Way Down in the Hole: The Story Everyone Should Be Talking About
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Way Down in the Hole: The Story Everyone Should Be Talking About

By Sarah Carlson | Miscellaneous | February 26, 2013 | Comments ()


Fans of David Simon's critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire" typically have a favorite season out of the show's five. Each season focused on a different aspect of Baltimore society (police, politicians, blue collar workers, journalists, etc.) while tying together the ongoing stories of the drug trade. For me, the most devastating season is the fourth, which focused on the school system and the children trying to survive. It is a harrowing, at times hopeless look at the trappings of poverty and failings of educational systems. Perhaps a viewer could distance himself from the drama -- and refuse to let the art do its job -- by relying on the fact that "The Wire," albeit realistic, is still fiction. If we don't have a real kid to put in place of Dukie, or Randy, or Namond, or Michael, then we can keep the story as just that: a story.

I have thought about those characters a lot in the past week or so as I listened to the two-part episode of NPR's "This American Life" focusing on W.R. Harper High School in the West Englewood neighborhood of Chicago's South Side. The excellent radio show dispatched three reporters to spend a semester at the school, which last school year saw 29 current and recent students shot, eight fatally. What they came back with is a heartbreaking look at how it is nearly impossible for the school's students to avoid violence. Everyone there knows someone who has been shot; many have been shot at themselves. And the violence isn't typically drug related. In this neighborhood, where you live dictates which gang you're in, whether or not you want to be a member.

"I've done other reporting on gangs and neighborhoods like this," host Ira Glass told The Huffington Post. "I am not new to this subject. But what we learned was how little we knew."

Violence and gun control is again a hot topic in today's national politics. But do most of us doing the debating even know what we're really talking about? I felt ignorant after watching "The Wire." I feel even more so now.

How the kids of Season Four end up is a rather cynical tale: Only the kid that is physically removed from his neighborhood is able to escape its trappings. It's realistic, but is it acceptable?

Come to your own conclusion, but first, listen:

For those interested, Harper has set up a donations website.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Strand

    As an Aussie, some of this isn't completely applicable to me. Sure, we have shitty neighbourhoods like everyone else, which produce awful schools but we don't have the endemic school shooting culture. So as long as the kids stay stupid, pregnant and remain on welfare, the government is willing to throw them a bone and turn a blind eye.

    That said, seasons 2 and 4 (the stevedores union and schools) of The Wire were heart-breaking. David Simon is a brilliant man, but boy does he know how to fill you with hopeless despair. Maybe he should buddy up with Lars Von Trier for the ultimate 'feel shit' movie.

  • Qualtinger

    Great Journalism. The faculty and staff of this school are amazing. Now that´s what I call "carrying responsibility", unlike fat cat CEOs using that that term to sanctify their multi-million dollar salaries.

  • I was following this two-parter as well, and it was definitely one of the best things This American Life has ever done, which is saying a lot. Thanks for highlighting it.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    that the kids literally do not have a choice about being gang-affiliated is pretty heartbreaking. this would be a good companion piece to the Interrupters documentary that came out last year about violence interrupters trying to help out on the south side. they and the teachers/social workers who help these kids every day despite bleak circumstances deserve so much respect.

    I'm also glad they had the tag at the end with the principals of other schools around the country with similar violence rates to show this isn't just a Chicago issue, it's an American issue.

  • Muffin

    Yes, lets continue to feel bad for black people despite the fact that they do NOTHING to better their own situation.

  • Guest

    And the award for 'Most Deserving of a Retroactive Abortion' goes to....

  • NateMan

    Huh, that's weird. I wonder why it posted me as 'Guest'.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Do you have any thoughts on the show Girls that you'd like to share?

  • Kinda picked the wrong saloon to wander into there, bub. The Stormfront Bar and Grill is on down yonder.

  • pajiba

    There are not enough downvotes to express what a horrible human being you are.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Just stfu

  • nosio

    Hey, congrats! I signed in just to downvote you! You should feel pretty special.

  • prairiegirl

    Since when do you have to sign-in to downvote? That is kind of annoying.

  • ScrimmySCrim

    I feel bad for racists. There are so many awesome people you will never get to know because you can't pull your heads from your asses.

  • Jezzer

    On the other hand, that means there are many awesome people who won't have to deal with this idiot prick.

  • ScrimmySCrim


  • Anna von Beav

    I don't know, you guys, I mean: BLACK PEOPLE. Maybe Muffintop has a point.

  • lowercase_ryan

    A pointy robed head.

  • Pinky McLadybits

    Now I recognize the name! Isn't Muffin just one step below Grand Dragon in the Racist Robe Hierarchy?

  • Jezzer

    Two steps. One step below is Amazing Poodle.

  • katy

    Thanks for this. I've listened to part one and will listen to the rest when I have time tomorrow. This really hits home because ever since the shootings in Newtown I've had this fear in the back of my mind of my own kids' safety at school, but then my rational side will take over and remember that the odds of something like that happening at any any given school are extremely low. But this. THIS. These are people who do have to fear everyday that their kids will be shot, and not just at school, but even when they are with their parents or other caring adults where safety is most expected. This puts a lot into perspective. And is so very shameful on all of us.

  • ExUSA

    When I lived in DC, my apartment building was literally across the street from a school like this. I remember the big debate one year was whether to invest in refurbishing the football field, or the library. The football field won out, because they decided it was better to give the students a shot at a sports scholarship, because it was more likely than an academics scholarship. I can't tell you the amount of times I walked by that school and there was blood on the pavement...less than two miles from the White House.

    Whether or not I'll ever have children is debatable, but I will never once complain about a tax increase to fund schools after I lived across the street from that high school, which in DC, wasn't even considered that bad.

  • I wouldn't complain about a tax increase to fund schools either...if I could be assured that it would in fact fund the schools and improve them to an appreciable extent, rather than just disappearing into a voracious bureaucratic maw.

  • himonoonna

    Ugh - failed on that first post.

    I didn't make the Wire connection, but that is likely because I was entirely too busy
    having my heart torn out and broken to tiny little pieces. The story of Davonte alone is worth listening to. I remember the many stories like this about Los Angeles schools in the 1980s, but I don't believe the death toll then was nearly as high then.
    The amazing faculty, staff and administration featured in this story are one of the most compelling arguments for more just educator salaries that I have ever heard.

  • Guest

    I'll admit that I didn't make the Wire connection, but that's

  • anatomycoloringbook

    The $2.99 This American Life App was one of the best investments I've made this year! I have a two hour commute and the only thing that makes it bearable is Ira Glass and the fantastic stories from TAL. This story on Harper High was amazing.

  • Wednesday

    You can also listen to This American Life on Stitcher, and on apps from your local public radio station. I heard Part One last week over a couple of days of commuting, and am starting Part Two this evening.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Thank you for this! I caught the last ten minutes of part two and was ticked I missed the rest.

  • Tinkerville

    Between this, exposing Judge Amanda Williams in the Tough Love episode, and the way they handled the falsified information in the Mike Daisey story (among many other things), This American Life is far and above one of the greatest journalism outlets we have.

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