Brush Clearing with Teen-Age Boys in Arkansas

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“See,” I said, looking fitfully up at them out of the dense bosk. Aim for the base of what you want to cut. Be careful of who’s behind you.” (All sound advice for most occupations.) “Now,” I said, wiping stinging sweat out of my eyes and gaping. I’d have been happy to stay home and read Flaubert. That summer I was twenty-three. But, until then, this was fine work for me to do. They stood in a lank group around me, coolly observing me as I waded into the thickets and sweatily set the scythe or the sickle or some other vicious instrument into motion. Not to work, not to have a job, and to be idle was an unrecognized human state in my family. Or, at least, could be cleared—by someone. Only helped. I was demonstrating the skills. And in that way the summer of ’67 passed: with me down in the underbrush, showing these black kids how work was done, while they calmly looked on, waiting for their futures to arrive. One, sometimes two—the younger boys—would step forward as if their feet hurt, take whatever implement I was holding out to them, and merely stare at it, as though it were a weapon they were better off not having in their hands. Much work done in the world is like this—virtually meaningless. I was living in my mother’s apartment. Though not for me make-work. They recognized hard, pointless, idiotic toil when they saw it. My “men,” a dozen skinny black kids between sixteen and eighteen, took a skeptical view of how these lessons would be put into practice. ♦ More in this series The Work You Do, the Person You Are By Toni Morrison The Hardworking Immigrant Who Made Good By Akhil Sharma Business or Pleasure By Chris Ware The Countess’s Private Secretary By Jennifer Egan The Work You Do, the Person You Are By Toni Morrison The Hardworking Immigrant Who Made Good By Akhil Sharma Business or Pleasure By Chris Ware The Countess’s Private Secretary By Jennifer Egan “Make short strokes. Trouble was hotting up again in Dixie. Make-work. Over time, this land had succumbed to sucker weeds and briars and red-brush saplings, all of which, it was determined, badly needed clearing. In Arkansas, however, the Neighborhood Youth Corps was a piñata from which those same government officials meant to get their mitts on a shower of federal dough, a laughably infinitesimal portion of which was earmarked to provide low-income (read: black) kids with “work experience,” which would—it was dearly hoped—keep them in school and out of the state’s hair. Only clearing it. The fact that I had a job that depended on them and was intended to keep them out of mischief and assure social justice and cure poverty conferred no mission on their lives. Focus your efforts. I was management—tasked and poorly paid to get down among ’em and impart the skills of swing-blade, of scythe, of axe and hatchet, of shovel and “come-along.” All things I knew about. She had assured me that I was welcome there. But I would need to work and bring in money if I meant to stay. At their tender ages, they had already seen things—many things—that I hadn’t. The state of Arkansas, it seemed, owned a lot of vacant land in Little Rock, which, surprisingly, it wasn’t using. Then they’d laugh and look around at their buddies, roll their eyes, and hand the job back to me for more demonstration. My job—to the extent that it could be defined—was to tutor twelve decidedly un-uniformed teen-age boys in the complex art of manual brush clearing, performed under the tormenting summer sun of central Yahoo. These were not stupid boys. They weren’t being paid much, if anything. I had a second-rate college degree. Conserve your energy. All of it might come to them soon enough. We were working people. The name Neighborhood Youth Corps might summon up visions of clean-cut boys in spruce khaki uniforms, standing at attention on a parade ground while a government official reads a proclamation dispatching them to do what needs to be done for the good of all. But that was not on offer, as the saying goes. I’d just spent a difficult year teaching junior high and coaching baseball in inner-city Flint, Michigan. Possibly their fathers were practicing it that same hot summer day. I had worked at some job, been gainful at some mode of employment, every single day since I was twelve. Now and then, they’d try a tentative swipe with the blade or an awkward down-cut with the axe. Don’t flail. The Corps may even have been intended to work that way when Lyndon Johnson made it a showcase program of the Great Society, by which poverty and social injustice would be eradicated from our land. It was the summer of the Detroit riots and nine months before the murderous spring of ’68. CreditIllustration by Christoph Niemann

In the summer of 1967, I took a job working for the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Little Rock. It was not a job I wanted—just one I could get. I was, I believed, spiritually “fatigued” and needing time to rest and reflect. Use of the land wasn’t contemplated. “Who’s ready to try it?” Hardly any of them were, a fact that they expressed by mutely continuing to watch me.