Five years ago, Joe Miller walked into one of the worst high schools in Kansas City expecting to get a story. He did, but he became part...
Five years ago, Joe Miller walked into one of the worst high schools in Kansas City expecting to get a story. He did, but he became part of one too: a story in which low-income, urban black kids found a lifeline in a stereotypically white, middle-class endeavor — debating.
Miller has written a book about the kids at Central High School who overcame huge obstacles and made a name for themselves as champions. He was in Seattle recently signing copies of his book, “Cross-X,” and donating proceeds to the Seattle Debate Foundation, which works with kids like the ones he got to know in several schools in Seattle and Renton.
Cross-X is debate shorthand for cross-examination, and the book is a social cross-examination.
Miller used a phrase from the Roman writer Terentius to explain how a guy who grew up in mostly white suburbs came to champion a group of impoverished urban black kids.
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“I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me.”
Over coffee, Miller told me he believes a good journalist should be able to set aside his assumptions, really listen to what people are saying and see life from their vantage point.
That doesn’t always happen where race and class are involved. When his own thinking deepened, his story about debate became a story about race and class in America, and then a personal challenge.
“If you really report on race, you can’t divorce yourself from it,” he said.
Driving between his neighborhood and the impoverished, nearly all-black area around the school, he began to see life on his side of Kansas City, and life on the black side, as symbiotic.
Miller believes a city can’t have deep class, race or gender divisions without people on the advantaged side being blind to them. When his own eyes opened, he couldn’t be neutral. Race and class ceased being abstract.
“And with kids in the mix, kids who need help expressing themselves, and you have skills,” he said. “You can’t not help.”
He arrived at the school in 2001 ready to write the usual story about poor kids and a struggling school, but the book is about strong, capable people, each with his own personality and story. Miller doesn’t idealize the kids or their families, but neither does he paint them as helpless and hopeless.
On his first day at Central, he saw the case of trophies the debate team had won against affluent schools with stellar reputations. It began to change the ideas he came in with. Here was a program that erased the achievement gap educators and policymakers constantly talked about.
Jane Rinehart, a white debate teacher, made the program work despite the school system. She’s a primly dressed woman who takes no guff. She’s a daughter of Louisiana segregationists who believes in equality.
A wealthy school asked her to run its debate program, but she turned the job down even though she’d make a lot more money and have part of a speech and debate budget of more than $200,000. Instead she pays out of her pocket to support her Central kids, who beat the pants off the wealthy school in competition.
Miller grew up in a liberal family, and he was born in 1968 so his schooling included discussions of race and lectures about tolerance. He read the book “Black Like Me” in junior high school. That made an impact, as did the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which he was assigned to read in college.
But the leap from knowing racism exists to wanting to do something about it came with his experience at Central.
Miller moved close to Central High School. “My life is much richer just having a diverse community,” he said. Eventually he came to feel worse for the people in the suburbs. “I go over there and it feels empty.”
One of the students in his book, Ebony Rose, has become like family and will be the best man at his wedding in February. Rose, who shuttled between foster homes while his mother fought drug addiction, won a debate scholarship to attend the University of Louisville.
Publius Terentius Afer, the Roman playwright I mentioned at the beginning, the guy we call Terence, was brought from Africa to Rome as the slave of a Roman senator who later freed him.
Terence wrote another line that is appropriate here, “While there is life, there is hope.”
The school system may have given up on these kids, but Miller and Rinehart did not. And they aren’t alone.
Jen Johnson runs the Seattle Debate Foundation, which held a fundraising demonstration a couple of weeks ago. She told the audience that debaters learn how to organize their ideas. Their language skills improve. They learn how to research anything. They learn about current events and history. It’s nearly a full curriculum in one activity.
The local organization needs money and other help. If you are interested, visit their Web site, www.seattledebate.org.
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.