Here’s a heart-warming movie, based on real events (but probably jazzed up a bit, as these things tend to be), that depressed the hell out of me. There’s nothing really new here: Hilary Swank, as real-life teacher Erin Gruwell, enters a classroom in Long Beach on her first day as a teacher in 1994, two years after the Rodney King riots … a classroom I wouldn’t walk into without body armor and an AK-47 aimed directly at my “students.” Idealistic, naive, perky, yada yada yada. This used to be a model school with high grades … in other words, almost all-white. Now it’s been integrated and these … minority persons are the majority. Their lives have been almost unimaginably tough, and they have naturally clung to their own kind. There are the spics, the chinks, the niggers, and a few badly outnumbered honkies. (Don’t write me to protest; this is how they think of each other.) There is no mixing between the groups, but plenty of fighting. Okay, so you know Hilary will win them over, inspire them, grieve for them when they’re hurt, fight for them against an indifferent school administration more interested in moving the little assholes through the system than in educating them. You know her work will wreck her marriage. You know her burned-out liberal father will eventually come back around to the values of his youth. You know the head of the English department will oppose her at every turn, and the teacher of honors English will belittle her teaching methods. We’ve seen this movie many times since The Blackboard Jungle. Edward James Olmos taught calculus to a bunch of losers in Stand and Deliver. Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase. Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love. You know the drill. Make your own list.
Now, an oft-told story can still work, and I hasten to say that this one works pretty well, both because of the incredible energy and believability of Hilary Swank, and some good performances by the kids (who are all a bit too old for the parts, but that’s the problem with a high school movie). When she finds out only one white boy has ever heard of the Holocaust, she sets out to teach them about it. The emotional high point comes when they raise money to fly Miep Gies, one of the people who hid Anne Frank, over from Holland to speak to them.
So what’s to be depressed about? Here’s a great teacher, here’s a class of students redeemed from lives of despair and violence. (Not all of them, surely, but quite a few.) This is cause for rejoicing, not despair, I know that. What depresses me is what’s going on in all those other classrooms. Hopeless kids in a hopeless school being moved along whether they can read and write or not, just to fill somebody’s quota of “No child left behind.” Yes, I know this is before that travesty, but it’s been around a lot longer than the Bush Administration.
A good teacher is more valuable than all 100 Senators, all 435 Congress-creatures, and the whole Executive Branch. I’ve made a list, and found that I had 5 teachers that made a difference in my life. Run the numbers: 6 teachers in grades 1-6, and then 6 teachers for each of the next 6 years. That’s 40 teachers. (Well … 42, actually, but this is New Math, and the process is the thing, not the answer.) Mrs. Rosequist in the 1st grade, Mr. Brown, 7th grade science; Miss Hamilton, junior physics; Mrs. Wolf, senior English; and Mr. Kelley, band director, for three high school years. (So it was 40 teachers.) I’ve asked many people to come up with a similar list for K-12, and no one has ever beaten that total. Most people end up telling me I was incredibly lucky to have that many. This was in a pretty good, all-white (segregated) school system in Southeast Texas. And one out of eight is a good total? Do you really think so? Thank god for those 5 (and Mr. Green, who was a librarian who constantly threw books at me), but of the others … there were several who were flat-out awful, actually worse than not going to class at all. There were some who were adequate, and others who were just doing it all by rote.
I know, it’s a tough job, and was even back then when more actual education was getting done, before discipline flew out the window and classes were dumbed down, back in the days when coming to school dressed like any of the kids in Freedom Writers would get your butt kicked out of class so fast your fucking head would fall off (and saying “fucking” in class would be a virtual death sentence), back before permissive teenage sex, back when beer was a strong drug that few took until at least the senior year, back when no one brought a gun or even a knife to school. Back in those halcyon days … one out of eight was good?
It seems we ought to do better than that, but I don’t know how. So I found myself studying Hilary as Erin, trying to discount the sheer perkiness and determination—which ain’t anything to sneeze at, but couldn’t be the whole answer to her success—and focused on the other extraordinary thing about her story. She had these kids in freshman and sophomore years, and when that was coming to an end, they wanted to stick with her as juniors and seniors. And she had done so well with them that the administration and the union (which isn’t as interested in actual education as it ought to be) made an exception and let them stay together. She even followed some of them into college, which seems a little extreme to me, but she was an extreme lady.
But how about that? What the kids said was that they had become a family. Many of them had no families, basically, and the longing is so severe that they join gangs just to belong to something, to find people loyal to them that they can be loyal to in return. Channel that, and you’ve got a powerful force for good. So what’s wrong with the idea of challenging the six periods, six teachers model of education? In elementary school it worked to have only one teacher. “Now get out your history books, class …” What would be wrong with having one English teacher or math teacher shepherd an entire group of damaged, emotionally needy kids through the whole nightmare that is high school? I’m not saying it would work for more advanced students in more sedate schools … but I’m not saying it wouldn’t either. The point is, when you find anything that works with these mostly doomed children, it’s worth a look, worth an experiment. Otherwise, our educational system will continue to circle the toilet bowl, as it’s been doing for decades now. We need a new system. This one is broken.