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Book Review: Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey

Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. Roger Prosise. Indianapolis, Indiana: Chatter House Press, June 3, 2017, Trade Paperback, 156 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

About 10 years ago, there was a popular aspirational slogan Sí, se puede ("yes you can ") that highlighted the message that one can make the impossible possible through hard work and support. Roger Prosise's memoir is a classic example of Sí, se puede.

Prosise grew up as a biracial kid in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project. Cabrini-Green had the reputation of being the worst public housing project in the country and one of the poorest. Not surprisingly, Prosise went through what can be described as a crucible of fire. He suffered with racial harassment, poverty, and a dysfunctional father who beat him with a board and was incapable of participating in the lives of his children in any way that counted.

However, Prosise was fortunate in that he had a strong, positive mother who would navigate him past the temptations and negativities that existed in Cabrini-Green. Without her love and support, who knows what would have happened to him? It's not without reason that Prosise dedicates the book to Lucille Kojima Prosise.

Prosise's mother had spent her teenage years in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. She became the family breadwinner, working hard to care for her ten children and ungrateful, alcoholic husband. She taught Prosise the value of hard work, family, and education. Lucille Kojima Prosise was a heroine, a real Wonder Woman.

Also consider that Roger Prosise went from one of the poorest communities in the country to become superintendent of Bannockburn School in one of America’s wealthiest communities. The value of education that his mother passed to him made him feel alive. It enabled Prosise to embody the concept that as long as you have a dream, you will get there.

Prosise’s story is so engaging story that I read it in one sitting. He told his story with such honesty that I sometimes cringed as I read it. Referring back to his father, he relates that as a high school student, he was physically as big as his father. The days of physical punishment with a board were over. Prosise could defend himself.

I like the book's format. The memoir is divided into three parts: “Cabrini-Green,” “Lake View,” and “Mansions and Schools.” There is a balance to the story. In addition to being a very personal story and a quick read, there is a flow and rhythm that moves the story along. I did notice some minor typographical errors, which were not problematic and can be corrected in a future edition.

Prosise gives context for the events, people, and places he's writing about. In Chapter Four he gives historical context about the internment camps during World War II, especially the Manzanar camp where his mother, as a young woman, was sent. Early in Chapter Two, Prosise gives a historical, economic, and social context of the Cabrini-Green community. This helps to inform and enrich the story for the reader.

The two major themes of the story are resiliency and the importance of friendships. In the “Backbone” chapter, Prosise writes about his mother’s hard life that never kept her down and exemplified the biggest lesson he learned from her. “Life will knock you down – it’s not a matter of if but when. And when it does, what are you going to do?” For his mother, she always got up and started again. Then there is the focus on friendships. There was Phillip, who protected Prosise from the gangbangers when they both attended Jenner Elementary, and Lorenzo, who saved Prosise from getting jumped by some of the high school students at Cooley.

Prosise’s memoir is a feel-good story that we need in these turbulent times. His story shows the power of friendships to annul racial divisions, and the role of education in helping children transcend poverty. It’s also about resiliency – the classic Horatio Alger story of one humane, caring, and tolerant human being who rose from rags to riches. I frankly admit that there were parts of this story that moved me and in some cases caused me to tear up. I’m proud to belong to an educational fraternity that includes Roger Prosise as a member.

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