Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In Brooklyn, enemies of imagination beware

It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this thing (hello again, dude in Jakarta who keeps Googling "drug-addled cartoonists") that I have long-coveted the prestige of the mighty McSweeney's Web site, all to no avail, because apparently you need things called "talent" and "creativity" and "humor" to be published there, so their rejections are understandable. Plus, the rejection e-mails are always very pleasant and thoughtful, with good punctuation and syntax, and come off as very encouraging. I imagine if they were old fashioned letters they would smell like fresh linen and be printed on crisp paper with a big, impressive letterhead that took up 2/5 of the page. Here's an actual example:

Hi, Tim -

Thanks for considering us for this one, but I'm afraid we're not going to use it. Hope you'll keep trying.

Best,
Chris
That's like 100 times better than the responses I've gotten from most jobs I've applied to in the past two years. Those responses usually look like this:

(uproarious laughter as application packet is opened, crumpling sound) proceeded by the following action:
Thanks for applying, jerk!

But besides highlighting the kind of sardonic, ironic, literate humor I have a particular appreciation for, McSweeney's is the product of Dave Eggers, author of the book with the best title of the past 10 years (besides "Burning Down My Masters' House," of course). I was aware that Eggers and company also run 826 tutoring centers in a few cities in stores disguised as something fantastic and fun, including a Space Travel Supply Store in Seattle and a Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco. (Quote from David Byrne on their web site: "Definitely one of the top five pirate stores I've been to recently.")

So it was a sweet surprise Saturday afternoon as I was wondering down the street (as jobless people tend to do) in Park Slope when I stumbled across the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company right on 5th Ave., not far from where I was staying. How can you resist going into a store with such powerful frontage?



So I went in. And it was, as I expected, pretty awesome. The commitment to the bit was most impressive -- every inch of the store is covered in cans of invisibility spray, boxes of superhero tights, goggles (they do nothing), jugs of elongation serum and so forth. There's a large de-villianifying chamber you can go into, because, as the store staff says, they can't just go selling super products to would-be evil-doers. In the back, there's a trick bookshelf that opens into a secret chamber, which is the room where all the tutoring happens.
I'm on a pretty tight budget up in New York while I'm getting set up, but I couldn't resist the urge to buy something, since the money goes to support the tutoring center. I picked out a bottle of the shape shifting serum to bring to a bday party I was attending that night. Before you can buy anything, you have to read an oath of do-goodery and create a superhero name for yourself (Super Magic Man was all I could come up with in a pinch). You put your money in a vault and they read you your total from a microphone in a control room booth.

Only after you complete your purchase does the staff hint at what actually may be in the bottle you're holding ("Put a few drops in the bathtub to activate the shape-shifting properties," the girl said).

The store is great, one, because it's one of the only place I know of in Brooklyn in which you can (legally) purchase a black hole, and provides the only non-pedophiliac sidekick placement services in all of the city.

But it is also refreshing because it reminds you of the value of actually using your imagination on a daily basis, something that makes me smile when I think of the hundreds of kids who've had to walk past a rack of capes and a shelf of immortality potion on their way to literacy and writing tutorial sessions in the back.

I spent a year in college tutoring kids in a generally poorly performing DC school and I was constantly amazed at the roteness of the education these kids were subject to. Even the program we tutored from was based on workbooks and flashcards for basic ABCs and math, and some of the kids just couldn't make it stick. Then when the time of the year came for standardized tests, all other classwork was discarded and the school hunkered down in Defcon 1 test prep mode.

All the students wore uniforms and sat in ugly classrooms made of those industrial-grade concrete bricks that have been used to build schools for decades. The walls were lined with posters that hadn't been updated since the 1980s and the happiest part of their day seemed to be when they got out of class and got to talk about trading Pokemon cards. When we got to black history month, all we talked about were the same black heroes we've heard about since I was in school -- MLK, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, etc. This was at a school that was nearly 100 percent black too. Surely they were aware of these figures already, I thought.

I often thought of what kind of a world we were preparing these kids for, one where success is only provided through a rigid adherence to conformity, where the correct answers are always in one of the four bubbles provided, where the unforgiving, pale beige concrete walls would line the edges of their lives forever.

Many people would argue that kids in a rough school need some strict structure and guidance if they're going to break the patterns that have hampered some of the poorer areas of DC for generations.

That's fine, and maybe they're right, I don't know the answer. But for kids in the city who sometimes have a hard time picturing their lives beyond the nearest street corner, I can't help but wonder how their education might be different if someone handed them a good-sized bucket of sonar potion, or how they could change the world with a new utility belt in hand, each pocket equipped with whatever gadgets their imagination had in stock.

826 National

1 comment:

Eddie said...

Fantastic post Tim...thoroughly enjoyed it.