Students in their senior year of high school must pass a comprehensive final exam on the subject of Chicago streets. They cannot graduate otherwise.
In the drawing section, they must sketch out the layout of the city in its entirety, making sure to label every road correctly. In the oral section, they are asked to recite the shortest route, give or take one block, between two addresses. The final section is the essay. Last year’s one-word topic was “63rd,” and the year before was “Garfield.”
The success rate is surprisingly high, or maybe not that unexpected considering these kids have been collaging their mental pictures of the grid from their very first day of kindergarten, fleshing them out street by street, alleyway by alleyway, year after year. Those who fail are usually the newly arrived.
At least an hour of the school day is devoted to doing memorization drills. Geospatial facts are recited over and over as though they were sacred verses. During this hour, the hallways have the sonic ambience of a madrasah.
Names of streets are constantly being converted into poems and song lyrics. In fact, each year produces a long laundry list of new mnemonic devices. Maybe one day a descendant of Carl Sandburg will collect all these scraps of ephemeral verses, like a WPA archivist sent out to do field recordings of folk music and oral histories before they are lost, eventually collating them into a multi-volume Homerian epic: The Odyssey set on the grid.
After soccer practice or ballet lessons, students make their parents take long, circuitous detours on the way home. Field reconnaissance of sorts. When they’re old enough to drive, they continue their cartographic survey on their own or with friends. On some nights, roving gangs of teenagers out on a scopic prowl clog the streets, making for scenes straight out of American Graffiti, but with Google Streetview vans.
After graduation, they head en masse to the forests and deserts and oceans and polar ice caps.