Mary MacCracken and the unmaking of an arsonist

"Luke" was special. He was only seven years old and barely four feet tall, but he was already an accomplished arsonist, burglar, and hardened truant. He lived an isolated, noncommunicative existence at the fringe of his second grade class. And he had come to trust no one.

The subarban ghetto where he was growing up gave him little to trust. Among the barracks-style projects where he live -- covered with graffiti and the unmistakable look of despair -- he found that not even his own family had much time for him.

By the time he reached second grade, Luke Brauer (a real boy -- but not his real name) had reatrated into a secret world, with a hideaway behind one of the nearby small factories and another at the base of a water tower overlooking the town. Occassionally he would dart out his secret life and set fires in the piles of leaves on the street or to some of the old structures around the projects. Otherwise he kept a solitary, sullen watch over the world around him, refusing to work in class and maintaining a resolute silence.

That silence began to break one day when the door to his classroom opened and a tall, friendly looking woman named May MacCraken came in, searching especially for Luke. She took him down the hall to an unused music room where the two of them were to spend several hours a week for the next year and a half.

Mrs. MacCracken was part of an experimental tutorial program that had been started to give one-on-one help to troubled children. Although the program has been discontinued for lack of funds, her work was a success. At the end of the year and a half, Luke had learned to read at his grade level, had opened up enough to talk to his teachers and fellow pupils, and was skipped ahead to the fourth grade after having been kept back a year.

What happened between Luke and Mary MacCracken in the schoolroom and during their jaunts around the factory town where he lived, is the subject of a touching, revealing book by Mrs. MacCracken entitled, "City Kid."

Mary McCraken, no stranger to publishing or children, has written two other books, "Circle of Children" and "Lovely" both of which were made into television specials. Her first two books dealt with her experience in reaching "hopeless" children who have severe emotional handicaps. "City Kid" describeds her odyssey with Luke, which took place after she had returned to college and needed accreditation. She had already almost completely raised her own family and worked at a school for for emotionally disturbed children. The real-life relationship with Luke, and her frustrating encounters with the impersonal college system that churns out teachers in this country helped to form her concepts of teaching and teachers. The experience left her convinced of a need for "drastic changes in teacher training."

Stitting in her woody, spacious living room filled with memorabilia from her teaching and publishing career, she props her faded tennis shoes on a simple black-and-chrome table, and recalls:

"When I was going to college, I went with working students who had put themselves through school. They didn't work with kids until their senior year. By that time, they had invested many thousands of dollars and an awful lot of time toward their degrees. Then, they got into the classroom and found out they didn't like kids. So, here we have one more teacher who is stuck with a career he or she doesn't really want. And, also, kid are going to be stuck with this teacher who doesn't want to be there."

Even those teachers -- and there are many, she says -- who care passionately about children have little opportunity to seek kids like Luke out and then try to counsel them. As more and more children who need special attention are "mainstreamed" into ever larger general classes, such children will increasingly be overlooked.

Mrs. MacCraken is now an independent "learning disability specialist," -- why couldn't they call it a "learning specialist," she wonders out loud -- but she began her career as a Junion League volunteer toiling in a school for emotionally disturbed children.

"When I walked in the door and saw the children," she recalls, "it was one of those spooky experience, as though I had been there before. I felt at home and knew I had to work there."

When the children she now tutors walk in the door of the tiny attic room set aside for them in her comfortable suburban New Jersey home, they too must feel right at home. With its sloping ceilings and gentle lighting, the room seems a cozy hideaway from the institutional severity of most schoold buildings. The walls are plastered with childish drawings, successfully completed tests, and colorful posters. There are stacks of games and other things kids like. This room is a linear descendent of the classroom where Mary MacCracken first tutored Luke ten years ago.

"I had tried to build a room for children where they could feel physically and emotionally safe," she wrote in "City Kid." "I was convinced that all children needed a safe place somewhere in their lives in order to grow. A place where they knew they were listened to, accepted, and cared for."

When you mount the carpeted stairs leading to her tutoring room, sit quietly by a window looking out on the silent towering trees in her backyard, and watch her work with a young boy who comes now to see her every week, you understand a little better how Mary MacCracken managed to reach Luke Brauer.

she sits wearing blue jeans, a soft pale blue shirt, and a loose, robelike sweater that falls casually around her hips. A pair of Ben Franklin glasses are shoved up and forgotten in her brown hair. Her eyes are dark and alive, and her smile is ready and engaging. It provokes an ebullient response from Barry (not his real name), an extremely bright boy held back by emotional problems.

While Barry seems much less of a challege than Luke, her methods in reaching him are similar. After two years of graduate work and direct experience in dealing with learning disabilities, she seems instinctively to fall back on her natural gift for communicating with children through laughter and tenderness. Her ultimate degree appears to be the one she chose for herself back when she was an undergraduate: "lover of children."

She now asks Barry -- as she asked Luke at the beginning of each visit -- what where the best and worst things that happened in his life since she last saw him? It's been longer than usual between visits -- she's been off promoting her new book.

With his bobbed blond hair falling around his ears and eyes, he laughs and says, "The best thing that has happened is that you are back." She blushes, and asks what the worst thing was. "I guess it's that I fell down and cut my keee."

When he tells her about the cut knee, it is obvious that she does something few adults do when children are talking: She listens. Sitting knee-to-knee with him behind her desk, she questions him closely about his schoolwork, but only after she has spent almost half their time together talking to him about the stream of minutiae that make up his life.

This life and its surroundings could not be more different from the one that faced Luke Brauer.

Luke grew up in one of the pockets of poverty on the out- skirts of suburbia, a million miles in social distance from this comfortable home. The houses in his neigborhood were pressed close together between scattered small factories, grimy gas stations, and abandoned lots. His school was squeezed onto tiny asphalt grounds. On a recent visit here, I saw a little girl arriving 15 minutes late for school, her face streaked with tears, looking back over her shoulders at some private tragedy at home.

Nothing seems to change there. Yet, somehow, according to her book, Mrs. MacCraken managed to help things change for Luke. She now maintains that the key to such success is to find children like Luke early, and to level with them, when you do find them.

"I've come up with three definitions for this world 'leveling," she says. "First, talk to them on their level, be interested in the things that they are interested in: their music, their books. Don't always have your conversation with your child be, 'Did you do your homework? Where are the keys? Did you walk the dog?' Secondly, level with them in the physical -- meaning, lean, squat , do anything to get down to their eye-level. Thirdly, level with your child by being honest. Nobody spots a phony quicker than a child."

When it came to teaching Luke, it was hard to practice "leveling." He had utterly withdrawn himself from the normal flow of schoolwork, and he presented an implacably anti- social front to her and the world (although, in a short time , he began to peek around that front to see if it was safe to come out and be himself). Her solution to the problem was to get down into his world and see what was frightening him. She also found out where his aptitudes lay and then "taught to his strength."

"I knew what he needed was success," she remembers. "As I said in the book, he could spell 'light.' Obviously he had to remember what he could see to spell that word. So, I gave him massive doses of sight vocabulary."

The results of her teaching methods were slow, but rewarding. Gradually, over the course of a year and a half, Luke, who had been a virtual outcast in his classroom through self-imposed exile, gained the confidence and understanding of his teacher and went on to excel in many categories.

The children she has written about in "Lovey" and "Circle of Children," had much more serious difficulties in learning, but they had overcome them by being given enormous amounts of close, caring attention. Children like Luke, she observes, seem easy by comparison, so she keeps wondering, "Why are we losing them? If they had one-tenth the help that the other kids got, they could be saved."

That's one reason she believes "that the smallest classes should be in the early grades." She pointed out that a 20-year study undertaken at the University of Chicago shows that kids who fail in first grade are the ones who are most likely to wind up as welfare cases or in jail.

The future of these youngsters, she complains, is handed over to people who often consider their work something less than a crusade.

"The thing that shocks me most, I suppose," she says, "is that it's hard to get into medical school and law school, but almost anybody can get into education. Yet, these are the people who are going to be dealing with what I consider to be them most important resource that we have in this world. I mean, people get all enthused and upset about oil. What's oil compared to children? And, yet, there's been such apathy throughout this country about its children.

"Right now, we are cutting the budget for children and raising it for bombs. It just doesn't make sense."

When I was traveling through America to promote the book, it was a somber, troubled land that I was going through. All I kept hearing was the profiles of the assassins and the arsonists. And the characteristic they found that are common to these young criminals are alienation and a lack of achievement. In other words, they don't feel they make a valuable contribution in anything they do."

The time to correct such feelings, she feels, is when they begin, in early childhood. But all too frequently the first people to come into contact with these problems in the outside world -- teachers in the early grades -- can quickly become a part of the problem themselves.

"Anyone who doesn't love children shouldn't be allowed to teach," she says flatly, adding that teachers' academic qualifications have to be much improved, as well. "We've got to make it harder for these people to [become teachers]. We've got to get our brightest and our best into the field of education. Then, we've got to give them better training."

Teachers have to be trained to communicate with parents, to "see the child as a whole person." This comes from "wanting to know that other person. I suppose that means caring about the child. . . . You don't really listen to a child, unless you care about that child. The way he feels about himself is just as important as the 'numbers' that he scores."

Reading her book and watching her teach, you get the impression that Mary MacCracken's gift as a teacher is this yearning to know what a child is thinking and feeling. One of her most difficult pupils talked so fast that no one could understand what he was saying. She overcame this obstacle by tape recording his speech and then slowing the tape down so she could understand him.

Student teachers have to encounter such children's problems before they can deal with them, she emphasizes. "All those teachers out there in freshman sophomore classes ought to be [working with children], so they can come back and say, 'I tried to teach this kid today, and all he did was throw paper airplanes.' And they can be trained and put in schools to work on a one-to-one basis, and give teachers help."

In the present system, she believes, too many children are needlessly lost to alienation and apathy.

"There are millions of Lukes out there that we don't have to be losing," she observes sadly. "When we lose them, we're apt to end up with assassins and arsonist. When we lose our brighter kids, we're losing the leaders of our world."

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