The triumph over tremedous disadvantage is, and always has been, one of the more ubiquitous themes in literature. Most such stories are cheap and trite, yet the tales in “And Still We Rise” do not reflect this common trend.
“And Still We Rise,” written by award-winning Los Angeles Times journalist Miles Corwin, follows, for one school year, 12 bright, industrious and thoughtful teenagers in a South Central high school’s gifted and talented program.
Corwin focuses his attention on the seniors in an Advanced Placement English class taught by an embittered teacher named Toni Little. The story’s narrative shifts frequently between Little and her students. While the teacher feels tormented by her English department chair, provoked into vicious battles over the curriculum, her pupils struggle with their own more tragic battles.
Olivia, a beautiful, extraordinarily intelligent and savvy student, bounces between nasty foster homes and crummy rat-infested apartments, finding herself unexpectedly derailed from her once-inevitable college scholarship. Another smart girl who has persevered through much family drama leaves school when she becomes pregnant, only to return the following semester, juggling baby formula with calculus formulas. One young man jettisons the gang to which he once belonged in order to earn a college scholarship, but loses momentum when he perceives the isolation he has wrought on himself.
These stories are gripping, and they are important to know and understand. Too often, the media feeds us tales of South Central horror: Rampant murders, vicious gangs, anarchic streets. Corwin shows us the hope that lives in the hearts and minds of these students.
However, the author’s bias sometimes interferes with these stories, distracting us from the pure message of hope and inspiration. Little, the English teacher, suffers from burnout and a martyr complex, vehemently lecturing her students about the sacrifices she has made for them. But the entire school considers Little their most gifted teacher, and the lectures which substantiate her good reputation are given short shrift.
Indeed, Corwin begins the story as a relatively objective journalist and ends as an active, empathetic participant. He substitute teaches at the school, drives Olivia to court appearances, and buys products that Olivia sells. Four of the 12 students with whom the author bonds most tightly grab the spotlight so frequently that the audience is left in the dark about the other intriguing students.
Corwin’s personal crusade against affirmative action is manifested through repetitive discussions of California’s repeal of proposition 209, the controversial legislation that ended affirmative action in that state. Yet most of the students in this book head to private colleges outside of California with substantial monetary offers in hand, except for the few who are sidetracked into jail or family obligations. The argument does not seem to fit this story. Corwin’s arguement would be better suited if he returns to the material in a few years to witness the consequences of this controversial repeal.
Overall, “And Still We Rise” offers one incredibly interesting story that comprises many vivid dramas of defeat and success with which the reader cannot help but sympathize. Corwin’s bias may be forgiven when one considers her own impassioned reaction to the personal accounts, five years after the stories were lived.
In the tradition of Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here” and Jonathon Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” Miles Corwin presents a tale that at once provokes terrible sadness but also great hope.