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The Essentials

By Frank Gruber

Eight or nine years ago, when my parents still lived in Philadelphia, we visited them and then, on a cold New Year's Eve day, rented a car and drove north to visit my brother and his family in Syracuse, New York. I was driving when, on the interstate, deep in the emptiness of northeastern Pennsylvania, we hit a patch of "black ice" and the car spun out.

It was quite a spin, at least one entire 360. We hit the guardrail twice, once in the back and once in the front, and bounced back onto the roadway, where, again proceeding northward, I was able to pull onto the shoulder.

Fortunately, no cars or trucks had been near us to hit, and we were wearing seatbelts. Our son was sitting in the back. He had been eating a Philadelphia hoagie when we skidded. As I brought the car to a stop, my wife turned to ask him if he was all right. "I'm all right," he replied, "but not the hoagie."

The finest luncheon salami and ham, capacola, provolone cheese, and paper-thin slices of tomato and onion, not to mention the top and bottom of a famous Philadelphia Amoroso roll, were scattered across the backseat.

So there we were, on the side of the road, in trouble, but lucky to be alive. Fortunately, we had a cell phone (not so common then), and triple-A. In a short while a tow truck appeared. At the driver's garage in a nearby town he judged the car totaled for insurance purposes as the frame was bent.

Fortunately, we had insurance. We called the car rental company. We called the insurance company. The mechanic, the rental car company, and the insurance company all communicated.

Fortunately we had a credit card.

We took a cab the 20 or so miles to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre airport, where we rented another car, from a different company, just before the office closed for the New Years Day holiday. The whole thing, accident to new rental, took about two hours, and we arrived in Syracuse in plenty of time to celebrate the New Year.

I thought to myself, "This is a great country to have a wreck in."

Right; a great country to have a wreck in if you have a cell phone, Triple-A, car insurance and a credit card."

A large part of our country has just had a big wreck and a lot of people are standing on the side of the road, in trouble but lucky to be alive. People are acting surprised that in our great country, the richest on earth, there is such confused desperation, that things have gone so badly.

But that's just it. This is a great country -- but not so great for people who don't have a cell phone, triple-A, insurance, and a credit card. Or, to get more basic, who don't have a car, home equity, a steady job, and healthcare.

Or more basic still -- an education.

I've been thinking about algebra. Last week school was about to start and my son the hoagie eater was about to begin 10th grade and take Algebra II. I remember taking algebra; I've never had to use it, and I don't remember much of it, but I remember that it was hard and that at the time if I hadn't taken it I wouldn't have done well on the SAT.

Anthropologists would probably say that taking algebra is a "rite de passage" for middle-class Americans, the equivalent of spending time in a sweat lodge. And like any rite of passage, the emphasis should be not on the rite itself, but on the passage -- meaning the years of preparation and inculcation of cultural norms that lead to the rite.

As I said, I've been thinking about algebra, and looking at the desperate faces of the impoverished Katrina victims huddled under highway overpasses or at the Superdome I had this admittedly incongruous thought -- how many of them took algebra?

I am outraged about the incompetence of the Katrina relief effort and the political hacks in charge of it, but oddly I don't care much about faulting President Bush and FEMA for how they bungled the response to Katrina. Bush was asleep this August just as he was asleep in August 2001 when he got the memo about crashing planes into buildings. We know he doesn't care about governing, so what else is new?

No, what bothers me much more than the failure to have enough National Guard troops on the scene, or enough tents and food and water and buses, was the failure for generations to provide the people of New Orleans with decent educations and opportunities.

So mixed with horror and sympathy I kept asking myself if anyone had ever given the poor and abandoned people of New Orleans a serious shot to take algebra. I mean a real serious shot, in schools that aren't falling down, with books, with teachers with high expectations and principals that demand results.

And just because we live in liberal Southern California, let's not feel so righteous. I know many parents in our district who still don't understand why Superintendent John Deasy is so keen on raising the academic performance of the bottom of the curve, and until the recent passage of school bonds and the resulting new construction, most immigrants in L.A. were in year round schools that shortchanged them seventeen days of school a year.

If you're a libertarian or conservative or whatnot who thinks that anyone can get ahead, give yourself a reality check. When you see a poor person in a poor neighborhood or a small town in the backwoods, whether we're talking black, brown or white, does your culture even allow you to associate algebra with such a person? And if the association is so hard for you to make, do you think there might be a reason that rite is so seldom passed?

If you don't think algebra you don't think college, and if you don't think college can you think steady job, or the home, the car, the insurance, the auto club, the credit card and everything else you might need to get off the side of the road and out of trouble?

The troubles in this great country go far beyond George W. Bush. He's only their pale reflection.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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