Tracy Kidder is a very good writer, so I decided to go back and read some of his older stuff that I had missed. I loved The Soul of a New Machine, particularly because at the time it came out I was working as a programmer on (among other things) a Data General MV6000. This, of course, was back in the deeps of time when computers were quaint steampunkish things with valves snapping and relays clicking. I remember the thing had less than a meg of memory, for instance. We ran a whole insurance company off that thing, too. Crazy. We loved it, though, for its CPM-like operating system, command line interface called, if I remember correctly CLI. It was leaps and bounds more fun to use than the other computer we had, an IBM mainframe type that you had to write JCL for, and run jobs in batch mode. So reading a book about how the DG was designed was really awesome. Kidder has a talent for making things that might seem boring to those who aren't doing them extremely interesting. He puts you in the place of the actual designers, so you feel just as involved in the project as they are.
So, too, for this book, which puts us in the place of a very good 5th grade teacher, and makes us feel her love for all her kids, and her aspirations for them, her earnest efforts to get them to care about the things they're learning, about their academic futures, and their lives. The book made me realize, for the first time really, how important academic success is to the whole of a kid's future life, and how unfair things are, how life is rigged.
The crucial scene comes near the end, during the science fair. I remember thinking how unfair science projects were when I was in 4th or 5th grade myself. I remember watching a classmate's self-made C-earning anemometer spinning in an idle breeze from the window (none of our schools were air conditioned then) while my A-earning one made by my father required gale force winds to even turn. I remember I started working on it myself in our workshop when my dad asked what I was doing. I told him and asked his advice, since I was very unsure how to handle the rotating joint. Dad wasn't one to tell, he'd rather show, and so I watched him make the thing with a nice bearing at the pivot point. He did a great job and it looked fantastic, all neat and beautiful, when he was done. He totally deserved that A. But the bearing was a bit too tight for the application, and the dixie cups he used were only barely tapered from the opening to the flat bottom. My classmate had the conical ones that worked better. I remember thinking back then how unfair grades were. His actually worked! But until I read about Mrs. Zajak's 5th graders' science fair, it didn't hit me how indicative that is of how unfair life is altogether.
Because I had parents who cared about education, who took time with us, read to us, had books everywhere, took us to the library every Sunday, helped us with homework, and yes, built our science projects for us, because of that my sibs and I had an unfair advantage not just in grade school but throughout our lives. My engineering job pays decently but more importantly gives me something I love to work at, something that allows me scope for creativity, design, and building things. I'm so lucky to have that opportunity, and also to make enough money to have a nice home and good food, medical care, clothing, transportation, books, music, art, and computers. Being born here in the US gives me a way of life that's far healthier and richer in a million ways that most of humanity, a substantial portion of whom have no medical care at all, filthy water to drink, poor nutrition and sanitation, and inadequate shelter from the elements. Even here in this country a lot of kids have parents who are addicts, who abuse or neglect them, who don't give them the kind of enriched environment we grew up in. Why is life so rigged? How can we as a species give all kids those advantages? Why haven't we figured that out and done it yet?
We really are all the same as kids, and we all do deserve better. Shouldn't the point of having a civilization be just that? Offering to all the opportunities that now fall only to a few? Shouldn't all kids grow up into a world that's rigged in their favor like mine was?
That's the important realization that this book brought home to me. Our kids deserve more. The science project with the broken light bulb that a kid worked on himself, the one that is full of bent nails and doesn't even light, that's a symbol for me of how hard some people have to work to get so much less than I've always managed by hardly trying. It's heartbreaking.