Its the Company Why Crab Dont Have No Head Leo
It was the A House humanities teacher, Ms. Hoshi Sullivan, who suggested Leo as a subject for one of my case studies. Leo had been held over in tenth grade that year and was currently completing the work needed to advance to eleventh grade. It seemed he had finally gotten his wake-up call, Ms. Sullivan told me; in fact, he had just received an award for Most Improved Student in A House. One of his research papers had been submitted to a teacher collecting samples of student work for a committee to devise new state standards. Ms. Sullivan related to me:
Visits with the Sallingers
From my notes:
Such small incidents gradually drew me to notice Leo in the months before I invited him to join the study. I knew Mr. McFadden was quite particular about which students were permitted to check their peers work and would only have given the role to someone in whose skill he had considerable faith. I had seen Leo from time to time during his freshman year (he was one of CBAs charter students) while I was working on another research project. He had left no particular impression on me at the time; I mainly recalled him as a student who was not very seriousmore concerned with tossing off funny remarks for his classmates than anything else. He seemed to be somewhat of a joker then, always with something to say.
I had a memory of one occasion when some older students from a CBA sister school came to give a presentation on conflict resolution. Leo and several other ninth graders attended the session. The older students spoke with great seriousness about the importance of resolving conflict peaceablyfor example, by walking away from a fight or by calling a third party to mediate. While most of his peers listened intently, Leo periodically interrupted to offer his own scornful opinions. He did not want to hear anything about conflict resolution. As far as he was concerned, this was not how conflict really got settled. All of this stuff was for people who could not deal with things the old-fashioned waywhich, he made clear, he was more than capable of doing. For a while, the older students argued with him, told him that his was not the only way. It was only when one of the girls who was presenting told him very pointedly, Look. I used to think just the way you did. But then I grew up. He then backed down a little, although he did not seem totally convinced.
I was curious, then, to see what could have transformed this boy into someone CBA would deem most improved in his house and asked him to join the study. He agreed.
I made my initial visit to Leos home in late August, 1997. Leo, his mother, and his three brothers share a spotless, uncluttered apartment on the ninth floor of a well-kept, secure-looking apartment building about four blocks from the school. As Leo and I talked, his mother, Demetra Sallinger, listened quietly, only turning away from time to time to attend to Leos baby brother, Cody, a boisterous and energetic little boy just shy of two.
Leo told me a little about his educational history, starting with some of his experiences in junior high school:
Leos junior high school experience taught him that a new student in a new school had to be on his guard. He knew he needed to create and maintain an image that let students know they couldnt mess with you.
Once at CBA, Leo reassumed his real quiet demeanor. At first, he knew only one other student, a boy who had attended his junior high school. In time, however, he got to know more people and everybody started knowing each other. Unlike at junior high school, there was less pressure to prove himself by fighting, something Leo attributed to the schools relatively small size:
There was a time in tenth grade, however, when Leo was not doing very well at CBA. He did not like the school and found the whole portfolio concept strange. He also spent a lot of time hanging out, as his mother later mentioned. At one point, Leo even tried to transfer to another high school but claimed that a mixup in the transfer of his records made transferring impossible. I wanted to go to Coolidge High School, they had my name down, he related, but Central Bronx didnt send my records, so I couldnt go, I had to stay there.
I pointed out to him that he could have taken his failure to secure a transfer as an excuse to just give upto say, I dont want to be here, but they wont let me leave, so Im not going to do anything. Why, I asked him, hadnt he done that? He responded:
Now in his third year at CBA, Leo seems to have settled into his niche, to have found a place among his peers where he is comfortable and has their respect. He enjoys writing stories and is curious about computershe has asked a computer-manager friend to show [him] the ropes. He likes math the most; at least it doesnt terrify him the way it does some of his classmates. Math is just simple, he told me. Like, once you get the main thing, thats it. Its all right. He isnt sure of the career he wants to pursueaccounting seems interesting, but he is also drawn to the idea of being a chef. Hes considered the possibility of studying marketing in college, or maybe physical education.
However, Leo had one major portfolio project needed for promotion to eleventh grade that was unfinished. He thought for a while he might even get away with not doing it, since a number of his classmates had not done the project either. Over the summer, he attempted to complete the assignment, but gave up when he found that summer school was not helping me. When he did not complete the project during the two-month grace period at the beginning of eleventh grade (Leo says he didnt know they were being given the grace period to complete the work until two weeks before it was up), he was kicked back to tenth grade.
What really galled him about the experience, he said later, was seeing students he felt to be even less deserving of promotion than he being sent on to eleventh grade without completing the project. Interestingly, he expressed no cynicism in recalling the experience, nor did he complain about wanting to give up in the face of what some children might consider blatant unfairness. Instead, he seemed to have intensified his efforts and only wanted to finish his work so he could graduate and move on to college.
During my visit with Leos family, Leo and I conversed but his mother said little, allowing her son to do most of the talking. However, as the conversation progressed, she began to interject more freely. Demetra Sallinger is a shy, slender woman with a gentle Caribbean accent. She is from the island of St. Kitts and has lived in the United States since 1979. I chatted with her about the quality of food in America, and we swapped horror stories about the meat industry. Demetra remarked on how skinny she is, explaining that she does not eat much because she does not trust the food in this country. She rarely has meals outside of her home and hardly ever eats meat. Her mother, who has been in the United States for thirty years, has never dined in a restaurant.
At one point, our discussion turned to a building that was being constructed a couple of blocks away. Demetra said that when she first saw all the construction, she thought it was a schoolwhich surprised her somewhat because another school was already quite close by. She was disgusted to find that what was actually being built was a detention center. They need more schools, not more detention centers, she told me emphatically. I tell Leo, theyre building it for Black boys. Watch out.
When I next visited the Sallinger home a few weeks later, Demetra spoke more about that detention center:
For Demetra Sallinger, making something of yourself, both in and out of school, involves choosing your associates or company carefully and keeping them to a minimum, if possible. Keeping company, in Mrs. Sallingers way of thinking, is something that should be generally avoided, especially when the company you keep does not share your goals and ideals. Little good, she pointed out, can come from having lots of friends, since this only provides more opportunities to mess up. Demetra was wary of most of Leos friends and frequently warned him against some of them. She told me that her own grandmother cautioned her against keeping company with the injunction, Its the company why crab dont have no head. Part of the reason Leo was kept in tenth grade, she said, was that he hung out with the wrong crowd.
It was clear that monitoring her childrens associates is a high priority for Demetra. She lamented that bad company led her oldest son, Trent, astray. While she worked extended hours as a home attendant and supervised her children mostly by phone, Trent would tell his mother that he was going to school or doing homework, when he was really hanging out with friends:
When Trent ended up dropping out of school, Demetra was certain that it was largely due to the influence of his aimless friends:
She has watched Leo especially closely to be sure that he does not follow his older brothers example. When Leo was in tenth grade and stopped studying and just hung out with friends, Demetra placed him under house arrest. In Leos words:
Demetra has continued to impress on her son the importance of associating only with people who have the right goalsto go to college, to be gainfully employed. Choosing your associates carefully can mean the difference between success and failure in life:
In one respect, the significance of choosing the right associates had hit home with Leo. For him, a summer internship at Jackson-Whaley, a structural engineering firm in Manhattan, has provided a rich opportunity to establish the connections he needs to move to the next level. He was proud that he seemed to have made a positive impression on one of the company executives: Leo was able to converse with him for about an hour and a half about Hiroshima and Pearl Harborsubjects that he had studied intensively in humanities the past year. Leo said, I know he was surprised that I knew so much.
Leo hoped that his internship would provide some leverage for the futurea good work recommendation, offer of a scholarship, something favorable to add to his college applicationand was very conscious of making a positive impression. He said that each morning he arrived at work about twenty minutes early and had no problem staying late, if necessary. He did his work quickly and offered to do other tasks if he finished early. They see Im a hard worker, he said. They say to me Im always on the move. Always on the move.
Because he had fallen a full semester behind, Leo did not graduate with his cohorts in June, 1998. He has seen benefits to the delay, yet conceded that now he felt more than ready to move on. The Jackson-Whaley internship had opened his eyes to educational and career possibilities that he was eager to explore. Later that summer, he reflected: