Fans of David Simon’s critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” typically have a favorite season out of the show’s five. Each season focused on a different aspect of Baltimore society (police, politicians, blue collar workers, journalists, etc.) while tying together the ongoing stories of the drug trade. For me, the most devastating season is the fourth, which focused on the school system and the children trying to survive. It is a harrowing, at times hopeless look at the trappings of poverty and failings of educational systems. Perhaps a viewer could distance himself from the drama — and refuse to let the art do its job — by relying on the fact that “The Wire,” albeit realistic, is still fiction. If we don’t have a real kid to put in place of Dukie, or Randy, or Namond, or Michael, then we can keep the story as just that: a story.
I have thought about those characters a lot in the past week or so as I listened to the two-part episode of NPR’s “This American Life” focusing on W.R. Harper High School in the West Englewood neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. The excellent radio show dispatched three reporters to spend a semester at the school, which last school year saw 29 current and recent students shot, eight fatally. What they came back with is a heartbreaking look at how it is nearly impossible for the school’s students to avoid violence. Everyone there knows someone who has been shot; many have been shot at themselves. And the violence isn’t typically drug related. In this neighborhood, where you live dictates which gang you’re in, whether or not you want to be a member.
“I’ve done other reporting on gangs and neighborhoods like this,” host Ira Glass told The Huffington Post. “I am not new to this subject. But what we learned was how little we knew.”
Violence and gun control is again a hot topic in today’s national politics. But do most of us doing the debating even know what we’re really talking about? I felt ignorant after watching “The Wire.” I feel even more so now.
How the kids of Season Four end up is a rather cynical tale: Only the kid that is physically removed from his neighborhood is able to escape its trappings. It’s realistic, but is it acceptable?
Come to your own conclusion, but first, listen: