The University at which I work does a summer reading assignment for Freshmen. It has a noble intention, I think, in that it attempts to provide the entire incoming class with a shared literary experience. The semester starts on Monday, but the Freshmen have already arrived for their various orientation events. Today was meant to be the day that these students would be divided up into book discussion groups so that they might enjoy their first quasi-academic college encounter.

I volunteered early on to be a discussion leader for this event, since I’ve got some experience running book clubs at my previous public library position. I also enjoy discussing books and other forms of recreational entertainment, as should be obvious from this blog.

In any event, we’ve got something in the neighborhood of 2600 incoming Freshmen, I believe, but as of earlier in this week, when all of the discussion leaders met to discuss how this thing would go down, the program organizers were estimating that only a small fraction of these Freshmen would stick around to participate in these discussions. And by “small”, I mean small. The rough guess was that each of the 20 or so discussion leaders might have about 25 students. It’s not a mandatory activity, you understand, and nobody has any illusions about the Freshman commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty.

Anyway, if I had to guess, I’d say that only about 40 students stayed to participate. I really find this to be a sad commentary upon the incoming Freshman class…and maybe Freshmen in general, since I doubt this is dissimilar to what would happen at most state universities. If nothing else, it’s rather ironic to me: this very week, we had a newsletter from the university president announcing that this institution had been moved up to the first tier in U.S. News & World Report‘s “best colleges” rankings.

Because there were so few students, there weren’t enough to put together a group for me, and if I’m being honest, I was somewhat regretful about that. As I walked out of the stadium in which I and the other discussion leaders had been asked to meet up, I overheard a mother outside chatting with another parent:

“I asked her if she read the book, and she told me that she didn’t have time. I’m telling you, she slept all summer.”

The book, by the way, is less than 300 pages and a very easy, brisk read. My mother never would have let me get away with malarky like that.

Outcasts UnitedAll of this said, I’m glad that I did volunteer for the program, because I enjoyed Outcasts United. It’s non-fiction by a feature writer for The New York Times, Warren St. John. I believe it began life as a series of features in the Times, before St. John developed it into a full book. It tells the story of a one-mile-square town in the state of Georgia that has become a sort of hot spot for international refugee resettlement programs. It’s fascinating reading in a lot of ways.

Primarily, the book follows a woman from Jordan who almost by accident stumbles upon this disconnected refugee community and takes on the task of forming a number of boys soccer teams as an exercise in cohesion, hard work, and personal responsibility. Through their experience, St. John paints a half-amusing, half-troubling picture of a town in transition, and the internal pressures that strain relations, foster an us versus them mentality, and just generally have pushed the small city of Clarkston to the boiling point.

St. John has described the city of Clarkston as being an instance of America in fast forward or “a laboratory that allows us to glimpse into our future”, and how when disparate communities are thrust together without the requisite time required for acclimation, people tend to “retreat into the familiar”. Outcasts United, then, is about the importance of breaking through that impulse, though at no point does he make this seem easy. And it isn’t.

Ultimately, for me, this book is a reminder of how remarkably difficult so many people have it in this world (the refugee children–or Fugees–come from such countries as Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kosovo, amongst other pernicious shitholes). What many of these refugees have gone through merely to get to the United States is the stuff of nightmares, and many of them are still in some way living with the reality of terror and oppression that follows them no matter how far they stray from these conflict zones.

One would think that coming to the United States of America would be a dream come true, but the truth of the matter is that they’re often deposited–more or less dumped–here with little guidance. Many are illiterate; many have no skills; many speak no English. They have almost no money–children show up to play soccer in their socks, because they can’t afford shoes–few prospects, and absolutely no safety net.

In that sense, Outcasts United inspires when it examines how soccer is wielded to ingrain in the younger generation of refugees what many would consider to be the core American values of hard work and perseverance, and how it often pays out in self confidence, academic success, college scholarships, soccer league sponsorships, and overall integration into the larger American community. At the same time, St. John doesn’t elide the fact that many of these children continue to fall through the cracks, as they are drawn into gang violence or otherwise defeated by a somewhat toxic system that cares little for these strange outsiders.

You know, when I read about how these refugee kids have to struggle for everything they get, it really bothers me all the more that these Freshmen couldn’t even bother to read one book given the entire summer and merely show up to talk about it. Woody Allen said that ninety percent of life is just showing up. It’s fairly mind boggling that so many kids today can’t even do that much.