BEST INTENTIONS

The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry

By Robert Sam Anson

Random House. 221 pp. $17.95

When Edmund Perry died, The Village Voice said he had been a "future Moses for his people." But the poor kid from Harlem who got a scholarship to Exeter and then came home the summer after graduation to be killed by a New York City policeman was actually a small-time drug dealer whose violent outbursts left him isolated from his schoolmates.

Robert Sam Anson does not write about that Eddie Perry, not until near the end of his book. About 180 pages into a sensitive but scattershot examination of the double life of an inner-city black student at the prestigious New England boarding school, Anson suddenly reveals that Perry used and sold drugs, talked knowledgeably about violence as "cool" and "fun" (though he was merely boasting) and once introduced PCP -- albeit reluctantly and at the behest of his white classmates -- to the school's New Hampshire campus.

Sensational stuff, but it doesn't make Eddie Perry's story any less troubling. Nor does it answer any of the treacherous questions raised by Perry's experience -- questions about race and class, the fragility of adolescence and the role of education in the American myth of mobility.

The problem with "Best Intentions" is structural: Instead of delving into those larger issues, Anson crafts a chronicle of his own effort to understand a 17-year-old boy who got out of the ghetto, won a place at Stanford University and was shot to death while mugging a cop.

Because he did not find out about Perry's drug dealing until he was well into his investigation, Anson saves that crucial information for the story's end. By doing so, Anson is asking us not to rush to judgment, not to automatically conclude that for all his apparent charm and intellect, Eddie Perry was simply an antisocial druggie. But while that structural decision makes for dramatic writing, it ultimately impedes our understanding of Perry's anguish over living two lives.

Perry grew up on a tough block of West 114th Street, in a home where education and Jesus were twin icons. His mother Veronica, a politically savvy woman who raised three children with the occasional help of her alcoholic husband, had extraordinary expectations. Her children studied hard. Then a teacher at the local junior high school selected Eddie for the social transformation promised by prep school. The teacher put the boy through an academic boot camp and Exeter accepted him.

Perry did fairly well, but in his senior year he became sullen, stopped studying, lost friends and embraced a radical, hostile strain of politics. One teacher thought of recommending counseling, but no one did much of anything. Perry got out of Exeter and into Stanford.

On the night of June 12, 1985, a New York City police officer in plainclothes strolled along Morningside Drive, looking for car radio thieves. Two muggers jumped the cop. In the struggle, the officer shot Eddie Perry in the abdomen. The boy died that night. His brother was later arrested. Despite demonstrations and editorials shouting police brutality, a grand jury cleared the officer and declared the killing justifiable.

Now comes Anson, home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., thinking that Exonians, including his own son, then a student at the school, "are supposed to be protected from this sort of thing." But if this could happen to Eddie, a kid who "had everything going for him, all the things anyone was supposed to need to climb out of poverty and make it in America," then Anson concluded, "something had gone dreadfully haywire, not only for this one 17-year-old boy but, by extension, for the country itself."

A promising start, but in this fast-reading, quote-laden book, Anson relegates to footnotes his few efforts to look beyond the specifics of the Perry case. Many of the most perceptive moments come in long quotations from anonymous sources, most notably a black graduate of a New England prep school who told of being a "24-hour-a-day cultural attraction" on campus, then going home to be a symbol for the neighborhood.

"You've been living in an entirely different world. Instead of jiving down on the street corner, you've been getting turned on to Nietzsche and Thoreau. Still, you gotta fit in with your friends. How do you do it? I'll tell you how you do it. You gotta snort more coke, smoke more reefer, shoot more baskets ... You've got a week to prove you are black before you're on that bus Monday morning, heading back for class."

Eddie Perry's death engendered much soul-searching at Exeter, a proper, polite place that for years seemed to prefer not to know about the drug use and sexual activity of some students. Now, as black enrollment declines at many colleges, Exeter has doubled the number of black students it recruits. Many elite private schools routinely reserve 5 to 10 percent of their slots for talented black scholarship students. The other students tend to come from quite wealthy homes; the middle-class presence is nearly nonexistent.

So some poor kids are thrown into a schizophrenic battle to survive in worlds whose values, fashions, traditions and expectations are vastly different and often contradictory. These adolescents, intended beneficiaries of a well-meant venture in social engineering, can also be victims of tokenism and sometimes not-so-subtle racism. It's no wonder that dropout rates among these students often run as high as 50 percent.

Despite some inspiring success stories, the Edmund Perrys who attend America's Exeters ought not be expected to flourish in a homogeneous, often quietly hostile setting -- not without the academic and emotional support that would be given to any child traveling alone in a foreign place.

The reviewer is an education reporter for The Washington Post.