The boy climbs a few squat stairs, carrying blocks of ice in a Croker sack. At first glance, he looks 12-years-old, but in truth, he is closer to 10. He has left home early on a blistering Georgia morning to procure work on the iceman's truck. He takes the work where he can get it. In the winter months, he hustles wood to fuel ovens and potbelly stoves. During summer, when school is out, delivering blocks of ice to chill iceboxes is his main game.
For his efforts, the boy is rewarded 20 cents -- money he proudly offers to his grandmother as a contribution toward food or household staples. A large bag of rice can feed an extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins for a week. The grandmother pushes a portion of the boy's earnings toward him to spend as he sees fit. And immediately, he's off and running, laughing like the child he so seldom is. She knows he's bound for the Dunbar or the Star, the local black cinemas, to catch the movie of the day, and that he will regale her later that evening with every detail. This boy loves films. He is also an orphan, black and poor. His grandmother can do nothing to bring his mother or father back, nor can she change the fact that he will work hard for most of his life, but she understands that a coin or two toward a few hours of honest distraction, not to mention keeping her grandson off the street, is money in the bank.
Now, fast forward to a little girl. She is the granddaughter of the boy who delivered wood and ice. The little girl has recently taken her ERBs and done quite well. Tomorrow there is the two-hour public school exam for the Gifted & Talented program. The odds are ever in her favor to excel there too. She will not be alone. Around the city, more than 10,000 children will take the G&T exam, many of them the offspring of educated middle-class parents. In the end, there will not be enough space to accommodate all of the children who test well. How does one define gifted and talented in a four-year-old, really? I suppose, if you are like most parents, you approach the whole process with a healthy dose of skepticism. That is to say, you shake your head and mutter, "Jesus Christ, they're still babies" and you tell yourself that you are going to keep it cool. You read to your child every night. You engage your little boy or girl in conversation and creative play. You figure in trips to the local museums and romps in the neighborhood playground.
But then something strange happens: A Hunger Games sans violence mentality kicks in over the lack of slots in high-performing public and private schools. Before you know it, you're trading notes with friends and rushing off to shore up your four-year-old's academic profile with Brainquest or Kumon or the hot I.Q. prompt of the moment. In these precarious economic times, negotiating a child's education can fray the nerves of even the most low-key parents. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there's a 12 percent national unemployment rate among young people ages 20-24, and even among those who are employed, 40 percent of them work less than 35 hours per week. Is it any wonder that moms and dads all over the country want to steer little Johnnie in the right direction while he's still in diapers? That said, on the night before my daughter's G&T exam, I picked up a DVD and sat her down after dinner with a bowl of homemade popcorn to watch The Illusionist, an animated French film. (As a disclaimer, I am not recommending you babysit your child with a TV or keep him up late the night before an exam or, for that matter, send him to an exam ill-prepared.) The goal was to keep my daughter relaxed and sane, so I shared the gift my father had given me as a child: his love of film.
"Bette, you best watch your back!"
That would be Bette Davis in All About Eve. By the time I came along my father was a longshoreman with a union card: a man who didn't have much but could afford to keep a roof over his family's head and food on the table. He would return home from work, eat his supper, and retreat to the den. From his maroon La-Z-Boy recliner, he would click on the remote and channel-hop for old movies. Lena Horne would step into a scene and time would stop. There was Gary Cooper, squinting and poised for a gunfight in High Noon; Sir Sidney Poitier telling Rod Steiger "They call me Mr. Tibbs" in In The Heat of the Night; Carole Lombard displaying perfect comic timing in My Man Godfrey or Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart dropping witty barbs in The Philadelphia Story. No one drifted out of the mist quite like Bela Lugosi. And when sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum called Gregory Peck's daughter "juicy" in Cape Fear, even the devil was ashamed of him. Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge smoked up the screen in Carmen Jones, along with Pearl Bailey, whose comedic timing was a hot mash of salty sexiness. Young Marlon Brando put his stamp on Method Acting in On The Waterfront and old Marlon Brando chewed through the scenery in The Godfather with a little help from Pacino, Caan and Duvall. Mr. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson made tap seem all too elegant and easy alongside Shirley Temple, and the ultra smooth Paul Newman took on an unfair prison system in Cool Hand Luke. And who would ever rule out Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Hang'em High, High Plains Drifter, A Fistful of Dollars? My father loved all of them. But the buck stopped with James Cagney -- the sharp-as-nails Irish kid who dropped out of Columbia to help pay the family bills after his father died.
I grew up on a diet of Cagney films: Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, St. Louis Kid, White Heat, and, yes, Yankee Doodle Dandy. My father would walk about the house singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and blindside me with his sudden burst of youthfulness. The man who shied away from small talk at the dinner table and loathed talking on the phone could break down a story and retell it again, commenting on everything from the actors to the cameras to the detours in the narrative. I could not always reconcile my father's lack of formal education with his outsized knowledge of film. Long before I encountered multiculturalism on college syllabi, my father was casually nodding toward Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn or Delores Del Rio and Canada Lee. I can still remember one spring break when Gone With the Wind came on television. I was having a time dealing with the buffoonery of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen and the happy slaves on the plantation angle of the story. My father saw me shrinking away and said, "They're actors, baby. Working their parts." He might well have been speaking of himself.
My father taught me that in life and on-screen people are often more complicated than the roles allotted them. He taught me that no two actors approach a character in the same way. It takes courage to look at an image and project yourself there. It's a genuine sense of self to know what to hold onto and what to cast away. Movies were his portal. They carried him on long drives, down alleys and back streets in search of a new Greek diners or downtown for a cup of coffee at the Kress's counter, to garage sales and burger joints and ice cream stands and outings at the beach. In this way, they carry me today to little pockets of neighborhoods all throughout New York, where I feel open and free and thrilled to witness people's stories unfolding.
So, yes, on the eve of my daughter's G&T exam I sat her down to watch a film. It is our habit and our pleasure to read books every day, but sometimes, cultural capital -- and that's really what we're talking about here -- comes outside a binder or a box. It ripples over the bubbles on standardized tests. Tests are a given--they will always exist, and woe to the parent who thinks he can maneuver his child throughout this competitive world without them. But higher learning takes on myriad forms and often reveals itself in people, places and situations we least expect, including little boys and girls who, on the surface of things, may seem neither gifted nor talented.