Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 17, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Chris Carger finally has found a happy ending, even if it’s not the one she wanted.
In 1996, the professor in Northern Illinois University’s Department of Literacy Education penned “Of Borders and Dreams,” a narrative account of her heartfelt mission to help a young Mexican-American boy to overcome his learning disabilities and English language learner needs.
Her book ended, unfortunately, with an account of a telephone call Carger received from the boy’s mother. She was seeking advice on how to help her son to quit high school.
“I never planned to write another book, but I started getting calls and e-mails from across the country to find out how Alejandro was,” says Carger, who at first tried to respond personally to each and every inquiry. “Eventually, there was so much interest that I decided I would continue the story.”
That story is “Dreams Deferred: Dropping Out and Struggling Forward,” a close-up and caring look at a high school dropout and his family. The book was released this fall by Information Age Publishing Inc. and is sold at http://infoagepub.com/products/Dreams-Deferred.
“Dreams Deferred” traces the life of Alejandro Juarez – not his real name – from his decision to quit school at the start of his sophomore year through the present. Readers learn of his young fatherhood at age 16, his noble decision to marry the baby’s mother and his subsequent fight for jobs and income to support his new family.
But readers also gain insight into his parents and siblings, Mexican-American culture in general and the valuable knowledge that, while most prisoners are dropouts, not all dropouts come from broken and indifferent families or end up behind bars.
“When you look at studies of dropouts, it’s a long list of deficits, and Alejandro’s family has some of those deficits: low income, low literacy, low English,” Carger says. “But they never look at what was positive about the families. I feel the dropout literature is missing the study of whole family units that do care about their children. Those strengths are completely overlooked.”
Carger’s book, which her publisher has released as a volume in its series “Research for Social Justice: Personal-Passionate-Participatory,” is told from the inside by a researcher with incredible access that evolved into deep friendship.
And, like the earlier book about Alejandro, she presents her research in a narrative form.
“For centuries – for millennia – we have known the power of story. Why not use that power to convey some educational concepts?” she asks. “I’m bilingual. They opened their home to me. I’m like a family member, and I don’t know how I could stay distant and objective. We have a friendship, and I respect them. I learn from them all the time.”
This journey began by accident.
Carger, teaching then at another university near Chicago, wanted to send her education majors to tutor bilingual children in the nearby poor, urban classrooms.
“I couldn’t find anybody to go to this one school, but it was on my way home, so I decided I would do it. I’ve always liked working in the field, and that’s where I met Alejandro Juarez,” she says. “He had so many needs – learning disabilities, English language learner needs – that when the summer came, I felt I just couldn’t stop tutoring him.”
Alejandro’s private school lacked special services for students like him and had connected to a nearby public school district for those resources, but it still wasn’t enough.
Carger began tutoring Alejandro after school as well, and soon brought him to her university for testing. She met his mother and his siblings then, and through her ability to speak fluent Spanish, discovered that his mother realized her son had learning disabilities but didn’t understand what they were.
“So I stayed with him,” says Carger, who obtained other intervention services for the boy and shepherded him and his siblings to educational summer camps where she worked.
“I ended up writing my dissertation on what it was like trying to obtain an education as a Mexican-American in Chicago with a family considered low-income, and I reported it as the story of Alejandro Juarez.”
When she transformed that tale into “Of Borders and Dreams,” it made an impact.
The book became a popular text in multicultural education courses and the source material for dissertations.
Entire classes of education majors from Butler University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln contacted her for more information. Students from across the University of California system and from the University of Arizona wrote and called. Students at National Louis University, where Carger was invited to present her research, even dramatized parts of the book.
“People respond to the narrative research,” Carger says. “People tell me, ‘I better understand the Mexican students in my class now.’ ”
Ironically, the research removed Carger from her comfort zone.
By the time she decided to revisit the life of Alejandro Juarez, his education was a long-ago memory.
“For the first book, I was in his school, going into his classroom, observing, interviewing his teachers. I had never done research that wasn’t school-based, so I decided to look at his community: Pilsen-Little Village,” she says.
“I interviewed a community activist. I interviewed the director of a program for alternative school placement. I interviewed the director of an alternative school. I interviewed a teacher at an alternative school,” she adds. “I found that there is no place that specializes in someone with special learner and English language learner needs. I had one principal tell me, ‘Let me know if you find one. I have kids like Alejandro who come to me every day, and I have to turn them away.’ ”
Some high schools in Chicago suffer a 70 percent dropout rate of Latinos, Carger says, and most of those teens quit at the beginning of their sophomore years as Alejandro did. She also read an eye-opening report from Harvard University that labels high schools like those Alejandro attended as “dropout factories” where graduation is not normal.
But exhausted by her search, and with the realization that Alejandro had become an adult who was ineligible for most alternative school options, she focused then on his work life. For his part, the young husband and father was mostly concerned about earning a paycheck anyway.
Finding jobs proved difficult for him, though, and keeping those jobs was just as tough.
“The economy was already heading south then,” Carger says. “The least-skilled workers would get let go, and that was always Alejandro.”
Carger located a Catholic church that helped Alejandro to write a résumé and placed him in a job, but his constant search for better jobs with better pay led him to quit when his low literacy skills blocked the promotion he wanted.
He settled on a job loading freezer trucks. “It pays more,” Carger says, “because most people don’t want to be inside a freezer all day.”
Fortunately, Alejandro also enjoyed strong support from his family.
Mother and father both are U.S. citizens – their preparations for the test are detailed in a chapter of “Dreams Deferred” titled “My Country Tis of Thee” – and immigrants who have lessons to teach about raising children and being friends.
Alejandro’s parents involved him in construction projects at their home, remodeling their entire basement with his assistance. That work helped to keep him off the violent streets, where he had been approached to traffic drugs and steal cars. In both cases, his father warned Alejandro to say, “No.”
They also taught him about “what a good employee is” – both of his parents work manual labor jobs in factories where they have endured “racism and maltreatment,” Carger says – and have encouraged their son to find outside programs that might help him.
And, despite their own work-related injuries and health problems, they brought food to Carger weekly last summer after she underwent open-heart surgery. Meanwhile, they took care of the lawn for Carger as she recuperated and her husband awaited hip replacement.
Of their other children, all have earned bachelor’s or associate’s degrees. Two are teachers, and one is considering a master’s degree with sights set on a career in law.
“I’ve learned from them what’s important about child-rearing. You don’t have to have a lot of money,” she says. “I’ve also learned what it means to be a good friend. Again, you don’t need money. It’s about time and effort. Alejandro’s mother is one of my closest friends in the world.”
Carger calls their willingness to share “an absolute gift.”
“To stand in another person’s shoes, to get that close – I wrote about very personal things,” she says. “They agonize about why their son dropped out. It’s been a dozen years, and still they question whether they made the right decision.”
The book offers plenty of revelations for teachers and education majors beyond Carger’s primary message about dropouts and their families.
“Hispanic students identify a lot with what happens in the book. I get poignant, poignant e-mails from readers who say, ‘My brother went through the same thing,’ or, ‘I went through the same thing,’ ” she says.
“People who aren’t Latino are just amazed – at what happens in schools, and what children go through in disadvantaged communities and schools.”
Readers will learn that many Spanish-speaking parents are intimidated by parent-teacher conferences, Carger says. In addition to the language barrier, their culture is one that places great emphasis on greetings and friendly conversation at the start of an encounter. Because the tight schedule of parent-teacher conferences prevents that, many Latino parents choose not to attend.
Meanwhile, they value family above all else. Not all trips to Mexico are vacations; some might offer the chance for a long farewell to a dying grandparent.
“For Mexican families, family will always trump school. Sometimes, teachers just don’t think about that,” Carger says. “This will help them realize that diverse families, like all families, can be concerned and caring, although they may express it in different ways.”
And, like Carger, readers will find a happy ending.
“It’s not the happy ending I wanted,” she says. “His sibling provides it. His oldest sister’s wedding was an absolute triumph. She and her fiancée paid for a beautiful wedding. All of the relatives from Mexico came. It was held in the church where they went to school when they were younger. Everything was thought out and perfect. It was a lovely wedding.”
The marriage made the Juarez parents proud, says Carger, who believes it “repaired, in some small way, the damage their family felt over the loss of Alejandro’s education and a church wedding for him.”
“His parents, however, also take pride in the fact that Alejandro stayed out of gangs and away from drugs unlike many of his peers who drop out,” she adds. “They are always able to see the glass half-full. Their indefatigable hope inspires me.”
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