MIKE ROSE: Isn’t it foolish? 1-I thought of-you know, the two days before we were to get together, I went through every sort of-I played out every awful scenario you could imagine, from throwing up on my shoes to passing out in my chair to embarrassing you or embarrassing myself. And I realized, finally, that what it was was this longstanding feeling that I guess — that develops in a lot of us that grow up in the working class, and then find ourselves suddenly or not so suddenly in arenas that are very different from the ones we grew up in. I think I continue to live with that sort of nagging uncertainty, that nagging doubt that I have the right to speak to a public about many of these issues.

BILL MOYERS: Because you’re from the working class?

MIKE ROSE: Well, it’s not that explicit, you know. I mean, I wish I could say it that articulately to myself, because then I could prove it to be nonsense, right? But it’s rather this — I like the phrase from that wonderful book — I like the phrase, “the hidden injuries of class.” It’s like a kind of lingering doubt that’s hard for me to grab onto, but is there, and I think it stays with a number of us who sort of move up through the class system and end up in a profession that is highly status-laden.

BILL MOYERS: What does that say about the mystique of education in this country, that somehow experience which you have after 20 years of teaching street kids, slum kids, illiterate adults, people who can’t get out of their neighborhoods, the lost people of our society, out of the loop of America, what does that say about the mystique of education, that you don’t take yourself quite seriously enough as a competent authority?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. Interesting, isn’t it? The mystique-in fact, the raw power of education, particularly higher education, you know, the further you move up that-the ladder of the educational system, it is so powerful, I think, that it can act to deny our most immediate and true experience. It’s interesting, Bill, because it manifests itself in lots of ways. People who are sullen and silent, or people who kind of act out, you know, make lots of noise, joke around a lot, become the class clown, people who get stoned, people who are absent a lot, all of these are ways, I think, that they’re defending against that very feeling that we’re talking about, the feeling of not belonging, of being inadequate.

BILL MOYERS: Do you remember some of those kids you taught 20 years ago, when you were a new teacher, poor kids like Dora, Jesus and-

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, I do. And-

BILL MOYERS: What did they teach you?

MIKE ROSE: -yeah, good question. It’s one that’s rarely asked.

BILL MOYERS: You had to learn from them.

MIKE ROSE: Did I ever learn from them. I learned that virtually any kid who has been written off, virtually any kid who has that thick cumulative folder full of failure, has an ability and a potential that we simply don’t see. And what I found, again and again, was that they just had all this ability, the ability to tell stories and write them, the ability to talk to each other about the reading they did and create interesting kinds of connections between the readings. They had an ability to get very excited about language use in a way you could have never predicted from what the objective tests said and what the records in their cumulative folders said.

BILL MOYERS: And writing has something to do with the primal pulse to survive, doesn’t it? If you can put it on paper, you somehow have a foothold.

MIKE ROSE: You have a foothold. You also, I think, see your experience validated or reflected, anyway, in a medium that has always seemed very foreign to you. I mean, writing, for even these kids in the fourth and fifth grade, writing was a distant, foreign, frightening experience, and what I hope I was able to do with them was to get them to see that, with writing, they could render some of the things that they saw, some of the things that were important to them to talk about. They could also play; they could play with writing. My God, play with writing! What a wonderful thing that is.

BILL MOYERS: Was this true also of the adults you taught, the illiterate men who came to you back from Vietnam, looking for a way to change their lives?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. These were guys who did not have a good time of it in high school, and to tell the truth, many of them were probably hell on wheels in high school. I mean, it was a terrible place for them. And after the experience of Vietnam, what they saw with blinding clarity was that they needed to get up and out of that pool of men that could be called on so readily to go into that kind of horror.

BILL MOYERS: Those who shoot and get shot at?

MIKE ROSE: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: That’s where we take most of our fodder.

MIKE ROSE: That’s exactly right.

BILL MOYERS: That’s what we did in the Vietnam war.

MIKE ROSE: That’s right. And these guys knew what fodder was, and they didn’t want to be that.

BILL MOYERS: You called them “strangers in a strange land.”

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. Yeah. This was the place where they were going to get another shot to get themselves ready for this strange land that had always seemed so distant to them, the world of higher education.

BILL MOYERS: There are a lot of clichés that we use about people like this, that they’ve abandoned the word, that they’ve ceased to care about ideas, simple reading is beyond them. Did you hear those a lot, said about these kind of people?

MIKE ROSE: Oh, absolutely. And you still do. I mean, pick up the newspaper, look at the crisis reports, hear the cloistered academicians giving their opinion about our eventual cultural demise. And those are the kinds of phrases you hear about these folks.

BILL MOYERS: The most common one now is, “What we have here is a crisis of cultural literacy.”


BILL MOYERS: Is that how you see it?

MIKE ROSE: It’s certainly not the way you can see it once you spend time with people like I’ve worked with. These are people who had-now admittedly, they had just come out of a kind of experience that sort of slapped them around in a horrible way. But what was striking was, is that virtually to a person, these guys were curious. They wanted to know how to do things with language. They knew damn well that to be able to do things with language or with mathematics was going to enable them to improve their life. You cannot write these folks off as being in some way incompetent, incapable, damaged, deficient. It’s that they never had-they never had the right kinds of opportunities, the right chances.

BILL MOYERS: Your parents were immigrants from Italy?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Came here looking for opportunity?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, it’s the immigrant story, isn’t it? I mean, we lived in south central Los Angeles, we were able to rent a house. We had some furniture, although I can remember the furniture being repossessed, and getting sort of less attractive furniture. They managed to scrape their money together to send me to a parochial school, because they had it in their mind that that would be the better-that that would guarantee me a better education.

BILL MOYERS: They were right. They got you on the track, right?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, they sure did. Now, the elementary school that I went to was okay, you know, it was so-so. I didn’t excel particularly. I mean, I was a decidedly average student. I look back at my old report cards and there were all these Cs speckled throughout it. I went to high school, and an interesting thing happened. I — my entrance test — you know, you always take I.Q. tests and all that sort of thing when you enter school — and my tests were confused with somebody else’s, and I was placed in the vocational track, which everybody pretty much admits is, with few exceptions, a euphemism for the bottom rung. And I stayed there for a couple of years, and drifted more and more to the level of a really mediocre and quite unprepared student.

What’s interesting to me about that is not that this unusual thing happened to me, but it shows how arbitrary some of that kind of placement could be. It also shows how students placed — and I try to show this in the book — how students placed in that sort of track live down to the expectations of the track. And finally, it suggests to me how difficult it is for parents who are not socialized into that whole way of thinking about education, how easy it is for them to not realize that something is amiss.

BILL MOYERS: And to fight back.

That’s why I get a little short-tempered at the kind of constant barrage that comes from our blue-ribbon reports, telling us that parents are not doing enough and need to be more involved in the schools. That may be true, but we also have to have some compassion for people who are utterly terrified by the schools and don’t know how to even begin to interact with them.
MIKE ROSE: And to fight back. I mean, my father went to the second grade, in Italy. What would he know about that? My mother was an exhausted waitress. Where would they sense the authority to go and even question a school or a set of teachers about these things? That’s why I get a little short-tempered at the kind of constant barrage that comes from our blue-ribbon reports, telling us that parents are not doing enough and need to be more involved in the schools. That may be true, but we also have to have some compassion for people who are utterly terrified by the schools and don’t know how to even begin to interact with them.

BILL MOYERS: You got on a dead-end track and they didn’t know it was dead-end, and they just accepted it because authority had told them this is the way it will be?

MIKE ROSE: This is the way it would be. A funny thing happened, though. I finally found a course that had some kind of interest for me, and I kind of caught on. It was biology. And so the fellow who was teaching the course noticed that this Voc Ed kid was racking up these 98s and 99s on these biology tests, and he went, looked at the records, and found the mistake. So in my junior year, I suddenly found myself sitting in a college preparatory course, for which I was utterly unprepared.

It wasn’t until my senior year, when a teacher who was a kind of latter-day beatnik, bohemian sort of fellow, who had come out to California because he wanted to teach school and ended up in this school just by some miraculous twist of fate, and he caught me. I was so taken by a guy who had such presence, and gained his presence through the use of his mind. The kind of presence and power that I had grown up with and seen was the presence and power of brawn. This was the first person I saw who could captivate people with language, and I wanted to be like him. And it was simply because of that, I’m convinced of this, it was because I admired his potency, and his presence, that I wanted to be like him. So I started working.

BILL MOYERS: Is it unrealistic to think that what happened to you can be repeated sufficiently in the working class, the poverty class, the slums, the ghettos, south Los Angeles today, with such frequency that you are not just an exception?

MIKE ROSE: I did not face the kinds of barriers that people of color face. I also was lucky, in that I hit a series of teachers who took an interest in me. And I would not for a minute want to try to generalize from my case in any broad way. On the other hand, what happened to me and what I have seen happen to endless numbers of people who I’ve worked with, read about, heard about in other settings, studied, suggests to me that when the conditions are right, miraculous things can happen with large numbers of people who have been written off, who have failed in the earlier grades, who have drifted through a school system that has not done right by them.

BILL MOYERS: Is this what you mean when you say that poor performance in education is more often, in your experience, a social failure instead of an intellectual failure?

MIKE ROSE: Hmm. So often we assume that miserable test scores or a failed performance of some kind, you know, the stunted piece of writing that we always see tossed before us in our national magazines as evidence of our, you know, cultural demise, the low reading scores, the dropout and truancy rates, we see all this as evidence of some sort of an-often, we see it as some sort of an evidence of an intellectual failure, that these people are not capable, they’re not cognitively capable, they don’t have the intellectual or linguistic facility to conduct these kinds of tests and to comport themselves in the school system.

BILL MOYERS: But there is this continuing tendency in our society to look upon the poor as somehow different. And I don’t mean just different in having less money.


BILL MOYERS: Different in terms of-

MIKE ROSE: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: -soul, or mind, the recesses of spirit.

MIKE ROSE: That’s right. That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: We do tend to put them in that polarity.

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, we really do. And it goes-it goes way back in our country. You know, when you read reports from 19th century educators about teaching the urban poor, there the whole discussion is cast again and again in terms of almost-well, almost-moral, spiritual and characterologic [sic] terms. The–virtually calling the children the poor barbarians. Virtually calling them without a soul. Virtually calling them without character, or with flawed character. As we moved into our own time, that sort of moralistic cast has tended to diminish a bit, but instead, what we do now is, we zero in to the little loops and contours of their minds, or the language they use. And we find-we try-we assume we’re finding these very fundamental deficiencies that makes them different from us. Not just different because they have less money, but different in intellectual capacity, different in character, different in ability to use language.

BILL MOYERS: You remember Melvin, the kid with the radio who said to you, “Teacher, English is not my thing.”

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. This was in a “remedial writing class” in an Ohio college that I was visiting. And in the classroom they were doing all the awful things that we do in so many of our high school and college classrooms under the name of remediation in English. They were going down through one of those tire–those sort of endless, tiresome workbooks, you know, circling who or whom, and the correct spelling of their and there. And they were doing this for the whole 50 minutes. Some were doing it, some weren’t, some were doing their nails, some were looking out the window, and that was what this entire class consisted of. So I caught up with this kid after class, and he was just-you know, I asked him about English, and this class, and he said, “No, you know, English is just not my thing. I can’t-” you know, blah-blah-blah. And I noticed he was listening to the radio, and he’s listening to some rap music. And the lyrics were particularly interesting in their cadence and rhyme. So I asked him about that, and he said, “Oh, yeah, I really like this.” And what was interesting was, as I talked to him about the music, he liked the music and liked the words for the very reasons that someone who is “very literate” would be drawn to language.


MIKE ROSE: It can do things, it enables you to express an opinion. It builds you up when you can use it and also, he said -and I think correctly, for that music -he said, “It helps you get women.”

BILL MOYERS: One way to get women is: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It’s just another form of rap. [crosstalk]

MIKE ROSE: That’s one way. That worked. That seemed to work, didn’t it?

BILL MOYERS: It works. That’s right.

MIKE ROSE: Now, hand in glove with that, if he’s interested-he said that he’s really interested in this kind of language, because it enables you to do things in the world, well, might that not be a nice way to start to introduce other sorts of language that do-languages that do things in the world?

BILL MOYERS: But the language of rap is not the language of the marketplace, it’s not the language of the workplace, it’s not the language that he will have to function in economically if he’s going to gain some means of support-

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. Right.

BILL MOYERS: -and some place-


BILL MOYERS: -in the larger world. So you’re not saying we have to go to the way of rap and-


BILL MOYERS: -and forget Shakespeare and Marlowe and Hemingway.

MIKE ROSE: Wonderful point. Wonderful point.

BILL MOYERS: And Faulkner, and even the language we’re using here.

MIKE ROSE: I’m glad you’re bringing it up. I think one powerful notion that we need to keep in mind is that you meet somebody where they are. Now, if that is the kind of language use that’s most scintillating and exciting to him, that makes most sense to him, that’s embedded the most in his immediate experience, let’s start there. Because if you can start there, if you can get him interested in that, maybe getting him to write the lyrics out, think about the lyrics, play around with the lyrics himself in print, in writing, struggling to do that, forgetting whether or not it’s misspelled or the syntax isn’t correct, then that might be the place that you begin with him. Then you move outward. Then you move into domains that are less familiar to him. Remember back to your own first encounter with the language of Shakespeare. If it was anything like mine, it was somewhat distant. I couldn’t really understand it. I got angry at it. I couldn’t-I couldn’t work my way through it. Well, that’s the sort of experience that so many of these folks have had with-

BILL MOYERS: So they begin to feel incompetent and unworthy and-

MIKE ROSE: To feel incompetent.

BILL MOYERS: -and mad.

MIKE ROSE: And mad. And as soon as that happens, then that happens. Put it away, get it out of sight.

BILL MOYERS: You tell the story of one of your students, an older woman, I think, discovered the joy of Shakespeare. Remember her?

MIKE ROSE: Yeah. And she was a pretty tough customer. She had had a rough childhood and a rough early adulthood. She had come back, taken this sort of work and was doing well, and now she was at the place where she was trying to advance herself. And in the particular community college program that she enrolled in to gain some more units, one of the things she had to do was take an introductory humanities course, okay? And at that time, the reading list included Macbeth. Now, I knew that I had to get her through this somehow, and she fought me all the way on it, for all the reasons that I could understand, because I had felt them myself 15 years before. She said, “This stuff is so hard to read, it’s so distant, what’s it got to do with us?” And I spent a lot of time with her. We would sit down after class in the little lunchroom in the basement of this building and drink Cokes, and I would drag her through scene after scene and act it out with her, and make her speak the words. I would also make her say to the page why she was so angry. “Come on, come on, what’s making you so angry about this? Say it to the page.”

Well, what was interesting was, by the time we got through this, and it was a battle, this was something she said to me, and I immediately scribbled it down, because I didn’t want to lose it. She said: ”You know, Mike, people always hold this stuff over you. They make you feel stupid with their fancy talk. But now, I’ve read it. I’ve read Shakespeare. I can say, ‘I, Olga, have read it.’ I won’t tell you I like it, ’cause I don’t know if I do or I don’t, but I like knowing what it’s about.”

And that was powerful to me, because that is not the sort of thing you read in the sort of humanist tracts on the great books. It’s not that Olga became a better human being. It’s not that she gained a kind of discriminating vision that allowed her to tell between good and evil. It was not that her linguistic capacity was enriched by the encounter with the great word. It’s very interesting what she got from it. What she got from it was a sense that she was not powerless and she was not dumb, and now she understood something that had become a symbol of everything that she could not do before. And she felt good about the kind of power she had. She wouldn’t-she didn’t know if she liked it or not, but she sure knew that it felt okay to be able to say that she had read it.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that one of the first purposes of education is to open our eyes to our own worth and our own capacity.


BILL MOYERS: To change our lives, or at least to understand the lives of others.

MIKE ROSE: If we really mean that in our educational system, then we have to truly think of ways, rigorous ways, rigorous ways to bring people into that encounter who traditionally have not been brought into it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think there will be a place in this economy for all these people you would like to-whose potential you would like to tap, whom you would like to turn on to the joys and power of reading and writing and communicating?

MIKE ROSE: Well, I’m not enough of an economist or a social policy person to be able to comment on that with any real learning. I can say that I don’t see that we have any choice but to figure out how to invite more people from the poor and disenfranchised groups in this country. We don’t have any choice but to figure out how to bring them into our society. The presence of such a huge number of people who are so disenfranchised runs counter to the story, to the best story, that this country tells itself about itself. It does not speak of equality. It does not speak of a country that is an open society, with an open educational system. And I think unless we do something, the falseness of that story will slap us very hard in the face, I think. We’re headed for troubled times in this society unless we do something to help more people enter into the educational system in a more productive and powerful way.

BILL MOYERS: You just used that word again, invite.

MIKE ROSE: Yeah, I did, didn’t I?

BILL MOYERS: Enter. That’s education.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From his home in Los Angeles, this has been a conversation with Mike Rose. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.

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