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Best Intentions: THE EDUCATION AND KILLING OF EDMUND PERRY by Robert Sam Anson (Random House: $17.95; 224 pp.)

August 30, 1987|Elaine Kendall

When a mugging on the streets of Harlem not only rates the front page of The New York Times but turns up on the networks and is covered at length in the news weeklies, the circumstances are bound to be extraordinary. On a humid June night in 1985, a black teen-ager was shot and killed by a white police officer. The cop was Lee Van Houten, 24 years old; fine record, married and soon to be a father; the victim was Edmund Perry, who had just graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and been awarded a scholarship to Stanford. Van Houten claimed he had been grabbed in a choke hold from behind by two assailants and repeatedly punched in the face. Before he lost consciousness, he managed to reach the gun in his ankle holster and shoot his attacker in the stomach. Within three hours Perry was dead. Two weeks later, Van Houten was cleared of any blame. According to the grand jury's findings, he had acted "within departmental guidelines" in defending himself. Perry's death was ruled a justifiable homicide, and his 19-year-old brother Jonah was indicted as an accomplice in the attack. Witnesses had stated under oath that Jonah had admitted assaulting a policeman. At first lavish and impassioned, the press coverage dwindled, cooled, and finally subsided entirely.

In an inconspicuous follow-up story, The New York Times mentioned that Edmund Perry's Exeter career was not quite as dazzling as first thought. The young man had been using and dealing drugs during his last term at Exeter. And that was that, an open-and-shut case for almost everyone except Robert Sam Anson, who continued to wonder why this exceptional kid happened to die an ugly punk's death. Muggings are for money, and Edmund Perry had a well-paying summer job in a brokerage house. Despite the disturbing information about his activities at school, there was no evidence that he was stoned at the time of his death. As the father of an Exeter student himself, Anson continued to be haunted by the story. The cold facts explained nothing.

During the idealistic mid-'60s, Wadleigh Junior High School in Harlem had instituted a special program for qualified students. Graduates were offered the opportunity to attend various cooperating prep schools under the benevolent auspices of A Better Chance, a project designed to give highly motivated inner city students the best educational environment America could offer. By the time Perry was eligible, 230 Wadleigh graduates had participated in the plan; inspired, coached and disciplined by a pair of dedicated teachers. Encouraged by their ambitious mother, both Perry boys had responded splendidly. Jonah had gone to Westminister, a good, small school in Connecticut. Edmund was accepted by Exeter, one of the most venerable and rigorous educational institutions in the country.

The faculty, administrators and fellow students interviewed by Anson were in total accord about Edmund Perry. Everyone insisted he was diligent, articulate and genial--perhaps somewhat wary and remote with strangers, but wasn't that only to be expected? Black students and white students alike respected him for holding on to his city toughness. Perry was the real thing, exactly the sort of person for whom A Better Chance was designed. He assured his elders that he planned to return to Harlem and dedicate himself to the betterment of his race; he was just intense enough about blackness to gain his classmates' confidence. While his closest friends seemed to be white, he simultaneously maintained close ties with Exeter's tight knot of black students. With a group of 45 boys and girls from an assortment of American prep schools, he spent a memorable year in Spain as an exchange scholar, reveling in the independence of the arrangements. Though he was the only black, color didn't seem to be an issue. The year was a holiday from those tensions. He wasn't shuttling between New Hampshire and Harlem, but was merely another American student in Spain; a face in the crowd.

Back on campus for senior year, Exeter seemed smaller, narrower and more restrictive. Reluctantly, Anson's interviewees admitted that Eddie had changed; become truculent, defensive, and disdainful; a common syndrome among seniors and usually nothing to worry about. His grades fell off, and his old friends saw less of him. He stopped crossing the invisible barriers separating the two Exeters, and made a choice. His friends were now the rebels and druggies. Eddie became a dealer.

By the end of Anson's concerned, evenhanded and conscientious book, we know what happened to Edmund Perry. Chosen to be the beneficiary of a simple and beautiful plan, Perry somehow became its victim. The point of "Best Intentions" is not to dispute this particular case but to challenge the naive assumptions of a system based upon the myth of a magic carpet.

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