The majority of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace takes place in a school setting: first Mt. Carmel, the private elementary school Robert Peace attends, then St. Benedict’s Prep, his high school, and finally Yale University, where he goes to college. In many ways, all three schools share a common mission: even though they’re very different, they’re all designed to help their students succeed by preparing them for a successful, rewarding adult life. In school, Robert and his peers are taught specific skills, but their teachers also attempt to give them a sense of confidence and ambition, ensuring they’ll become successful adults some day. And yet, the book’s view of the educational system is in many ways pessimistic: the life of Robert Peace proves that schools can’t always prepare their students for life.
Many of the “best” schools are designed to give their students the confidence, ambition, and leadership abilities to succeed. St. Benedict’s Prep, a century-old private school in Newark with an endowment in the millions, is one such school. During Robert Peace’s time at St. Benedict’s, his teachers don’t just teach him math, science, and English: they try to shape his character, too. The headmaster, Friar Edwin Leahy, admires Robert for his maturity and willpower, and makes it his personal mission to cultivate leadership abilities in Robert. Similar, Robert’s swimming coach, Wayne Ridley, believes that he has a duty to make his boys fine young men, not just fine athletes. The St. Benedict’s faculty members are sometime successful in their attempts to nurture good character in their students. But at times, they fall short. Robert succeeds at St. Benedicts and seems to demonstrate his leadership skills. But in fact, Hobbs suggests, he’s hiding his “true” character and merely going through the motions for the sake of his teachers. On the one occasion when Coach Ridley tries to get Robert to talk about his drug use and his relationship with his father, Robert yells at Ridley and doesn’t talk to him for a week. Robert’s behavior suggests a basic problem with the school system: the teachers don’t always have the abilities to “get through” to their students, even if they’re close with their students. Ridley and Leahy try to help Robert resolve his larger problems in life, but they don’t succeed. And in the process, they just make Robert better at concealing his true self.
School isn’t just about building character, of course: students are also expected to learn skills that will help them succeed for the rest of their lives. But here again, Hobbs suggests that the school system is flawed: the specific skills that schools teach aren’t enough to guarantee success, if they’re not paired with lessons in confidence and motivation. At Yale, Robert seemingly acquires every skill he’d need to become successful. He works hard at his classes, gets near-perfect grades, and wins departmental honors. And yet, when Robert graduates, he almost immediately goes back to living in Newark and selling drugs. Conceivably, he could take the MCAT, get into a great medical school, and become a successful doctor, but he doesn’t seem remotely interested in taking this path in life.
Robert’s Yale education could be said to fail him in two distinct ways. First, it does nothing to build his confidence or inspire his passion. (A famous, and infamous, article by William Deresiewicz made exactly this point about Ivy League educations.) But second, Robert’s Yale education fails him, because—according to Robert—it caters to a privileged white student body. (See Racism theme.) Although he has many Yale friends, Robert never really feels welcome at Yale itself. College gives him the skillset associated with being a successful doctor, but not the sense of support and belonging that would motivate him to want to be a doctor. Instead, the Yale administration seems to assume that its students already do feel that they belong and that they’re supported—a naïve assumption that ignores Robert’s perspective as a black working-class student at an elite, traditionally WASP-y college.
In all, Hobbs makes a number of important points about the failures of the American school system: it can’t reach its students, it reinforces racial prejudices instead of repairing them, and it doesn’t give all of its students the confidence and acceptance they need to thrive as adults—only those students who already feel a sense of acceptance in an affluent, predominately white atmosphere. When Hobbs puts these points together, they form a convincing explanation for why the life of Robert Peace—a student who on paper should have thrived after graduating from college—came to a sudden, tragic end.
Education and the School System ThemeTracker
Education and the School System Quotes in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Jackie and Rob would eat their snacks on the blanket (never on park benches, because stupefied addicts peed themselves on them), and she'd follow him closely over the jungle gym while her eyes searched always for nails or glass or older, rougher children who had no business on a toddler playground, anything that posed a threat to her boy.
'Wait, wait, wait, hold up," Rob said. 'You're getting served steak and lobster, getting to sleep in your own bedroom with your own bathroom and a maid—and you're starting shit over some words about shoes?" Rob made psha sound. "Don't be such a bitch, T."
After Rob called a faculty coordinator back in Newark to let him know they were okay, the homeowner asked if the boys wanted to stay in his garage until the storm let up. Rob declined; now that no one was going to be struck by lightning or washed down a mountainside, he wanted his group to get through this on their own.
As Coach Ridley learned that early winter morning of 1998, Rob Peace was one of those students. All the anger Rob felt—at his father's imprisonment, his mother's weariness, his own poverty that tasted like ketchup packets—only seemed to fuel his merits as a scholar and leader, and hide itself behind those ever-rising attributes.
Mr. Cawley took a dinner napkin with a phone number scrawled on it from his pocket, and he pressed it into Rob's hand. He said, “You can go to college wherever you want.”
I learned over the course of our conversation that Rob had gone to a prep school, he "played a little water polo," and his favorite pastime was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Nothing he said shaded him as anything other than well-off and overeducated: a typical rarefied Yale applicant.
White students went to frat houses, one of five popular bars, outdoor quad parties; black students did something else, of which we knew little except that rap music was most likely playing very loud.
So what if it's annoying as hell? Instead of sitting around here bitching about it, maybe we just accept that it is what it is, and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they’ll ever get from us.
I was still struggling to equate the irritating but unremarkable encounter he'd described (I had doubtlessly forgotten to bus my own tray once or twice, though I didn't admit that now) with the profound anger still coursing through him, a few hours and a few joints later. I felt guilty for being unable to do so, for lacking the empathy required to connect a careless prep school slight to a fundamental flaw in the social construct in which we lived. All I said was, "That sucks, dude."
Though he hid that anger well behind the grin and the laughter and the marijuana, Arthur felt it in the jokes Rob made to Laurel and others about their privileged upbringings, in his heavy quietude whenever socioeconomic topics came up in conversation, and in his general disdain of Yale and Yalies. Arthur saw a closed-mindedness that was, he felt, self-propagating and innately limiting. More broadly, he believed these qualities explained precisely how an intelligent guy like Rob would always make life harder on himself than it needed to be.
Whenever that word, “Yale,” was uttered, even in the lightest way possible, Rob did what he could to undermine its connotation. An exchange might begin with someone saying, "I still don't believe a punkass like you went to no Yale; you're just lying" and Rob would shake his head with a doleful smile and say, “Yeah. I did that shit.”
As a financial master, Mr. Cawley looked at the world in terms of investments, of risk and reward. In 1998, the "investment" in Rob had struck him on paper as one of the lowest-risk and the highest-return; he saw no possible downside in giving this rare boy the slight push (Yale's four-year tuition of $140,000 being slight for a bank CEO worth nine figures) he needed to reach the pinnacle for which he was already headed. Almost a decade later, as Rob broke off eye contact to gaze down at the floor as if there were a pit between them, Mr. Cawley understood that a life wasn't lived on paper.
"I don't need you to," she replied. "I never have. Don't you go worrying about me. Take care of yourself. I just want you happy foremost, and I want you around if it works that way. I want you settled."
And Rob left, rolling his eyes like this scene was just part of a comedy in which he was the focal point of the farcical behavior of those around him. And Oswaldo understood now with a clarity he'd never had before that all of Rob's troubles were self-inflicted—that on Yale graduation day Rob had stood within reach of everything he now didn't have.
Her son made sense with numbers. He always had. And now he was thirty years old, taking her through the tiers of retirement benefits. She wished that these calculations hadn't always been so challenging, not in terms of the math but its implications. She knew that he wished the same thing. But she didn't fix any anger, as her son did, to that wish. She'd entertained many such wishes during the course of her life and had long since accepted the reality that very few of them would come true. She'd wished that Skeet had been innocent. She'd wished for jackpots with each crank of an Atlantic City slot machine.
And yet they still rendered the predictable media spin of potential squandered, the gift of education sacrificed to the allure of thug life, etc., not only simplistic but offensively so.
At a certain point, the lights disappeared from view beyond the trees and eaves of the neighboring homes, leaving the Burger Boyz to sit down once again in the plastic fold-out chairs and wonder how long it would be before the flames flickered out and the lanterns began their descent. And once that happened, they wondered where each would fall.