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The Contender

Robert Lipsyte

Theme: Effort and Struggle Build Character
Grades: Grades 7-8

Alfred Brooks is an African-American youth whose life is going nowhere. Living in Harlem during the 1960s, when the civil rights movement is beginning to open doors for African-Americans, Alfred has dropped out of high school. He works a menial job in a grocery store and spends much of his time watching movies. Estranged from his best friend and targeted by a gang of thugs, he desperately wants to turn his life around. One night, he wanders into a gym and meets Vito Donatelli, a manager deeply concerned for the fighters he trains. Alfred puts himself through the rigor and discipline of training, building muscle and endurance and developing boxing skills. All the while, one question nags at him--whether he has the heart of a contender. One way to find out is to step into the ring against a brutal ex-Marine and stand up to the vicious battering of his fists.

  1. Linking to Today: Sports as a Way Up.
    For decades, many members of disadvantaed groups in the United States have viewed sports as a means for their children to rise up and out of poverty. Ask students to name sports figures who came from impoverished backgrounds. List each name and the sport each plays or played on the chalkboard. Challenge students to design a poster or trading card that features one of the sports figures listed. Then discuss with students the pros and cons of regarding sports as an avenue to a better life.
  1. QuickWrites.
    Have students jot down in their notebooks their ideas about social problems such as poverty, quitting school, and drug abuse. Pose questions like the following for students to explore:

    • Why do you think some students decide to drop out of high school?
    • What kinds of jobs are available for high school dropouts?
    • Why do you think some youths get involved with drugs?
    • What opportunities for self-improvement are available for high school dropouts in poverty-stricken communities?

    Suggest that students refer to their notes after reading the novel to assess how their thinking about these social problems might have developed.

  1. Editorialize.
    Ask students: Do you think participation in sports helps develop character? Have them write an opinion column for their school newspaper in which they discuss their opinion on the value of sports in students' lives. Have them cite examples in The Contender to support their views.

  1. The Sequel.
    Have students write a short sequel to The Contender—a screenplay, instead of a novel—telling what they think Alfred's life is like when he is in his late twenties. Given the direction that Alfred is taking at the end of the novel, what do they imagine him doing in ten years?
  1. Deter the Dropouts.
    Have students research current statistics on high school dropouts. How many students in the United States drop out of high school? At what average age? What percentage and kind of jobs are available for people who don't have a high school diploma? Have students use their researched facts to write an oral report that encourages potential high school dropouts to stay in school.

  2. Afterwards...
    Have students research the life and career of one of the famous boxers mentioned in the novel--Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Cassus Clay--or a more recent champion. Instruct them to find out what the champion's life was like after leaving boxing. Have students write a brief biography of the boxer.