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Sometimes I read with a theme without realizing I’m doing it. I promised myself I was going to read more crime fiction this year. Technically, this wasn’t a “New Year’s Resolution” with all the implied failure. Besides, I kind of promised myself this back in October and then I bought a bunch of crime-related books at the Miami Book Fair. But when I say “accidental theme” I mean that a little more narrowly than “crime fiction.”

For instance, I once started reading The Watchmen (you know, the graphic novel every geek you know has argued about ad naseum about somewhere on the internet, the one the movie was based on, the one…you get my point) and Skinny Legs and All (by Tom Robbins) at the same time. I didn’t really know what either was about. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I’d finally broken down and bought the graphic novel because every comic-book geek I knew had told me I MUST read it, but none were willing to loan me theirs. They’d give me a look like I’d asked to shave their cat and turn the hair into a nice stir-fry to serve them for dinner. About a day earlier or later, I found myself at a party, a little tipsy, and far more fascinated by the bookshelf than the vapid party guests, so I kind of stole my neighbor’s Tom Robbins novel. (Don’t worry, I returned it. Even bought my own copy later.) The two don’t sound that much alike, but if you’ve read them, think back. There’s a similar end-of-time nuclear annihilation sort of thing going on in both.

One of the things I bought at the book fair was Steve Lopez’s Third and Indiana. I’d never heard of it. I’d never heard of him for that matter, but maybe those who’ve read or seen The Soloist will think I’ve been under a rock. I don’t know what made me pick it up. I got it on the used table Murder by the Beach had set up. (By the time I got to them, I was running low on funds. Besides, most of what they had left new were the sort of FL-author stuff I already knew about and was looking to branch out.) I’d been meaning to read Brad Parks or Dave White next because they were on top of the pile. But the pile fell over & my eye was drawn to the graffiti cover art of the Lopez novel.

It was good. Very good. Perhaps in a different frame of mind, I might have liked it less. But I’ve been in a school reform sucks kind of mind frame of late. And part of the reason it sucks is because the reformers seem to ignore the condition in which many students show up at school. Gabriel, one of the novel’s main characters, is a student. Except, he’s a drop-out. He’s not dumb. He’s not really failing, even though he prefers some subjects over others. He just doesn’t see the point – even though his mother sees the point and his wanna-be girlfriend sees the point and he admits they might be onto something, maybe. He thinks there’s a better way out of his current situation and it costs him.

Gabriel’s smarter than a lot of my students, maybe most of them, academically. He has to be for the kind of person who reads novels, adult novels without pictures and an upcoming pop quiz, to relate to. But he’s not so different. Which is why maybe the Michelle Rhees of the world should read the book. When students like Gabriel show up at school, it’s with baggage that makes them something other than merely a willing sponge primed to soak up “learning.”

That might be why, when I met friends at a Barnes & Noble over the weekend, I was drawn to this book, from the diagonally opposite corner of the massive store. I’d read about Sudhir Venkatest in Freakonomics last year, so it was intriguing that he’d put his experiences into a book of his own. And, of course, since I tend to read in accidental themes, I remembered JT, the drug-selling gang leader from Freakonomics. JT is a real-life version of Gabriel. He’s a street-wise guy who knows there’s more out there, but also knows the streets only allow for so much and that to leave is to enter a world with far different games. So, he sticks to the hustle he knows. Maybe Rhee should read that, too.

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