As more and more sectors of our society jockey for federal bailout money, I'm reminded of a trip I recently made to a juvenile correction facility in upstate New York. The youths there have no advocates, but their needs are far more real -- and tenuous -- than any investment bankers I know.
The day had started off well, and I was heartened by the appearance of the place. Yes, there was the barbed wire, but it wasn't nearly as depressing as some of the many places that I had visited over the years where young people are incarcerated.
I spoke to the inmates about what it was like to be an author, what my daily routine was like, and then I asked for questions from my captive audience. At first they were the usual questions: Where do you get your ideas? How much do you make? Why did you become a writer? And then there was the question that devastated me -- that made me want to cry, as the afternoon train rocked its way back to New York City.
"Did you finish the book about the guy coming from Europe to play basketball in Harlem?" a thin teenager asked. I knew the book he was asking about. I had finished Game two years before, and it had been recently published. But I had never spoken about the book in a male juvenile facility. I realized that he must have heard me speak of the book in a New York City classroom. Now he was in a juvenile facility; I didn't know for how many years or if this was just a transitional place before he went to an adult jail.
I felt an enormous sense of guilt. Many of the young men I faced that day were the kids who grew up in the same Harlem neighborhood where I did. When I write about the streets of Harlem, I make sure they're accurate, because I want them to know that I respected those streets and claimed them as my own. But somewhere I had spoken to that young man, had told him about the book as I wrote it, had told him about my own life coming from a dysfunctional family and how I had overcome my difficulties, but it hadn't give him sufficient insights or strengths to keep his life out of difficulty.
The painful truth was that the question didn't hurt because it was unique. It hurt because it was familiar.
I know that the kids I speak to today in schools or playgrounds might well be institutionalized the next time I see them. I know this, and the teachers know it, and the school administrators know it, and... and we all know it.
We knew, too, about the sub-prime lending problems. We knew it four years before it erupted into a worldwide economic crisis. In 2004, newspapers in Great Britain were talking about "Liars Loans" -- another version of what are now known in U.S. banking circles as "NINJA loans" (No Income, No Job, and no Assets). But we chose to ignore the problems, to close our eyes and look the other way. Were we hoping for the best, despite the numbers and the economic analysis?
As the queue of financial giants and huge factories grows, looking to the incoming federal Administration for a saving bailout, I wonder if we are going to continue closing our eyes and looking the other way so as not to see the crisis in our schools, and in the streets of our cities?
We have even stronger numbers than we did with the sub-prime mess to know that far too many of our children are headed into the world totally unprepared to become productive citizens. The dismal reading scores are established beyond a doubt. The dropout rate is a national scandal, and we all know it. We do. There is no mystery, no confusion as to the pending disaster.
The question becomes: Will we simply bring our first aid to the economy, rescue the bankers and the multi-billion-dollar companies and turn away from the children? Are we actually willing to pretend that the automobile industry is a greater resource than the youth of America?
It seems almost unfair to lay another burden on President-elect Obama, to lift another cry for help and present another very, very difficult problem to him. But not to do so is to abandon not just the car companies but America itself.
Myers is the author of numerous books for young adults, including the New York Times-bestseller Monster and the forthcoming Dopesick (to be published next February by HarperTeen).