At Henry Horner Homes in Chicago, most inhabitants classify success as one day escaping their violence-filled, gang-controlled neighborhood and living a peaceful life somewhere else. For Horner residents, achieving success is a difficult process that requires a combination of determination, willpower, and luck. Using LaJoe’s niece, Dawn, and Pharoah as examples, the novel argues that succeeding in school and in life requires sustained commitment and persistence more than it does intelligence and talent. However, though important, academic success and persistence is insufficient in determining one’s future. To truly achieve success, Horner residents must also stay away from drugs, crime, and violence, which requires a combination of willpower and sheer luck.
The experiences of Pharoah and Dawn, the two most striking success stories in the Rivers family, demonstrate that sheer persistence, more than raw intelligence or talent alone, is a crucial impulse behind success in school and beyond. When Pharoah participates in his first spelling bee, he is overcome with stress and begins to panic and stutter, which leads him to lose the competition. However, instead of feeling discouraged and giving up, he puts all his effort in preparing for the second spelling bee. During many months, he trains himself to relax and to speak slowly so that he will not stutter when asked to spell a word. He finishes second in his second spelling bee, proving that hard work and persistence are necessary for one’s talents to come to light. It is Pharoah’s constant practice and fierce determination—not his ability to memorize words—that allow him to win the spelling bee and to keep on investing in his academic life.
LaJoe’s niece, Dawn, further shows that hard work and determination must not end with school. When Dawn graduates from high school, everyone in her family assumes that she will immediately be able to leave Horner. However, despite her intelligence and academic success, Dawn soon finds herself struggling to find a job and is forced to accept any employment opportunity she can find, however temporary. Like Pharoah, though, she does not give in to discouragement. Dawn and her boyfriend, Demetrius, remain committed to their goals, and through hard work, they are both able to relocate to a quieter housing complex, which is a significant achievement. Their story demonstrates that perseverance and hard work—not necessarily talent and intelligence—are essential in order to achieve success.
At Horner, one’s capacity to stay out of violent and illegal activities is just as important to achieving success as remaining persistent and dedicated to one’s goals. However, this ability to remain out of trouble is in part the product of strong will and, often, too, of sheer luck. Despite his desire to escape from Horner, Lafeyette seems to lack the will to distance himself entirely from the negative pressures of the neighborhood, which jeopardizes his ability to escape Horner and build a healthy, successful life for himself elsewhere. Over time, Lafeyette finds himself increasingly drawn into the dangerous environment of the housing projects. At fifteen, he is caught smoking marijuana before school. In a neighborhood where drugs are so intimately tied to substance abuse, death, and gang violence, this is a dangerous behavior for Lafeyette to adopt, capable of compromising his successes at school, such as his successful graduation from eighth grade.
Craig Davis’s story demonstrates that even the most non-violent, promising individuals can fall prey to the violence of the neighborhood without intending to. This young man, who sets up turntables in front of the Rivers’ building for everyone to come out and dance, provides the community with rare moments of lightheartedness and joy. Lafeyette looks up to him, and Craig repeatedly tells the young boy to stay away from gangs and to work hard at school so that he might one day leave the projects. However, Craig’s positive attitude does not protect him from senseless brutality. When he dies as a result of a police blunder, it becomes apparent that, in the projects, even the most peaceful individuals can fall prey to the violence in the neighborhood. Therefore, to survive at Horner and eventually escape it, one must be endowed with hope and conviction, but also, sadly, with sheer luck.
Success at Horner is a fragile achievement, as escaping the lures of the neighborhood requires long-standing commitment to one’s goals and non-violence, but also sheer luck—the capacity to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In such a chaotic context, the difficulty of trusting in oneself and believing in the near-impossible—leaving the neighborhood—means that only few people are ever truly able to escape the oppressive environment they have grown up in. This may seem pessimistic, but the novel actually shows success in a more realistic light. While individuals have control over their own determination and willpower, other uncontrollable factors, such as luck, also dictate success.
Persistence, Luck, and Success ThemeTracker
Persistence, Luck, and Success Quotes in There Are No Children Here
I asked Lafeyette what he wanted to be. “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver,” he told me. If, not when. At the age of ten, Lafeyette wasn’t sure he’d make it to adulthood.
LaJoe had watched and held on as the neighborhood slowly decayed, as had many urban communities like Horner over the past two decades. First, the middle-class whites fled to the suburbs. Then the middle-class blacks left for safer neighborhoods. Then businesses moved, some to the suburbs, others to the South.
But though the isolation and the physical ruin of the area’s stores and homes had discouraged LaJoe, it was her family that had most let her down. Not that she could separate the two. Sometimes she blamed her children’s problems on the neighborhood; at other times, she attributed the neighborhood’s decline to the change in people, to the influx of drugs and violence.
Lafeyette confided to LaJoe, who tried vainly to get him to verbalize his grief, that talking wasn’t going to help him, that everything that “goes wrong keeps going on and everything that’s right doesn’t stay right.”
“The kids want this orderliness,” Ms. Barone reasoned. “They appreciate it. They like it. It gives them a sense of being in an environment that is safe and comfortable.”
He secretly wished his mother would push him more, make him go to sleep early, make him do his homework. LaJoe conceded that she could be too soft on her children, though she wanted nothing more than to see Lafeyette and Pharoah graduate from high school.
“Pharoah is Pharoah. He’s going to be something. […] When he was a baby, I held him up and asked him if he’d be the one. I’ve always wanted to see one of my kids graduate from high school. I asked him if he’d be the one to get me a diploma.”
There were some words Pharoah had trouble pronouncing because of his stutter. “I can’t say this right,” he’d cry out in frustration. “No such thing as can’t,” Clarise would remind him, like a mother encouraging her son. And the two would work at sounding out the word, syllable by syllable.
Pharoah realized that something was terribly wrong. He didn’t want to ask. No one seemed to care about his spelling bee triumph. No one wanted to hear what he had to say. Dutt was weeping. Lafeyette, while he had one ear to the conversation, stared vacantly out the window; he didn’t even congratulate Pharoah. LaJoe tucked Pharoah’s red ribbon into her pocketbook.