Breaking Down The Wire

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Talking television.
Sept. 25 2006 11:55 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Alex,
 
The plot, as they say, thickens with Episode 3. The opening was pure The Wire, with Omar going out for some Honey Nut Cheerios, like some satin-robed Wild West gunslinger walking down Main Street. His reputation literally precedes him. Is there another character on television who is so openly gay, proud, and feared? In the body of the episode we learn that Mayor Royce is ready to play hardball with the surging candidate Carcetti. In the most moving moment, Carcetti visits the funeral home to witness firsthand the cost of the mean streets, and then refuses the photo op, out of respect. The major crimes unit gets a new boss, a hard-ass who sends Lester and Kima looking for new homes within the department. Former Maj. Colvin trades in a hotel security position for a chance to get back on the streets helping a college professor's research, which brings them by episode's end to the middle school, which is the heart of this week's story.
 
It was by turns hilarious and painful (and ultimately tragic) to watch Prez struggle with the first days of teaching math. You and I have waxed rapturously before about how much the series gets right about the worlds it dramatizes, and with this episode, The Wire now adds the inner-city school to the list. I've seen a lot of movies set in such schools over the years, and have spent a fair amount of time in them myself, but I've not seen it captured so accurately before. And there's a very good reason for it: Ed Burns, one of the key creators and writers of the series, himself went from being a Baltimore policeman to teaching school in the inner city. I feel for Prez—he was hired primarily because he was a warm body and a former policeman. But true to his character throughout the whole life of the series, he has never been able to deal with, well, people. And certainly not in combative situations. He was never more content than when he was working the phone taps with Lester and chasing the paper trails. So, you can see a guy like Prez thinking he's good at math and needs a less volatile occupation. Ah, I'll teach school. And do something that matters, too. His clueless idealism makes him an easy mark for the tough audience in his classes.
 
I remember filming a Chicago public-school teacher once who had a sweet disposition not unlike Prez. In his math class, he searched in vain for ways to try to engage his rowdy classroom, finally landing on the topic of teen sex. But, of course, that didn't work. A white, middle-aged teacher talking to these kids about sex? He rambled on louder and louder, trying to be heard over the din. Students chatted, or shouted at each other, or slept. A few did try to pay attention.
 
It would be easy to look at all this and conclude that these kids don't want to learn and say good riddance, they don't deserve better. But that would be shortsighted. One of the most insightful books I've come across on the tragedy of education in the inner city is Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities. Kozol writes about how many lower-income African-American kids entering kindergarten or first grade have an enthusiasm and ability for school commensurate with their more affluent, white, suburban counterparts. But starting very early, too many get the message that they cannot compete academically. I've seen kids brimming with self-confidence in their athletic lives try to disappear in the classroom or cover their fear by being the class clown. And the school culture now only tragically reinforces this cycle. Where once kids might have been embarrassed by poor academic performance, now it is the dedicated students who are too often ridiculed. The despair has become so profound, it has become hip to not care about school at all. When dealer Bodie tries to get young Michael to do more slinging for him because he shows promise, Michael says he can't because he's got school. Bodie taunts him. Does he think he's going to become an astronaut or a lawyer? For many of the Michaels out there, the prospects of becoming anything other than an athlete or a dealer are as realistic as going to the moon. I look forward to seeing where The Wire takes this story of the school and the characters whose fates we care more and more about.

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.