A man's fight to help troubled kids; To Become Somebody: Growing up Against the Grain of Society, by John B. Simon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 227 pp. $12.95.
''This book is about young people in trouble,'' begins John Simon in his introduction. The kids he writes about are in trouble with the law, school authorities, parents, and themselves. They are children for whom society has no need, on whom the educational system has given up. They are confused, hopeless, depressed, and angry. Under the current national policy, their numbers are increasing alarmingly; they fill our street corners and prisons, our tenements - and sometimes our morgues. ''To Become Somebody'' is the story of Simon's fight to help these kids achieve emotional balance and an education which too often has been denied. It is a struggle he conducts, ironically, against the grain of this society, but a struggle fought always with courage, imagination, and an abiding belief in the worth of all human beings.
Simon began in 1974 working as director of a neighborhood youth center in Manhattan. Educated in a traditional English university, he initially found it difficult to adapt what he'd learned to the problems of ghetto kids, who no one, he discovered, had had much success in teaching. He began to suspect that many of their problems were aggravated by teaching methods and attitudes found in public schools, institutions that seemed to compound rather than lessen alienation. Simon's criticism of the system was joined by a growing sense of its inadequacy, prompting him eventually to seek alternative methods outside the public schools.
A large part of the book deals with Simon's experiences as he works to develop alternative methods of instruction. Beginning in a church basement with roach-infested furniture and five students deemed the district's most incorrigible, Simon established a classroom that proved to be everything the public school classrooms were not. His first priority was getting to know students and their families on a personal basis, breaking down barriers, and developing lines of trust. When students became enthusiastic about school for the first time in their lives, he began to suspect that the secret ''lay not in the teaching, but in the learning.'' That is, it was the human and emotional environment rather than the specific mode of instruction that was most important. The program began to assume characteristics of both school and family , supplying emotional needs absent in the lives of his students.
The DOME project, as Simon's venture came to be known, had failures as well as successes. Given the social indifference he had to work against, his successes, however limited in number, seem all the more dramatic. What is perhaps most praiseworthy is that he has bothered to try, to take large risks and make substantial emotional investments. Too often we have been unwilling to take risks to assist those who exist on the margins of our society. Simon suggests that we mustm be willing to take those risks, that the welfare of the larger society is not unrelated to the welfare of its minorities. The words of John Simon pose a challenge for all those who would opt for indifference; his example offers a blueprint for hope in a social area where few have dared to hope.