The Obamas sharing the news that Malia is taking a Gap Year before entering Harvard in 2017 gives me an excuse to share a puzzle-that-isn’t-really-a-puzzle that has occurred to me ever since I spent a year with one of the most well-known Gap Year organizations, coming up on 20 years ago. The puzzle-that-isn’t-a-puzzle was this: the year I spent mostly outside of the meritocratic treadmill, trying to get my sent-there-by-the-courts colleagues to show up for work, was also the closest I got to various kinds of political power: somewhere out there is a Philadelphia Inquirer cover photograph of me pouring paint for (then mayor, soon to be governor) Ed Rendell at a MLK Day school cleanup; somewhere else are photographs of me doing jumping jacks behind Ted Kennedy and Donna Shalala, of Marian Wright Edelman yelling at a group of kids I was chaperoning on a trip to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Alex Haley Farm, even of Bill Clinton- his face was beet red- enjoining me and fellow Americorps members to channel anger into hope and change, and then shaking our hands.
During all of these events, it was understood we were more-or-less placeholders.
“WHITE MALE: Americorps, are you ready to do ten 3-count jumping jacks?
BLACK FEMALE (louder): I said, Americorps, are you ready to do ten 3-count jumping jacks?”
Despite all this, no one I know of has risen to positions of power or prominence by stepping off the meritocratic train, or by never getting on it in the first place. We’re ruled by graduates of Harvard Law, with the occasional Yale for leavening. For all Obama’s community organizing was trumpeted by his 2008 campaign, his actual life story has mostly been of inspiring delight in one meritocratic heart after another. For all its political support in the 90s, most Americorps programs have done much worse than TFA, for example, which distanced itself from public funding and retains the sheen of elitism that allows it to keep attracting seven figure donations.
Maybe Malia is taking a Gap Year because she senses, consciously or unconsciously, that as college becomes more universal and proletarian, the next generation of leaders will be those who can distinguish themselves outside of school, or at least advertise their commitment to egalitarian ethics most credibly.
Or maybe she’s just tired of school. That’s understandable enough.