Apr 19 2011

LouAnne Johnson Responds to ‘Dangerous Minds’ Questions

Michelle Pfeiffer and Louanne Johnson

After writing the post Waiting For…A White Lady?, I did some further research and found that LouAnne Johnson has a website where she posts articles and answers questions about her current work as a teacher and her past experiences writing the book “My Posse Don’t Do Homework,” which the movie Dangerous Minds is (loosely, according to Johnson) based on.

At that website, Johnson provides a link to a downloadable .pdf file of a letter she wrote to a grad student who contacted her via email in 2007 with similar questions my post raised. I love her responses to that student’s query. And, though I’ve never met, spoken or corresponded with her, I love her. Louanne Johnson speaks her truth about her experiences in a way that is informed, inclusive and non-judgmental. After a visit to her website you may come to the same conclusion I have:  She is a teacher in every sense of the word.

I HIGHLY recommended reading her entire letter:

LOUANNE JOHNSON’S RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MOVIE DANGEROUS MINDS:

My Thoughts on the movie Dangerous Minds which was (very very loosely) adapted from my book My Posse Don’t Do Homework.

This was written in June 2007 in response to an email from a grad student:

Thank you for contacting me for input instead of just using what you find on the Internet or other resources.

Let me be clear: I think Dangerous Minds has its good points – it inspired a lot of kids to stay in school, it inspired many people to pursue their dreams of becoming teachers, and it inspired the brilliant song, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” I just wish that people would realize it’s a movie and not real life when they write about me.

I had very little input to the movie and much of it is fiction, at times so far removed from fact as to be ridiculous. My students never called me “white bread” for example – I had only one rule in my classroom and that was: respect yourself and the others in this room. I didn’t disrespect my students and they didn’t disrespect me. The producers couldn’t believe it could be so simple — that if you treat kids with genuine respect, they may not love you immediately, but they will learn to respect you.

I used rap lyrics to initiate lessons about poetry (not a Dylan-Dylan contest). Instead of a silly contest, we learned to write and analyze various forms of poetry, beginning with songs and ending with Shakespearean sonnets. Yep, they actually liked them, too. I never threw candy bars at my students to motivate them — I encouraged them to eat healthy foods. I didn’t fight with my administrators all the time — it was my principal who gave me the support and encouragement I needed to become an effective teacher. So, I would simply ask that you view the movie as a movie and not as a reflection of my personality, teaching techniques, teaching philosophy, and definitely not as a reflection of my attitude toward students.

I didn’t teach for one semester and then try to quit — I taught in the at- risk program for five years, starting as a part-time teacher and ending as a full-time teacher and department chair — and then I went back to grad school.

I agree with Bulman’s contention that the movie industry seems to think that white middle-class people can walk into a ghetto and ‘save the children.’ That’s a very very simplified version of his theory. But I would argue that whether the maverick teacher is middle-class, white or black, male or female — the key is in that person’s motivation. If you believe you are superior to somebody and you are going to save them, they will resist you, even if they are drowning, if they didn’t ask for your help. But if you truly respect and accept other people as they are, and your motivation is to encourage them to develop their talents and skills to pursue whatever goals THEY have set (or encourage them to set goals if they have none), then they will be interested in what you have to say.

People focus far too much on race, gender and money when they should focus on heart, soul and intention. It’s been my experience that when you have self-destructive or apathetic students, instead of trying to teach them lessons, you will make much more progress if you try to find out what they think of themselves. And when they have negative perceptions, you tell them what you see — a new perspective that they can’t see themselves. If this is an honest communication, it will change the way they think of themselves. Instead of thinking of themselves as hopeless, powerless, stupid, lazy, or whatever they have been taught or told to think — they begin to see themselves as human beings, separate from the school system labels, human beings with talents and abilities that will be valued by the world, if they can just survive school.

That’s enough. I’m writing you a book! Sorry for being so long-winded.

Oh, wait, I take that back. One more thing. I don’t think the Hollywood film makers are intentionally perpetuating stereotypes and simplistic plot lines. I think in some cases they genuinely believe their stories, in some cases they are trying to create a feel-good story to attract an audience, and in some cases they just don’t have a clue because they never attended public schools and their worlds are so insulated that they believe whatever expert they have hired. I was told, for example, when I protested the racial stereotypes in Dangerous Minds (all black kids are raised by crackhead single moms, all Hispanic teens are gangsters because their parents don’t care, black parents resent effective white teachers), I was told in a very haughty voice that the “gangologist” on their staff assured them that their movie was an accurate depiction. I laughed myself silly before I cried.

At LouAnne’s website is a brief Q&A where you can find out what happened to the real kids whose lives were portrayed in the movie. In one of her answers to a visitor’s question she wrote:

Durell and Lionel came back to school after their grandma made them quit and work for a semester (and she never called me a honky anything – she was very nice).

Hah! I knew that evil grandma didn’t exist. I guess the filmmakers felt making her so mean and angry would make for a better, more enjoyable viewing experience.

:/


Apr 14 2011

Waiting For…A White Lady?

You gotta watch at least the first 55 seconds of this video — hilarious! (if you can’t see the player, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC3h8BTzGNs

So, before folks get all upset at me, let me make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that there aren’t well-intentioned, skilled, concerned and effective White ladies doing great work in our nation’s schools. I have worked with and beside dozens of them. Just Google “Katie Haycock” and the “Education Trust” in D.C. if you want to meet one amazing White lady who tirelessly advocates for quality education for urban students of color.

Having said that, let me get on to the real point of this post, which is Hollywood’s portrayal of the “great White crusader” as the answer to the many ills that plague the inner-city. To this day, Dangerous Minds stands as one of my LEAST FAVORITE movies of all time. HATED IT. Not because the heroine of the movie was a nice White lady doing her best to inspire her poor urban students to learn, but because her sole comrade was a fellow White teacher–and every Black adult in the movie was portrayed as disinterested, self-serving, ignorant and apathetic.

I’m a writer, and when I sit down at my keyboard to create visual images for readers it is not a haphazard or accidental process. Writers have something to say, and the words we use are intentional–we are painting pictures with them.

So, someone please explain to me how the Dangerous Minds screenwriter (Ronald Bass, a quite skilled and prolific writer who is the genius behind a few of my favorite films) didn’t think it was important to have at least ONE non-white adult character in the film who cared about education?  Did Bass really believe that the reason schools in the Black community are so abysmal is because there aren’t any caring Black adults in them who are going above and beyond to reach kids? That is an incredible insult to the many who are.

For those who will argue that the movie was based on a true story, please know that in Hollywood the term “based  on” means you can pretty much add or subtract whatever fiction or reality you care to if that will make it a more marketable film.

The scary thing about this movie is that even today it is being discussed on  YouTube, and many of the scathing comments about Black teachers and parents are coming from young people who have never stepped foot in an urban school, yet seem to believe every scene and every character in the movie is actual.

I have worked in urban education and school reform for over twenty years, and though I have encountered plenty of teachers and administrators of color who shouldn’t be anywhere near kids (no exaggeration), I have never been at a campus where there were NO teachers, parents or administrators of color who cared if kids got an education.

And, while I’m at it, I’m not denying that there are plenty of apathetic and confrontational Black parents, but I never once met a Black parent (or grandparent) who was angry and bitter about their child being taught a challenging English curriculum that would help them graduate and/or be better prepared for college.

You’ve got to be kidding me. Notice all the rose bushes in her yard? (Film directors don’t do anything by accident either, so you have to know that the roses in the yard are there on purpose.) So, this grandma is interested in nurturing and caring for those flowers, but her grandsons better not be wasting their time on poetry? Ugh. The screenwriter was making a point with that scene, and I’m having a hard time believing the point was well-intentioned.

Even if a woman like that mean grandma really did exist, she is definitely not the norm in the Black community. The vast majority of Black and Latino parents I’ve worked with, even the neglectful and uninvolved ones, saw high school graduation and preparation for college as valuable goals.  The lie that Black and Latino families care more about vocational ed, and less about college prep, is just that–a lie.

Want to see how much inner-city families really do value quality education? Watch the documentary Waiting for Superman. The lottery scene will break your heart.

UPDATE
LouAnne Johnson (the real-life teacher Dangerous Minds is about) responds to the questions I raised in this post — I’m stunned by her comments. <<—Click to read.