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According to James, his mother denied her Jewish history, but sought a Jewish-style education for her children nonetheless. When the brief window of opportunity came, Ruth seized the chance to choose predominantly Jewish schools for each of her children to attend. In the house, the emphasis lay on grades and on church. She consistently drummed into their minds that money was nothing without education, and that education was the only avenue to making something of themselves. Being the token black students in their Jewish public schools, James and his siblings learned to survive in the world by performing well.
To supplement his formal education, James sought a "street education" in Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed during the summers he was in high school. In Louisville, he frequented "the Corner", where Chicken Man offered him good advice, dispelling his naive belief that being a man on "the Corner" was a desirable life. Chicken Man insisted that he concentrate on his education, and that he try to pursue a better life.