Friday, October 21, 2016

Book review: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

I have been curious about this book from the minute I read the description. A poor kid from Newark managed to go to Yale, but then was killed at 30 for drug dealing. What?! I've always strongly believed in the power of education. I volunteered for several years at an organization that advised students from the poorest high schools on college and career opportunities. I work in book publishing, partly because I believe books and the education found within, change lives. So how could things have ended up going so terribly, horribly wrong for Robert Peace, after he had such a chance to get out?

The author, Jeff, was Robert's roommate at Yale, so he is not unbiased. But he went to very great lengths to uncover the entire, true story of Robert. I believe he understood that it helps no one to varnish the truth. The real power comes from a full understanding of Rob, who he was honestly and completely. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Orange, near Newark. His mother was 30 when she had him, refused to marry his father who was a minor drug dealer of mostly pot, and worked her butt off to give Rob everything she possibly could. They always lived with her parents as that was the only way she could really provide for Rob—if she didn't have to shoulder the entire financial burden alone. Rob's father did also help out a lot, both financially and with his education, until he went to prison. For murder. When Rob was 10.

After that, his mother struggled alone working two jobs to put him through private school, and Rob, an exceptionally bright kid, also started working on the side to help out, in addition to his excellent schoolwork, athletics, and helping his father research his criminal case. Rob decided to go to an all-boys Catholic prep school in the inner city for high school. Once there, with no football team, he decided to play water polo, despite not even knowing how to swim. Rob seemed to love to defy expectations. Which unfortunately sometimes meant he brushed off well-meaning and perhaps very helpful advice from teachers and other mentors in his life who wanted him to go far.

At Yale he majored in some insane science (Molecular Biology and Physics, something like that). He should have gone into medicine or a doctoral program. But he found, as did the few other successful Yalies who were from impoverished backgrounds, that he was expected to contribute to his family's income back home, right away. Not after another 8+ years of school. The only other obvious job was working in a lab, which didn't pay well, didn't have many jobs, nor good upward mobility. Rob then seemed stymied by his options. And so he opted out.

In college, he had dealt marijuana. It was pretty easy. Yale students had plenty of money and low standards when it came to pot. While he was caught once, the administration brushed it under the carpet and nothing came of it. By the time he graduated, he'd accumulated a good nest egg. But he didn't want his mother to know where the money came from, and he didn't seem to really understand how to launder it, so he kept it mostly in cash and doled it out slowly. Meanwhile, he traveled. Mostly to Brazil. But he also went to Croatia and other countries. He taught himself Portuguese in his spare time, and considered even moving to Rio. But then his uncle who was hiding his stash got in touch, and Rob went home to find out his uncle had robbed him. And then his father got brain cancer. And Rob seemed to have inertia. He had ideas—he got a realtor license and had a plan for flipping houses, and he had a few other ideas, but instead he never left his hometown. He mostly lived with his mom or nearby, and he went back to dealing.

He had a friend at Yale who understood, another kid from the 'hood, who was also trying to change his life. And he gave Rob the best advice he ever got: get out. But Rob didn't take it. And his old friends and family kept dragging him back in and back down. They were all well-intentioned and they were mostly straight and narrow themselves, but as long as Rob stayed in that place, he could never get out, mentally as well as geographically.

It was so fascinating, and heartbreaking, to finally understand, at least for this one young man, why ample opportunities to better his life and his family, didn't work. Why did he end up in this situation? Why didn't he do better with those opportunities? It's heartbreaking, to be sure, but now I find it a little less frustrating, as I better can see why and how his life ended up and way it did. And I also now see that the cycle of poverty is even harder to break than I previously had understood, for a variety of subtle, almost invisible reasons that are much harder to crack than writing a tuition check. In a world where for your entire life, you've never owned anything of value, all you feel that you own is your family and your friends and your neighborhood. How can that bond be broken? And are we asking something much harder than we realize when we ask that of young adults? Is there another solution rather than to just get out? Is there an alternative for people like Rob to be able to be successful without breaking away from his past and everything he knows? How can he help bring his society and community out of poverty, without leaving that community? And how can he be successful, if he doesn't leave? This is a much bigger problem than one man could ever hope to solve. But one man's life did open a door to this problem, for me and likely for everyone who reads this book. Powerful, difficult, and ultimately eye-opening, another must-read for anyone who cares about American society and the problems we face trying to make people's lives better.

I bought this book. I don't remember where, probably at Park Road Books in Charlotte, but I did not get it for free.

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