Just last year, the University where I am (gratefully) employed started a First Year Reading Experience (FYRE). This year has already shown improvement, including giving each incoming student a copy of the book rather than expecting them to buy an optional text (something I felt VERY strongly about). They've also chosen a book that might have broader appeal: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference. Written by NYT journalist Warren St. John, the book follows coach Luma Mufleh as she somewhat stumbles into founding a powerful youth soccer program for refugees in Clarkston, GA just outside of Atlanta.
The book taught me a lot that I probably should have already known: that the UN and the US Office of Refugee Resettlement funds and coordinates refugee relocation to places like Clarkston at startling numbers (the population of Clarkston went from a mostly homogeneous middle-class white community to one-third of the town now being foreign-born); that communities like Clarkston are chosen because of their proximity to large, urban centers with good public transportation and lots of low-wage jobs; that most refugees move on to another location after a stint in their original resettlement home.
It also reminded me of a few things I either knew or had suspected (see corresponding quotes): that forced diversity is not always a cure-all (1); that soccer is a uniquely team-oriented and unifying sport (2); and that merely getting to know people can change the world or at least some small corner of it (3).
1. "Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life," the authors [of a 2007 study] wrote, "to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television." (40)
2. Unlike basketball, baseball, or football, games that reset after each play, soccer unfolds fluidly and continuously. To understand how a goal was scored, you have to work back through the action - the sequences of passes and decisions, the movement of the players away from the action who reappear unexpectedly in empty space to create or wast opportunities - all the way back to the first touch. (8)
3. Luma decided that the kids really needed a free soccer program of their own. She didn't have the foggiest idea of how to start or run such a program. She certainly couldn't fund it, and with a restaurant to run and a team of her own to coach, she hardly had time to spare. But the more she played soccer in the parking lots around Clarkston and the more she learned about the kids there, the more she felt a nagging urge to engage, and to do something. (51)The book is not without flaw, and I suspect many of my students will be turned off by the attention to minute detail, the slow-moving passages without much action, and (like me) the repetition of material that seems to indicate a lack of editing. It should spark some good conversations though, not the least of which will be how my students (decidedly lower-middle to middle class themselves, if not actually working class) will relate to the struggles of the refugees or how they might use the Fugees' experience as a mirror on their own sense of entitlement and privilege. On that note, The New Yorker has an excellent article on spoiled American children. Even if you haven't read Outcasts United, check out the article. It is definitely food for thought, especially with passages like this:
“Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis on being special,” [Levine] observes. “Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight.”