Be warned: 44 spoilers await. (Count ’em.)
As jetset pointed out on Monday, 44 contains a very amusing set piece of Prezbo getting the kids interested in math by teaching them, well, the numbers: He notices them playing poker at lunchtime (using pistachioes in lieu of money, although a quarter is placed on the table just to “remind” Michael of the 25 pistachioes he owes) and starts spontaneously schooling them on the odds. Then, with the help of a basement raid, he produces enough dice for the whole class to break up in groups and learn a few things about odds. He sets Dukie up with a computer and the look of joy on Dukie’s face as he manned what I presume are the records of the activity, although he could be busy doing something else, was one of my favorite moments of the whole episode.
Presumably Prez is gonna get spanked for this: He’s gone off the curriculum (smelling trouble, the principal already warned him about this); he’s raided the basement; and, of course, he’s encouraging gambling. Of course I’d say what he’s doing is great — as he put it, and I’m paraphrasing here, If you trick them into having fun, they learn without meaning to. He’s discovering that good teaching means turning your kids’ minds on, putting things in context — and context doesn’t just mean a boring word problem about traveling from Philadelphia to Baltimore, as he tried to do in his first class. And it’s sure better than paying kids to learn, as some have resorted to. Seems to me that paying kids to learn is just one more way to bring the profit motive, corporations, and all that other junk into the classroom. Prez knows that his students aren’t innocent, but he’s not so jaded that he thinks that they won’t be motivated by good times as opposed to greenbacks.
Numbers, and gambling, have mattered on The Wire for a long time now. Marlo’s and Royce’s poker games this season clearly come to mind. Being good at gambling — knowing the odds — in Marlo’s case is a kind of metaphor for his maturity. He doesn’t usually win at poker; he’s still, in this sense, green. Royce’s card games were a sham, where the interesting bet wasn’t on who’s going to win but on how many more he was going to call before the primary. And then, of course, there’s Cheese. Remember the dog fights? Another gamble. Not to say that this episode in Prez’s class is directly harkening to all these moments, but it’s interesting to think about where the bets lead, how they pay off, who they pay to.
It seems like every time you a class full of black children in the movies or on TV, they’re behaving like caged animals. The Wire argues that the kids’ behavior is largely a matter of who the authority figure is: They settle down for Sampson, but act out for Prez. One of the reasons I liked Half Nelson so much (see it, see it, and not just because, as Shoals pointed out, Donut and Michael are in it) is that it showed black kids as being decent: More or less behaved, not wielding razor blades or knives, rowdy, but no rowdier than your average middle-class white classroom of adolescents. On The Wire the kids are easy to distract and impossible to reach. (We know that they learn in some classes, but we never see those scenes.) I understand that The Wire is offering a realistic depiction of an inner-city classroom, and that it can be really that bad, if not worse, but I still feel like the presentation of young black children as so badly behaved in school reinforces some really terrible stereotypes. I’ve been waiting to see these kids have a moment where they learned something, and that moment finallly arrived.
Seeing the kids get into math because they feel like it matters — like they need it —- of course, more than anything, recalls String educating himself to be a better businessman. The Wire has always been interested in the overlaps between the straight world and the criminal world, how knowledge is trafficked between the two, how their rules and cultures inform each other. And while it’s hard as hell to convince twelve year olds that geometry has any meaning in their lives outside of K-12 (when those of us on the other side can say that it really doesn’t), odds are something small that they can hold on to. Not to get all weepy about it, but maybe they’ll see that the fun of learning something new can carry over even to what you can’t use to pass the time on the corner or to make fifty cents or, one day, to win at Marlo’s table. One class might not change anybody’s life, or the show, which is hurtling ever faster towards its inevitable tragic end, but it does round out the kids’ characters and shows them capable of waking up for a few minutes inside the school. (Also provided a pretty amazing parallel with the “troubled kids” class that Namond is in. I don’t know how anyone else felt about that, but I found it so, so depressing to watch those little boys spew such invective at the teachers — esp. the women. It exhausted me.) I was happy to see Prez finally have a break-through in his class. Watching him this season has been brutal. I think he’s earned it. Of course, the next roll of the dice may not work out so well for him.