This book remains a very powerful and very very difficult book to read. Reading this section I had to stop and put the book down several times, it was too hard a book to tackle in one lump and is very stark in its presentations, the abuse detailed and frequent, casual use of slurs.
J.J – the name Abdul has now embraced – has been moved again this time to St. Ailanthus Catholic school/home for boys. Again he has no power in where he’s going – and his presence there is only explained after the fact. JJ is constantly moved around without consultation.
St. Ailanthus is presented as a decent school – it seems to have capable teachers, a broad base of knowledge – but even then facilities are limited and they’re “lucky” to have a doctorate on staff. Opportunity is limited to the very best performing rather than being universally offered for all of these 13 year old boys. Though JJ is one of the best performing so we don’t see it through his eyes, we do see other boys in the home, those less able, and their own struggles while JJ earns pats and plaudits for his own ability
But beyond opportunity and limited resources, it’s still a very dehumanised space. The boys who live there have little to no privacy at all – their lockers, their possessions, everything is open to the Brothers to examine. They live a highly regimented live that is strictly controlled and policed. When JJ sees a display of African dance – one of the few things he sees and experiences that actually moves him and calls to him – he is prevented from going. This is one of the few things that truly reaches him and he has to break the rules to attend – beyond internal academic standards there’s no real reinforcement or encouragement for the boys to develop as people. It strikes me as being far more about training to fit a mould than it does about educating and encouraging development
And one thing is glaringly missing from St. Ailanthus – there is no attempt at affection. The ridiculously pathetic attempts of some Brother’s to be appealing to JJ – to be modern and young and to understand them garner more contempt than respect and most of them do not try that much.
One thing St. Ailanthus most certainly isn’t is safe. Abuse is rampant in the home – some from the Brothers and between the boys in the dorm. Victims are ignored or not believed – especially when their victimisers are held in higher esteem by the Brothers (abuse by the Brothers themselves is not even considered reportable). Victims are discounted as liars, fantasists and trouble makers. The Brothers use physical violence without even the slightest expectation of any kind of consequences. Again, the boys and teens in St. Ailanthus are not treated as people, children, to nurture but as things to control, to hem in and to train.
Throughout this we see JJ change a lot from what he was. He loses a lot of his gentleness and he loses the questioning nature he had when we first saw him – he stops questioning the world around him, he stops asking why. He is very angry – and hurt. He trusts little . It’s stark to see what the system has done to transform him, how it has failed him, how it has taken someone with such potential and ability and is chipping away at him, layer by layer. He is hard and cynical with little trust (for good reason)
In the end he is moved from St. Ailanthus, even in this the abuse going on in the school becomes more worrisome because of how it hurts their reputation far more than even the slightest concern for victims and future potential victims. Their personhood matters less than the continued running of the organisation. We also learn that JJ has been placed in St. Ailanthus incorrectly, that he has family who were willing to take him in – but he was kept in St. Ailanthus away from his family because one of the Brothers “liked him.”
He is moved out in the middle of the night without time to prepare or adjust and barely with enough time to pack. He is moved without knowing where he is going, to live with people he doesn’t know. There is only the most cursory check of the identity of the woman he is supposed to live with and not even a vague attempt at introduction or even explaining to JJ who this woman is. Again he is treated as a burden, worthy of no affection or respect – it’s an act that, yet again, strips him of his humanity. He is an object to be transferred as they will, given as they will, moved around at other people’s whims and fancies – and he doesn’t even get the dignity of an explanation as to where he’s going and why. He is an object to be moved and relocated – not a person and certainly never a person with a home or roots.
The woman, Toosie, turns out to be his great-grandmother and here Abdul reclaims his name. He gets a social work caseworker – but Abdul is considerably (and justifiably) suspicious and hostile – and one refreshing thing to see is his grandmother is not only understanding of this but pretty willing to give the caseworker grief as well. I think the social worker is a very good character – she’s well meaning and probably kind and probably well intentioned, but rather naive and cut off from what actually matters and makes a difference to Abdul and from that not especially helpful to him. When she calls him to tell him how he was removed from the system it’s just such a classic example – knowing this doesn’t help Abdul, won’t change his situation, won’t make his life better – so why does it matter to him?
We also learn a lot about Tossie’s past, Abdul’s great grandmother. Her history, if anything, makes Abdul’s seem kind and gentle. Her tales of hardship have some strong parallells with Abdul and say a lot bout the legacy of pain their family has had to endure.
The main, perhaps only positive in this book is dance. Dancing seems to be the only bright spot in Abdul’s life and he comes alive when he attends the African Dance classes. The classes themselves are wonderfully described, bright and empowered and really do shine through the general pain and darkness of the book.
This second section of the book again tells us how little help is out there and how vulnerable those lost in the system are to abuse – and how few people are willing and able to help them. It’s an indictment as how the most vulnerable in society are treated and how such treatment changes them
Editors Note: On Thursday October 6, we will be discussing the third section of the book “The Ascension”