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RADIO REVIEW

'This American Life' tackles Chicago violence

Steve Johnson

11:14 PM EST, February 13, 2013

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William Rainey Harper High School, in West Englewood, is known for a few things.

It has a really good football team for its size.

In 2010 it was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for its success in boosting a dismal academic record.

And last school year almost 30 of its students or former students were shot, the principal said, and eight of them died: five recent students and three enrolled at the time.

It's that last fact that brought three “This American Life” reporters into the hallways of Harper, in the impoverished South Side neighborhood, for the first semester of this school year. The result begins airing this weekend in the first of two episodes of the weekly public radio documentary program devoted to the school and its efforts to handle the violence.

Stark and surprising and achingly human, the show is, on its own, an exceptional hour of radio. We hear kids outline the rules for after-school safety, including never walk alone, but don't walk in groups. We hear a student coping with the fact that he shot his younger brother to death last year, and his mother isn't so sure it was an accident. And we hear administrators scrambling to decide whether they can risk holding the homecoming dance the day after a former student, with a brother still at the school, is shot in the neighborhood.

The treatment — only the first episode was available for review — is all the more exceptional for its timing. As Ira Glass, host of the program produced by Chicago Public Media, parent of WBEZ-FM 91.5, points out, President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak on topics including gun violence in the city Friday, the same day the show first airs. Obama's talk follows Saturday's funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the teenager from another South Side neighborhood who was shot to death in a park, her group apparently mistaken for gang members.

The president is trying to build a public groundswell for stricter gun control that can overwhelm decades of political resistance. One of the points he has been making is that, while massacres like the one in Newtown, Conn., galvanize the nation, their slow-motion equivalent is happening in cities on a regular basis.

“If you grafted (Harper's) facts onto another high school,” Glass says in the episode, “in a wealthier place, maybe a suburb — dozens of students shot, three of them killed — in other places it would be national news. We would all know the name of that school.”

Chicagoans might know Harper. The Tribune has written about the violence affecting the school. WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton did a long piece for the Chicago public radio station on the agony of principal Leonetta Sanders, based on the June funeral of one of her students, basketball player Shakaki Asphy.

The magic of “This American Life,” in its 17-plus years on the air, has been its knack for making small and unlikely stories broadly compelling, and its ability to let the stories breathe. Even when it serves up pieces more explicitly related to the news — as it has been doing, to powerful effect, in recent years — it makes time for quiet or slightly off-center moments that other media might trim.

And by spending time at Harper, it gives voice to the people who are in the middle of the epidemic of gun violence, the ones who have, largely, lacked a say.

So in the first Harper episode, Lutton's primer on how kids get by includes the delicate negotiations between a vice principal and a student gang member over whether the student will bring future problems to the administrator. In their back-and-forth, you hear what a minefield the student's life must be.

And Sanders explains the ever-shifting gang loyalties, crystallized in a conversation she recalls with a girl she thought was a member of the Gorgeous Savages. “Well there's the Gorgeous Savage, there's the Purple Savage, there's the Pink Savage, and there's the New Day Savage,” she remembers the student telling her. “I said, ‘So there are four different girl Savage groups going around now?' ‘Yeah.' And they were looking at us like, ‘Where y'all been?'”

Chicago author Alex Kotlowitz, who has found a fruitful sideline making memorable radio pieces, takes listeners into the counseling sessions with the student who shot his brother. The student doesn't admit to feeling pain, but he says he needs Nyquil to get to sleep, and he'll only do so in his dead brother's bed. “This American Life” producer Ben Calhoun, a former WBEZ reporter, delivers the football and homecoming story, which ends in the first episode as a kind of cliffhanger: Will the school cancel the dance or won't it?

It's a significant question because, in addition to being in the middle of complicated and deadly gang rivalries, Harper is, the episode points out, a school. It is a place where administrators maintain order and show evident affection for their students and want, as much as possible, to let them have a high school experience like the one that other American kids and their parents take for granted.

sajohnson@tribune.com
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'This American Life'
7 p.m. Friday (repeating 10 a.m. Saturday), WBEZ-FM 91.5