Wanna Be Average," written by Mike Rose. Although each of these writers has a very different writing style, both essays deal with similar issues about the educational experiences of young boys growing into men. Five main areas will be discussed: assimilation; the power of academic reading; identity crisis; self-awareness; and cultural conflict.
Blending into a new and different culture from the one you are accustomed to can be a challenging and frightening process for people of any age. For young people who are still in their formative years, it can be even more confusing and intimidating. They have not yet developed the coping skills that adults have, and they often do not understand the strange, exciting, and sometimes uncomfortable feelings they experience in the process. Writers of both of these essays go through experiences of assimilation in their childhood years. The experiences are similar in that they both are centered in educational environments, and each of the writers was profoundly affected by the process as it affected him.
Richard Rodriguez is Chicano, a person of Mexican descent who was born in the United States. For him, the process of assimilation involves moving between two worlds. One world is that of his home life, with Mexican parents who have little education and who cannot fully understand what their children are going through as they become "Americanized." The other world is that of school, where, like all children, he wants to fit in, and to not stand out because he speaks or acts differently from the other students. One day, he writes, "Proudly I announced to my family's startled silence -- that a teacher had said I was losing all trace of a Spanish accent" (Rodriguez 598). To him, this is a wonderful and praiseworthy accomplishment. They do not understand this at all.
Rodriguez describes the way he gradually became drawn into the American culture that his parents could never be a part of. He writes, "It mattered that education was changing me. It never ceased to matter. My brother and sisters would giggle at our mother's mispronounced words" (602). However, the sense of isolation that assimilation brought seems to have been even harsher for Rodriguez than it was for his siblings. He was a very self-aware child, and he was drawn quite strongly to books and to academia. This would eventually cause a geographical separation from his family; emotionally, the separation began long before.
Rose's assimilation from one world to another is also a life-changing experience; however, it is different from that of Rodriguez in many ways. His essay opens with a description of the bus ride to Our Lady of Mercy School in Los Angeles, California, where his parents hoped would offer him a better education. However, the entrance procedure involved a series of steps, including test-taking, and his test scores were mixed up with those of another student who shared the same last name. As a result, Rose was placed in a vocational program. This, unbeknownst to him and his parents, was basically a dead end in terms of higher education.
This is how Rose's first rite of passage begins, with his mistaken placement into the wrong program. Unlike Rodriguez, Rose is not troubled with accented English or the need to assimilate into a culture that is ethnically different from his home environment. He does, however, receive an insult about his Italian heritage in his early days in the new school. Still, the process of assimilation is disheartening for him; his classes are not challenging. Very little is expected of him and his classmates, and they respond by doing very little, if anything at all. While his academic growth is severely stunted, though, he develops in other ways. As he describes it, "I did learn things about people and eventually came into my own socially . . . . Growing up where I did, I understood and admired physical prowess, and there was an abundance of muscle here" (Rose 185).
As Rose gradually becomes assimilated into the culture of Vocational Education, the mistake that was made with his entrance test scores comes to light, resulting in his placement in another program in the school, College Preparatory. Here, once again, he begins to absorb the values and standards that dominate this new "culture."
The Power of Academic Reading
Another way in which both essays are similar is that academic reading plays an important role in each of them. Each of them finds, in the world of books, a new way of thinking about his life. Each writer describes in great detail what it was like to discover the world of academic reading; in addition, each is very clear about the impact the world of books had on their early school educations and what they did with their lives beyond high school.
Academic reading has a profound impact on Rodriguez' formative years. He becomes rapidly immersed in his school books, stating that "with ever-increasing intensity, I devoted myself to my studies. I became bookish, puzzling to all my family" (598). To his parents and even to his siblings, he becomes increasingly different as he becomes more deeply immersed in the world of books. Yet he is aware that his devotion to academic reading is also the very factor that would eventually isolate him from his family, even from himself: "Here is a child who cannot forget that his academic success distances him from a life he loved, even from his own memory of himself" (Rodriguez 600). Thus it seems that for Rodriguez, academic reading introduces him to a new world; it also takes him away from the world of his family.
For Rodriguez, the power of reading was tied up into his need for approval as he strove to be accepted in his educational environment. "Any book they told me to read, I read," he writes, adding that he "then waited for them to tell me which books I enjoyed" (601). At this stage in his development, the need for praise and acceptance is what initially draws him to academic reading. "It was the nun's encouragement that mattered most to me," he points out (601). Later on, the value of academic reading remains important to him, although his motivations seem to have changed. It is certainly true that academic reading has changed him.
Rose's introduction to academic reading at Our Lady of Mercy School was not an enthusiastic or rewarding one. Regarding his educational experience, Rose explains that "Students will float to the mark you set. I and the others in the vocational classes were bobbing in pretty sallow water" (185). Rose was clearly not stimulated intellectually in the vocational program; there was little motivation do so. Despite the fact that he is intellectually gifted, without the guidance and encouragement of teachers, academic reading does not engage him. He describes himself as "a mediocre student" and "a somnambulant problem solver," someone who loathed Shakespeare and didn't care much for history, either. When it came to academic reading, he explains that he could not focus on any one thng: "I fooled around in class and read my books indifferently -- the intellectual equivalent of playing with your food. I did what I had to do to get by, and I did it with half a mind" (185).
It is not until his transfer into the college preparatory program that Rose begins to be aware of how very different the school experience can be. Looking back on it, he can understand why students labeled as "slow" or "special needs" are unmotivated by school work. To them, a textbook is not an opportunity to learn new things and envision a different world. Instead, it is yet another reminder that they are "slow." As Rose describes it, "There is no excitement here. No excitement. . . .There is, rather, embarrassment and frustration and, not surprisingly, some anger in being reminded once again of long-standing inadequacies" (188).
A new-found interest in reading comes into Rose's life when he becomes a student of Jack MacFarland. MacFarland was the kind of teacher who truly gave himself to his work, and his enthusiasm and drive had a dramatic effect on Rose. "I worked very hard," Rose writes, "for MacFarland had hooked me. He tapped my old interest in reading and creating stories. He gave me a way to feel special by using my mind" (189). MacFarland comes into Rose's life at a critical time as well: his father has just died after a long, painful illness, and in the aftermath of his father's death, Rose was in a vulnerable place. He was very much in need of a role model, and Jack MacFarland was ideal for this.
Crisis of Identity
A crisis of identity may occur at any time in our lives. The journey from childhood to adolescence, and then to adulthood, is not always easy. In both of these essays, the writers go through periods of crisis as they struggle to discover -- and rediscover…