Minding the Gap and the Pistachio Rice Pudding

July 30, 2015

     I’m living in a sublet in Bushwick in Brooklyn, two-and-a-half-blocks west of my old sublet. My former sub-landlady withheld six dollars from my security deposit on account of an allegedly missing packet of peanuts. I have no idea where those nuts are. But keep an eye out for them for me because I’ve got a fair idea of where I’d like to put them.

     It’s summer, which means sun and sand and BBQs and sipping cold beers on stoops (or in my case, one rather grubby step) ….and it also means that up and down and across the country, a gap is widening – day by day, week by week, month by month. It’s like the San Andreas fault line. If you strain, you can almost hear it cracking.

     During the school year, kids from all backgrounds progress at roughly the same rate. In summer, the privileged kids pull ahead while the disadvantaged ones fall behind. By the time they reach high school, the accumulated summer gap is equivalent to two-and-a-half years. That’s because … I’m starting to feel like I’ve wandered inside Malcolm Gladwell’s apartment. Let’s skip ahead.

     I’ve been busy this summer teaching ELA and creative writing to kids from the projects through a federal program designed to address the gap. ELA is English Language Arts. In my schooldays, we called it “English.” To prepare for my summer job, I watched the Ryan Gosling film, Half-Nelson twice, and for extra prep, I watched Good-Bye Mr. Chips. Neither has proven to be particularly useful. But I enjoyed watching them.

    It’s been one of the most intense and rewarding summers of my life. The mornings are all about the academics, and the focus is on reading, writing and math. We stick to the specially designed curriculum. It’s already proven to be successful at filling in the gap. But for my afternoon classes, I’m free to play around in Dead Poets Society territory as much as I see fit. I don’t make them call me “Oh Captain, my Captain,” – only if they want to. These kids have loved Henry David Theroux and W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas and Keats and Shakespeare. They’ve been enthralled by Darren Shan’s Zom-B and Louis Sacher’s There’s A Boy In the Girls’ Bathroom. They find Oscar Wilde very funny. I do too. They’re great kids. They love to learn. And they’ve taught me a lot. It’s a great program from start to finish. We shake ‘em in. We shake every child’s hand every morning and every afternoon. Respect works.

    Summer will soon be over. Then I’ll swing the focus back to my own writing. But I’ve gained a lot from my time out-of-focus. Sometimes I think that’s exactly what we need to do for a while to get the clearest picture. Enjoy the rest of your summer whatever step you’re sitting on!

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