Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
From the Projects to Prep School: A Memoir
- Softcover, 260 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches
- ISBN: 978-1-59851-041-6
Lyles paints a detailed, thoughtful picture of race relations in the 1970s . . . Highly recommended. Small Press Review
A memoir of race and education, this is the story of a girl who grew up and out of the Cleveland projects in the 1960s and '70s.
While growing up in Cleveland, young Charlise Lyles experienced turbulent events including race riots and a neighborhood murder. Yet she was inspired to appreciate literature at a young age, and she spent her days reading—and also often searching for the estranged father who taught her that love of learning.
Despite starting in the “slow class” at an aging school on Cleveland's east side, Lyles had a thirst for knowledge and drive for success that would open a door to new opportunities. Granted a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in a wealthy suburb, the vibrant teenager finds herself presented with a bewildering set of new challenges—and a new direction in life.
Illustrations: 21 black-and-white photographs
A memoir told through evocative language and with clear-eyed precision. Lyles writes about her experiences with both America's mid-20th-century urban racial dysfunction and her own intellectual blooming . . . She moves back and forth with grace and an ever-growing awareness of how her parents created a smart, well-read girl in spite of poverty . . . This is essential reading for all American teens. School Library Journal
The book is remarkable for many reasons: the writing is eloquent and understated; the obstacles to accomplishment familiar and yet appallingly new in the retelling; the fortitude and resilience admirable and bold, as children under stress so frequently show us. . . . A success story filled with drama, luck and moxie. . . . Charlise Lyles does not write with sentimentality, but with a cold eye on the reality of what usually happens when people are discarded. Women's Review of Books
A fascinating literary memoir from the viewpoint of a little girl who did dare to disturb the universe she was born into . . . Lyles has given a vivid picture, one laced with generosity, humor and insight, of growing up poor without giving up. Morning Journal
Lyles evokes the anxieties involved in going from the projects into the world of scholastic upward mobility. But the real subject of her memoir is another kind of education: what she learned as 'a girl growing up Afro and American at the edge of a new era The Washington Post
Lyles speaks to the experiences many of us have of growing up Black. She touches on issues of having an estranged parent, the wealth of living in poverty, navigating two very different social universes and finding one's proper place. Call & Post
Blacks and whites sharing the same schools are a foregone conclusion in the modern day, but as recent as forty years ago, major challenges were faced . . . [A] story of arriving in an extreme majority white prep school during such a time it was completely unheard of. Facing a new set of challenges while maintaining a desire to learn, Lyles' story is a moving one indeed . . . A solid piece on those who faced challenges during the civil rights era. Midwest Book Review
Lyles straddles multiple worlds as she comes of age, and her longing for the attention of a feckless father registers on every page. Her clear, detail-rich memoir shows how she constructed an identitybefore graduating from Smith College and eventually returning to Cleveland. The Plain Dealer
An enthralling slice-of-life look at what the city once was, what it has become, and what life was like and continues to be for those in the forgotten projects . . . The politics of racial equalitythe black militants that brought order to the projects vs. the idealism of her mothertumble within Lyles as she grapples with what it is to be an Afro-American woman . . . An engrossing read and highly recommended. Pajiba.com
About Charlise Lyles
Charlise Lyles was born in Cleveland in 1959. She is an alumna of Hawken Upper School, the A Better Chance program, and a 1981 graduate of Smith College. Lyles is the co-founding editor of Catalyst Cleveland, now Catalyst Ohio magazine, which analyzes urban school improvement issues. Under Lyle's leadership, Catalyst twice won a Clarion Award from the national Association of Women in Communication as well as awards from the Ohio Society for Professional Journalists and the Press Club of Cleveland. In 2009, Lyles was a finalist for a National Association of Black Journalists commentary award. In 2008 she was selected as a Fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs/Jouralism at the John Glenn School at The Ohio State University. After ten years, Lyles left Catalyst in 2009 to pursue other ventures in eduation equality and creative writing. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. More About Charlise Lyles
Question & Answer with the author...
Q: Why did you decide to write a new edition of your book?
A: I felt the original version of the memoir was incomplete. It didn't live up to its subtitle, which is From the Projects to Prep School. The first edition covered the early part of my life [projects] well, but didn't really talk much about my three years at Hawken School [prep school]. More than a decade has passed since I wrote the first edition, and I've had time to more deeply reflect on what I experienced at Hawken and to come to some understanding of how my experiences there have defined the woman I am today.
Q: What did you learn about public vs. private education from writing your book?
A: I deeply respect the teachers I had in the Cleveland schools and I always will, but I realize students receive a much different education at a school like Hawken. There, we were taught to think critically, taught to be a leader, taught to think creatively and analytically. That's just not happening consistently in the Cleveland Public Schools.
Q: You grew up during the late 1960's and early '70s. What makes this period of Cleveland history unique?
A: I feel there was so much hope during these times. We were on the cusp of a new era. There was urban renewal, there were leaders such as Carl B. Stokes [the first African-American mayor elected by a major American city]. There was a school desegregation lawsuit that promised better education in public schools and an incredible optimism, even in my own household. I can still hear my mother's words: “My children are going to do so much better in life than I have been able to do.”
Q: What about the problems?
A: Doors were opening, but there were definitely problems too. Industry was gradually beginning to cut back in Cleveland, and public housing presented serious issues. The King-Kennedy Estates, where we lived, just fell apart in front of our eyes. The idea that you can corral hundreds of poor people into one swath of the city, one six-block or ten-block universe, and expect them to be whole and happy and productive and somehow rise above their circumstances is absurd.
Q: How did you handle growing up in public housing?
A: The way I chose to survive was through my fantasies, daydreaming, my creative writing, and my reading—I hung out at the library a lot. I also had a passion for my teachers and learning in general. I avoided people who were always fighting like the plague.
Q: Were there any special people who influenced you?
A: Definitely. Mrs. Moore, the woman I lived with for three years while attending Hawken, and I have remained friends even to this day—she's 89 years old. When I graduated from Smith College, she and her husband jumped into their car and drove up there. When I got my first job in Washington, D.C. and I became a clerk for the New York Times, they drove to Washington to meet me and introduce me to the friends they had there.
Q: What kept you motivated to complete Hawken and go to college?
A: I felt an obligation to my family, especially to my mother. I always felt that she was an extremely intelligent woman who was not totally able to fulfill her potential. I also felt an obligation to Mr. and Mrs. Moore, the family that I lived with. Their commitment to me was so great—I felt like I'd better do something with this opportunity. One thing I learned at Hawken is that I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I am one of the most determined. I had a drive and a yearning to learn.
Q: What were some of the things you learned from your early years?
A: My teachers and Cleveland's public schools gave me a love of learning and taught me that going to school isn't drudgery. That was also especially true at Hawken. It was fun-- even though it was torture, because I was behind the other students. Going to school there taught me to thrive in difficult academic and social circumstances. That and living in the King-Kennedy Estates. I think I used those circumstances to my advantage, to strengthen my character.
Q: What advice do you have for young people today?
A: I don't know where I got it from, maybe my teachers or my mother, but I feel that somehow I have an inner sense of accountability, of holding myself accountable for the things I did and for the decisions I made. Be aware of the choices you are making as a teenager. For example, don't just go out and have unprotected sex. You have a choice in what you do and you can choose to do something else with your time, something else with your life. The other thing I would say is that you should really learn to love learning. You can find other ways to learn outside of school. Don't get turned off to being smart. If you can't read, you're in trouble. If you can't understand what you are reading when you look at a credit card contract or mortgage contract, you are in effect giving your financial freedom away.
Q: What about schools and education in general?
A: I think the community needs to step up more. Schools are only going to do as much as the community pushes them to do. Organizations need to help parents be activists and advocates for their kids, even though many parents themselves are in dire circumstances. I also think the community can put pressure on teachers and on the union to provide better quality instruction. I'm not happy when I hear kids say, “We watched videos all day in class.” That is not acceptable, but the community allows it to happen.
Q: How do you think the young Charlise Lyles, author of your memoir, would view the Charlise of today?
A: She was a little more sassy. As an adult I'm a little more careful and poised, but the passion is still there to learn and to push forward in difficult circumstances. I still tend to be undaunted.