I’ve been busy and happy in private but in an incredible funk about the larger world over the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve welcomed the pressure, because it distracted me from whatever the malaise is that has been sifting through the news and blogs.
The feeling reminds me of “Two Cities,” my favorite poem by Mark Doty sometimes:
I had grown sick of human works,
which seemed to me a sum
and expression of failure: spoilers,
brutalizers of animals and one another,
self-absorbed until we couldn’t see
that we ruined, finally,
ourselves – what could we make?
An epidemic ran unhalted,
The ill circumscribed as worthless and unclean;
the promises of change seem hollow,
the poor and marginal hopelessly marginal,
endlessly poor. I saw no progress,
and the steeping ink of this perception
colored everything, until I felt surrounded
by weakness and limit, and my own energies
failed, or were failing, though I tried
not to think so. I awoke
in Manhattan, just after dawn…
And then something trips my attention.
Today it was in the current copy of Wired that I rescued from Middle Guy. It told a story that’s our story: Winds’ story, America’s story, humanity’s story:
On West Roosevelt Avenue, security guards, two squad cars, and a handful of cops watch teenagers file into the local high school. A sign reads: Carl Hayden Community High School: The Pride’s Inside.
There certainly isn’t a lot of pride on the outside. The school buildings are mostly drab, late ’50s-era boxes. The front lawn is nothing but brown scrub and patches of dirt. The class photos beside the principal’s office tell the story of the past four decades. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, wearing blazers, ties, and long skirts. Now the school is 92 percent Hispanic. Drooping, baggy jeans and XXXL hoodies are the norm.
The school PA system crackles, and an upbeat female voice fills the bustling linoleum-lined hallways. “Anger management class will begin in five minutes,” says the voice from the administration building. “All referrals must report immediately.”
Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It’s a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.
Go read the story about four kids given nothing but talent and the thinnest break, and how they walked through it. It is, in some way the manifestation of the uniquely human spirit: we make things.
Doty saw it:
The dawn was angling into the city,
A smoky, thumb-smudged gold. It struck
first a face, not human, terracotta,
on an office building’s intricate portico,
seeming to fire the material from within,
so that the skin was kindled,
glowing. And then I looked up: the ramparts
of Park Avenue were radiant, barbaric;
they were continuous with every city’s dream
of itself, the made world’s
angled assault on heaven.
The city was one splendidly lit idea -
These kids (with the help of their advisors, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi – more about them later) make a remotely piloted submersible they name “Stinky” out of PVC pipe and salvaged electronics. “The made world’s angled assault on heaven,” indeed.
They built it – four high school students – and they beat MIT’s team.
Then Merrill leaned into the microphone and said that the ROV named Stinky had captured the design award.
“What did he just say?” Lorenzo asked.
“Oh my God!” Ledge shouted. “Stand up!”
Before they could sit down again, Merrill told them that they had won the technical writing award.
“Us illiterate people from the desert?” Lorenzo thought. He looked at Cristian, who had been responsible for a large part of the writing. Cristian was beaming. To his analytical mind, there was no possibility that his team – a bunch of ESL students – could produce a better written report than kids from one of the country’s top engineering schools.
They had just won two of the most important awards. All that was left was the grand prize. Cristian quickly calculated the probability of winning but couldn’t believe what he was coming up with. Ledge leaned across the table and grabbed Lorenzo’s shirt. “Lorenzo, if what I think is about to happen does happen, I do not, under any circumstances, want to hear you say the word ‘Hooters’ onstage.”
“And the overall winner for the Marine Technology ROV championship,” Merrill continued, looking up at the crowd, “goes to Carl Hayden High School of Phoenix, Arizona!”
Lorenzo threw his arms into the air, looked at Ledge, and silently mouthed the word “Hooters.”
Cameron and Ledge haven’t taken Lorenzo to Hooters, nor have they retired. They hope to see all four kids go to college before they quit teaching, which means they’re likely to keep working for a long time. Since the teenagers are undocumented, they don’t qualify for federal loans. And though they’ve lived in Arizona for an average of 11 years, they would still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as three times the in-state cost. They can’t afford it.
I don’t want to debate immigration policy, or tuition. And I’ll probably delete any comments that do.
This post isn’t about the new barriers that their success unveiled – about the new mountain face that you see when you top the ridge, having climbed the last one.
This post is about the bottomless pool of human talent. And about the fact that it’s everywhere – sprouting up even when it’s not tended and nurtured as deeply as it should be in some places. People long to create, they long to make, they dream of improving the world. We just have to look, and be willing to see it. We need it. It’s this capital – the capital of imagination and work – that will sustain us and that we need to grow.
If we’re about anything at Winds of Change, I think we’re about that capital, about the spirit that creates, that restlessly looks for new paths – whether through the historic hatreds and distrust that we are all subject to as humans, the gridlock of modern interest-group politics, the problems of energy, of the environment, of poverty and oppression.
Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi did something unexpected to pull together that capital and nurture the spirit that makes it. I can’t imagine how good this must feel for them, and I’m kind of jealous because I don’t know that I’ll ever accomplish something as wonderful as they have done with this.
Wired, to their credit, has set up a scholarship fund for the kids.
Click here, and be generous.
I’ll close with Doty:
That city’s coherent only from this distance,
a fable, a Venice not merely
because it is built on water,
but because it is built,
even though it is the capital of inwardness,
built and erased and drawn again
as surely as Manhattan is:
liquid avenues, archives of all
we’ve imagined, our haunted, interior architecture
“Venice,” Nietzsche said,
“is a city of a hundred solitudes.”
New York is a city of ten million,
And my American Venice
– phantom boulevards rippling
and doubled in the dark – a city
of two hundred and fifty million
solitaires, the restless dreamers’
dreamed magnificence: our longing’s
troubled mirror, vaporous capitol.
*the quote is from the article. The team was asked why they didn’t have a Powerpoint deck for their technical presentation.
“PowerPoint is a distraction,” Cristian replied. “People use it when they don’t know what to say.”