Carlos Doesn't Remember with Malcolm Gladwell | E4/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Carlos Doesn't Remember with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 4 | Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 34 min | Released: July 6, 2016

Carlos: Yes, I am a sophomore in high school.

Malcolm Gladwell: And that high school, you started there in 9th grade?

Carlos: No, it's my first year.

MG: This is your first year?

Carlos: Yeah.

MG: Yeah. Were you challenged in your old school?

Carlos: Uh, no, not, not really.

MG: Welcome to Revisionist History, where every week we reexamine something from the past that's been forgotten or misunderstood. I'm Malcolm Gladwell.

This episode is about a young man named Carlos, which is not his real name; I've changed it for reasons that will become obvious.

MG: Were you, were you bored most of the time? I mean, what were you doing when you were sitting in class?

Carlos: Well, I, I usually finish my, my class work a lot earlier than, than some of the other kids, and I guess I was a little bored.

MG: Carlos is slight, a little short for his age, braces, thick head of black hair, a good looking kid but normal. He wouldn't stand out if you saw him on a school bus. It's his manner that's distinctive. For a teenager, he's really deliberate, thoughtful, a little guarded in a way that makes him seem much older. He lives in Los Angeles. He's just transferred from a massive public high school to an elite private school.

Carlos: I really enjoy math. Math is just, it's not easy, but it just makes the most sense.

MG: When he talks about math, Carlos relaxes, he looks happy, like math is the warmest and safest place he knows.

Carlos: Some people just say they hate math because they don't understand it but I just like learning about, like, the concepts of math. And when, when I come to understand something I feel, it just makes it, Everything is very precise, you know. It's, it's is not a lot of room for error. That's, I guess that's why I like math.

MG: Is that the subject that you get the best grades in?

Carlos: Well, I, I do get pretty good grades at all my classes.

MG: What's the last time in school you ever felt that you didn't understand something or couldn't do something or?

Carlos: I'm gonna sound kind arrogant I think, but most concepts that , you know, I'm, I'm taught, I, I catch on to them pretty quickly.

MG: Carlos is a smart kid. He's gotten a scholarship to a really good private school. He's excelling. It's not hard to imagine that, one day, he'll to a college of his choice. He's going places. This is what civilized societies are supposed to do, to provide opportunities for people to make the most of their ability. So that, if you're born poor, you can move up; if you work hard, you can improve your lot. There's even a term for this, capitalization. A society's capitalization rate is the percentage of people in any group who are able to reach their potential, capitalize on their potential. I think the capitalization rate is one of the single best ways we have to capture how successful and just a society is. If I know that number, I think I have a better handle on how well a country's doing than if I know its GDP or its growth rate or its per capita income. And right from the beginning, Americans have told themselves that they're really good at capitalization, really good at social mobility, any kid can grow up to be president. That's what's supposed to set America apart from everywhere else.

Over the course of the next 3 episodes of Revisionist History, I want to reevaluate this idea, go back and ask the question,  "Is it true that we're good capitalization?" In one upcoming show, we're gonna talk about where the money goes in American higher Ed. I'm gonna take you to a small college in South Jersey and ask the question,  "Is the system geared to serve the poor, smart kid or the rich, smart kid?" In another episode, I'm gonna compare two liberal arts colleges and ask,  "What happens when a school really tries to help someone like Carlos?" But this episode is about Carlos himself, because his story is a little more complicated than it seems. Actually, a lot more complicated.

I met Carlos through a man named Eric Eisner.

MG: And what was your first impression of him?

Carlos: Mr. Eisner?

MG: You can speak freely; even though he's in the room.

Carlos: Mr. Eisner can be, uh, intimidating sometimes.

MG: Eric used to be a big shot entertainment lawyer. Back in the day, he worked for David Geffen. He has a kind of athlete swagger, wears impeccable Tom Ford suits. Anyway, he retired in the early 1990s and a few years later, started a program for gifted public school kids in Los Angeles, It's called YES. He talks to a lot of teachers, looks at test scores, identifies the most promising kids, tutors them and uses his connections to get them into private schools. He's been doing it for nearly 20 years. A couple hundred students have passed through YES and have gone on to graduate from some of the top universities in the country. Carlos is one of his kids.

When Carlos was in fifth grade, Eric got him into a fancy elementary school in Brentwood. Now, several years later, Carlos comes to meet me at Eric's house in Bel Air, up one of those winding, gorgeous, canyon roads from Sunset Boulevard. I'm across the table from Carlos; Eric is behind me sitting in an armchair, that's why his voice is sometimes a little faint. Eric asks Carlos to think back to that fancy elementary school in Brentwood, did he feel self-conscious going there?

Carlos: I did, but not because I was Hispanic.

MG: Eric asks whether it was because Carlos was poor and those kids were rich. Did that make Carlos feel self-conscious?

Carlos: Well, let me think about it. I think it kinda did. You know, uh, definitely, I felt like, I, I was the only one, not, not the only one,

EE: Do you remember the episode with the sneakers?

MG: Eric asks about  "The episode with the sneakers," did Carlos remember that?

Have you erased this from your memory?

Carlos: I, I, have I? Can you tell me what happened?

MG: Here's what happened. The teachers in Brentwood called Eric to tell him that Carlos wasn't playing with the other kids at recess, even though he seemed very engaged with them in the classroom. Eric then talked with Carlos and noticed that his sneakers were about three sizes too big. So he bought him shoes the right size and that solved the problem.

MG: Do you remember this?

Carlos: The, the being Not wanting to play the sports with the other kids, that, that does ring a bell. But I don't, I don't, I don't remember the sneakers.

MG: Eric says Carlos' sneakers were so big they curled up like elf shoes. But Carlos says he doesn't remember the sneakers. This happens to him a lot.

I said, at the beginning, that the capitalization story for people like Carlos is complicated and this is what I mean. Carlos is a really, really gifted kid, but it's almost impossible to imagine Carlos making it into the fancy school without Eric. In other words, in order for the system to work, for the smart kid to make it up the ladder, he needs an advocate. And not just an ordinary advocate, a high powered guy with lots of connections who can get you in and watch over you and make sure you get new sneakers because the ones you have are curled up like elf shoes. Capitalization requires an Eric Eisner. And how many Eric Eisners do you think there are out there?

Then, there's the second complication. To find opportunity, Carlos had to go to Brentwood, 45 minutes up the freeway from where he grew up, a wealthy, White, leafy green neighborhood. The truth is, that's where opportunity is in America these days. But you can't just jump from where Carlos was from straight to Brentwood and leave your past behind; your past comes with you.

MG: What were the other students like?

Carlos: Um, well, the other students Well, you know, actually, kids are, are gonna be kids and so, they weren't too different, um, Okay, wait, I need to...Give me a second here. I'm, I'm being kinda nervous.

MG: A few years ago, two prominent economists, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Chris Avery of Harvard, published a really important paper called The Missing One Offs. Hoxby and Avery start up by talking about something that happened 10 years ago, that's when some of the elite US colleges, the Harvards and Princetons of the world, announced that they'd give free tuition to any deserving student who came from the bottom of the economic ladder. At the time, the cut off was a family income of $40,000 a year; now it's 65,000. In other words, if a poor kid is smart enough to get in, she can attend for free. And what happens after the elite schools make this announcement? Not much. To use Harvard as an example, they ended up taking in about an additional 15 or so low-income students a year after changing their policies. That's out of a freshman class of more than 1600. It's a drop in the bucket. Let me quote directly from the paper now, because this is a crucial point,  "Interestingly, this very modest effect was not a surprise to many college admissions staff. They explained that there was a small pool of low-income, high achieving students who were already fully tapped so that additional aid and recruiting could do little except shift them among institutions that were fairly similar." In other words, the admissions officers felt they had gone out of their way to look for these kinds of kids. They had made special visits to high schools with lots of poor students, they'd sent out letters to kids with high test scores living in bad neighborhoods, they had built a network of guidance counselors, they sponsored free campus visits for low-income students, and they made a tuition free. But if you do all those things and you only get an extra 15 smart, poor kids a year at Harvard, that must mean that there aren't a lot of poor, smart kids out there. They're talking about Carlos; they're saying that kids like Carlos are pretty rare.

Hoxby and Avery decide to fact check this, is it true? They go to the college boarding and get the entire database of college test scores, SAT and ACT. Then they take those scores and match each score to a high school and a neighborhood and a zip code and to all that they could to find about where the student comes from and they end up with a giant map of every high achieving, low-income high school senior in the country. And here's what Hoxby and Avery discover, the admissions officers are totally wrong. Actually, there are a huge number of poor, smart kids in the United States. There's probably 35,000 students a year who score in the 90th percent or above on their SATs, and who also come from families living on less than $40,000 a year. Now, keep in mind these are kids who don't have tutors, who don't go to high schools with a million Advanced Placement courses, and who probably took the test once, not two or three times like upper-middle class kids. So these scores are on the low side, these are kids who could ace a test in one shot.

Eric Eisner started YES almost 20 years ago, at an LA middle school, in a place called Lennox, which is this small, heavily Hispanic community of about 20,000 people, hollowed out in the middle of Los Angeles, right across the 405 freeway from LAX. I mean right across. You can practically touch the planes as they take off and land. The medium household income in Lennox is $37,000 a year; it's not a good neighborhood.

Lennox Middle School has 600 kids per grade. The classrooms are these standalone wooden and cinderblock huts, row upon row of them. They only put in windows in the huts last year, tiny, little windows high on the wall. There's a big fence around the outside, a guard in a hut at the gate. I don't want this to come across the wrong way, but Lennox looks like a concentration camp. When I was there, a police cruiser drove slowly back and forth between the long rows of huts. Oh, and next to the principal's office, there are what looked like six narrow closets, solitary confinement cells, where they stash a kid until the cops come. Remember, this is a middle school. You go to a place like Lennox and you can't help feeling hopeless. This is as bad as LA gets. But right from the beginning, when he came there looking for bright kids, Eric Eisner hit pay dirt.

I'm curious about the idea; you can go to a fairly randomly selected middle school in a disadvantaged neighborhood, in a major American city and reliably find, every year, a handful of really, really, really gifted kids, right?

EE: I think, yeah, it, it's, it's, it varies even within the school from year to year. You never know what kind of crop it's gonna be, it's a little like wine. But some years it's very, they're very few and sometimes one or, or none. But then other years, you'll, there'll be five of them. But there is, you know, it's, it, it's, it's not like you're looking for a needle in a haystack.

MG:  "It's not like you're looking for a needle in a haystack." There's a ton of talent out there.
All right, if there are many smart poor kids, why aren't they showing up at places like Harvard? The researchers Avery and Hoxby find that a good chunk of the 35,000 high achievers don't even so much as apply to a good school. That's crazy, right? Most selective schools are practically free for these kids; an elite school is cheaper than the local state college down the street. More importantly, these are really smart kids. We're not talking here about some mediocre student, who gets into an elite college because he's a great football player or his dad built a new dorm and who ends up being way over his head, we're talking about kids like Carlos.

Carlos: Most concepts that I'm taught, I catch on to them pretty quickly.

MG: Eric thinks that the system can't find kids like Carlos because it starts looking much too late. The admissions officers are sending out their letters to high school juniors, 17 year olds. Are you kidding me? In Lennox, Eric says,  "You have to start finding the smart kids in the fourth grade." That's because they may not even show up later.

EE: It's like any muscle, it atrophies. And then, by the time the boy-girl thing happens, if that hasn't been encouraged, that excitement of being smart, it, it goes away. It, it goes away because, when the struggle hits them of going to any kind of, you know, challenge in college, they don't have the cleats for that anymore; they don't have those hiking shoes anymore. They're just not accustomed to it.

MG: So what was happening before YES shows up at this school or in schools where there is no, no one looking out for the promising fourth grader? What happens to those kids?

EE: Well, when we came here, they discouraged me from waiting until the eighth grade to meet with the boys, which is what I wanted to do. They said,  "You can't wait that long because 80% of those boys get gang affiliated by the eighth grade."

MG: 80% gone by the eighth grade. Then comes high school, but there is no high school in Lennox. The kids from Lennox have to go one town over to Hawthorne and that means crossing gang lines. Remember that statistic that Hoxby and Avery came up with for the total number of smart, poor kids? It's low. That number is based on a pool of high school seniors who took either the ACT or the SAT. So, to show up in their pool of 35,000 poor smart kids, you had to have made it all the way to the end of high school and taken one of those standardized tests. Eric's point is that a good number of high achievers in places like Lennox never even get that far. What's the capitalization rate in Lennox if you have to cross a gang line to get to high school?

I think we have an ideology about talent that says that talent is a tangible, resilient, hard, and shiny thing; it will always rise to the top. And to find and encourage talent, all you have to do, as a society, is to make sure the right doors are open. Free campus visits, free tuition, letters to the kids with high scores, that's the ideology of the admissions officer. You raise your hand and say,  "Over here," and the talent will come running. But that's not true in Lennox; it's not resilient and shiny at Lennox Middle School. Talent is really, really fragile.

More in a moment after this break.

Now, back to our story.

So Eric found Carlos in Lennox and used his West Side LA lawyer savvy to get Carlos into an elite, private elementary school in Brentwood. Every morning, Carlos took a long bus ride up the 405 from Lennox to the school. I've known Eric for a long time and I always joke with him, the slogan of his organization, YES, ought to be that every Los Angeles public school child deserves his own Jewish entertainment lawyer. He always laughs because that's what he's been doing for close to 20 years, cutting deals with private schools for his YES kids.

So Carlos is doing really well, of course he is. He's an exceptional student. Eric starts looking for Carlos' next step, he makes some enquiries. Carlos gets an offer of a full-ride scholarship to one of the most exclusive private high schools in the country. If he were a kid from a normal, middle-class neighborhood and family, you'd say,  "He's all set." But he's not.

Carlos: And I, I really wanted to go to boarding school.

MG: Yeah.

Carlos: You know, but, uh, in the end, I didn't get to go.

MG: The boarding school he's referring to is Choate in central Connecticut. It's his ticket out. But remember I said that Carlos' story gets complicated. Well, here's yet another complication: Carlos has a little sister. She's also in the room with us. Along with Alina Beruff, who runs YES with Eric. We start talking about why Carlos couldn't go to Choate.

Alina Beruff: It was the summer going into 8th grade, right after your birthdays.

Carlos: Right.

MG: It was the summer before Carlos was supposed to go to high school, but Eric has to remind him that there was a lot else going on other than school.

Carlos: Yeah.

EE: So, do you want to talk about that or not?

Carlos: Um, well, in the 8th... It was 8th grade, right? 8th grade, for me, foster care. Yeah, I forgot.

MG: Did you catch that? He said it really quickly, under his breath, that phrase again,  "I forgot."

Carlos: In the summer, going into the 8th grade, uh, my sister and I were put into, um, foster homes.

MG: Carlos and his sister were put into foster homes.

Carlos: So we were living away from, from our mother and I guess that had a bit of an, an emotional, you know, toll on me. And, uh, I, I definitely still tried at school, it, I didn't let it, you know, affect my grades, like, too much.

MG: Maybe by now you can understand the strategic value of Carlos's selective memory because there weren't a lot of good things happening in his life. I'll let you use your imagination. It was bad, Lennox bad, not Brentwood bad. Then he says,  "I definitely still tried at school, I didn't let it affect my grades too much." Things are falling apart, but he understands that he has one way out and that is to be a great student. Not a good one, good doesn't get you anywhere, a great one. So he puts everything else in a box. He's got to take care of his sister and get good grades.

I spoke with Eric about it later.

EE: He took on this burden, that was so above his skill set, of being a father, being a husband, being everything and that's why she wouldn't let him go to Choate when they gave him a full scholarship. Oh, that was...

MG: The  "she" he's talking about is Carlos's mother.

EE: You, you can imagine how frustrating and angering that was for me. The opportunity of him going to school like that, getting away from all that, and her, um, understandingly killing it because he was taking care of her. And that's what he was, what, in the 8th grade.

MG: He did say,  "I would have liked to go to boarding school."

EE: Oh, he definitely wanted to go. We sort of licked our wounds by convincing ourselves that at least he would be there for the little sister.

MG: It's a chaotic time, Carlos' mother tells him not to go to Choate but stay so he can take care of her and his sister. Then, the two are taken from their mother; they become wards of Los Angeles County.

Carlos: You know, growing up with your parents and being suddenly, you know, taken away, it, you know, it can't be good. And, but I guess, I guess the hardest part was moving around house to house. Like, it's not that I, I moved to one foster home and then stayed there for a year and a half, I, I've been to I think four.

MG: Four homes. And worse than that, for a time he was separated from his little sister. How long were you separated for?

Carlos: Um, the first foster home didn't las- um, we weren't separated for too long because we, we made a point to, um, our social workers to, please, you know, reunite us.

MG: He's making it sound like it wasn't that much of a big deal. It was a big deal. Choate goes away, their mother goes away, now his little sister is taken away and the two of them start bouncing around the foster homes of south LA and,  "Made a point to our social workers to please reunite us." It was a war. This is Eric again, from later.

EE: He didn't tell you how to disastrous these first foster homes were.

MG: When you say  "disastrous," what do you mean?

EE: Just idiotic. I mean, it wasn't like,  "Oh, Thank God they're in this wonderful home." First of all, they were one of five foster kids in the ho-, you know what I mean? This is not,  "Let us take you into our home," this is,  "How much you gonna pay us, how many kids can we get?" Right? Meanwhile, the mother is roaming around the planet like Beetlejuice and we have to, you know, keep her her at bay. It was just, you know, it was...

MG: It was a mess.

MG: Did you know your father?

Carlos: Yeah. My... Yeah, I still have um... My father and I, we, uh... He was, he was absent for a large part of my life.

MG: And where is your mother now?

Carlos: Um, my mother, my, my mother is, uh, is in prison.

MG: Oh.

Carlos: Yeah, yeah, in Texas.

MG: I'll let you use your imagination again as to why. It wasn't an easy thing for a kid, two kids, to deal with. Eric's colleague, Alina, is sitting quietly in the room. She tries to put things in perspective. Carlos' mom, Alina says,  "Had a difficult time with losing control of her children." That made it hard for Eric and Alina to stay involved. Finally, the mother tells Eric and Alina, and this is the phrase Alina uses,  "To detach themselves."

The kids vanish for a year and a half and neither Eric nor Alina know whether they'll ever see them again. That's the difference between being privileged and being poor in America. It's how many chances you get. If you're wealthy, all kinds of things can happen and you'll be okay. You can drop out of school for a year, you can get addicted to pain killers, you can have a bad car accident. No one ever says, of the upper-middle class high school kid whose parents get a terrible divorce,  "I wonder if she'll ever go to college." She's going to college; disruption is not fatal to life chances. A friend of mine was once stopped by cops speeding on the East River Drive in Manhattan, drunk with a syringe on the dashboard. And what happened? Nothing happened. He went on to have the kind of brilliant career he deserved to have. That's the point of privilege, it buys you second chances.

But if you're from Lennox, even if you're a kid with all the talent in the world, you don't get the same number of chances. That's why there are at least 35,000 really smart, poor high school seniors every year in this country and so few of them are making it to the kinds of colleges they deserve, because too many things get in the way.

When I met Eric again, a few days later, he told me a second story. He said it was about another Carlos, as he put it. He said he got a call from an elementary school principal in Lennox.

EE: She says,  "I want you to come meet a bunch of fourth graders that I think are outstanding." When I got to the third boy, I said,  "So, um, tell me about yourself."

MG: Eric asks about the little boy's father, where is he? It's the standard question he always starts with because there are so many absent fathers in that world, that that question narrows things down pretty quickly.

EE: His answer was so peculiar it gripped me so fast. He looked at me and he said,  "There was violence." Those were the very words that came out of his mouth and the minute he said it, I went,  "Oh, my God." I had more than the sneaking suspicion, this is the boy who saw his, virtually his entire family murdered by a crazy neighbor, with, who got into a beef with his father. He saw his father killed, his older brother killed, the guy had a shot gun, he ran into the house, grabbed his little sister, they hid under a bed and the guy burned the house down. He was hiding under the bed while the house was on fire. His mother finally came back, he ran outside to see his mother beaten up, she was in the hospital for months after this, and the police came and killed the guy, shot the guy. It was so horrendous, and it didn't occur to me that this was a, a Lennox family, and I, I realized I am now talking to this boy because he is one of the three outstanding boys in the class.

MG: Wait, what was he like?

EE: Fantastic. He was poised, he was articulate. When he said there was violence, the needle moved 180; it went from  "Wow, what a, what an interesting, remarkable, articulate, confident kid you are, what a fortunate kid you are," to "Oh, my God. I now think I know the reality of you."

MG: Even as an 8-year-old, this kid was smart enough to know that meeting Eric was his big chance and that his job was to put all the bad stuff aside, to put it in a box. That's what these kids are like, the ones who make it out. They learn from a very early age where the exits are and they don't let anything get in their way. You see your family getting massacred or your mother go to prison and you say, like Carlos did,  "I definitely still tried at school; I didn't let it affect my grades too much."

So what happens to Carlos? He gets lucky. Lucky because the foster care situation works itself out, he forgets all the bad stuff that's happening, he takes care of his sister, he reestablishes his contact with Eric and Alina and they find him another private school. Not Choate, not a boarding school, something closer to home. But whatever you do, don't call this story inspirational because it's not. It's depressing because it says that if you live in Lennox and things go awry, you have to have an Eric and an Alina in your corner and be as tough and single minded and one in a million as Carlos is to make it out. That's why the capitalization of talent is such an issue, because these are really long odds.

Back with Carlos and his sister at Eric Eisner's house. Eric turns to Carlos and asks.

EE: Do you remember feeling pessimistic for the first time in your life?

MG: Were you ever pessimistic?

Carlos: Um, I wasn't really pessimistic as...

EE: Overwhelmed?

MG: Yeah, overwhelmed is, is a great word. I guess, it's just a lot happening at the time and I was...And then I was back in the public school, you know, it was, like, it was like I started right back, you know, right from square one.

MG: Eric turns to Carlos' sister and asks whether she ever worried that her brother had had enough.  "What would you do if he gave up?"

EE: Do you remember a time when you looked at him and were concerned that he was, uh, what would you do if he gave up?

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