One of the most effective ways to look at rights of passage is by tracking a group of people. It’s a familiar model that can lend itself to different kinds of experiences, from war stories to expeditions to immigration to more. Chronology usually drives the narrative, with the beginning introducing us to a disparate group of individuals and their histories. As the process unfolds, some succeed and some do not. Variations in experiences provide us with broad understanding, and if done well, offers opportunities for informed empathy. In other worlds, it is possible to recognize the journey at the individual and group level. The whole of the story can signify more than the sum of its parts.
Daniel Connolly effectively employs this model in The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America. In the book he follows Isaiah and several of his fellow Latinx high school classmates in Memphis, Tennessee, as they grow through post-secondary education and into college – or not. It is a fascinating, encouraging, heart-breaking, and important study. Most directly about the journey to higher education, the book is also about becoming an adult and an American, which is always a thought-provoking question. In times that tend to polarize, The Book of Isaias offers an encouraging story of common concerns, hopes and values. In Connolly’s skillful hands, we want things to turn out well for these students – even as we know that they face extraordinary challenges.
A journalist with strong language skills and a deep interest in immigration, Connolly spent five years on the book. First-hand interviews propel the stories of the young men and women, informed by larger-context information, data and reports. Connolly helps us appreciate the actions and choices of the teenagers while exploring their environment and options. He writes sympathetically but not uncritically.
Connolly is helpful, too, in framing the general demographic trends, economic issues, and political actions that have increased Latinx populations throughout the United States. He stresses that twenty years ago there were few high schools with large numbers of Hispanic students in middle American cities such as Memphis. He acknowledges his own unfamiliarity with the ways that the city and so many other communities are changing. The time that he spent researching the book, and especially while he was embedded in the high school, very much opened his eyes.
Connolly learned that the schools and support systems are inadequately funded and usually serve the students poorly. The children have few champions and most of their families are ill-equipped to support them through a college education and, by default, life in the middle class. Citizenship status and immigration concerns are ever present anxieties for most of these students and their families. These are no small worries, either. Remember, too, that the book was researched in the Obama presidency. What Connolly elevates through the text and the narrative is how recognizable and “normal” the students are – regardless of whether or not Spanish was spoken at home. They are smart, they have tremendous potential, and in many ways the system is stacked against them.
Isaias is a very smart student, the child of illegal immigrants. He thrives in an academic environment and his intelligence is noticed by his teachers and the school. He wants to attend college. Smarts are not enough to guarantee success, for culture and citizenship status greatly limits aid and opportunities. Simultaneously, financial pressures and familial expectations pull Isaias to work in the family’s house painting business. Add for-profit colleges messaging, concerns about value and belonging, and confusing tuition discounting to the mix and it is not difficult to understand how high school and secondary education failed to take advantage of Isaias tremendous potential. This happens all too often – even as many within the community affirm Isaias’ talent. He is one of the school’s brightest students.
Connolly also looks at several other of Isaias’s classmates. He interviews teachers, counselors, family members, and others involved in these students’ journeys. The recurring theme is that there is so much potential with these young men and women, potential that our communities and country is not realizing. Few of the students have actionable academic goals. They do not know what is possible. Connolly stresses that much hinges on a young man or woman making a personal connection to adult that cares and can inspire and support. Guidance counselors, for example, can be extraordinarily influential.
I was disappointed that community colleges did not figure as positive options in the book. Memphis’s local community college, Southwest Tennessee Community College, is highlighted for its low graduation rate and shrinking funding. Connolly quotes an administrator who stated that “college is what students make it.” That is not the way, in my experience, that most professionals in the community college world operate. In fact, much of what happens at successful community colleges – intrusive advising, wrap-around services, a focus on completion – is absent from The Book of Isaias.
Those complaints asides, The Book of Isaias has much to recommend. It’s a dynamic, informed, and attentive window into our young people, the courage and hope of our immigrant population, and a thoughtful study that underscores the amazing human capital that is around us every day.