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.

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.

Dec 15 2010

The Sexiest Teacher Alive: Don’t Let the Clark Kent Steez Fool You

I mean no disrespect to Geoffrey Canada’s wife, but her husband is my idea of what a real man looks like.

Okay, okay, before I get myself in too much trouble, let me clarify that in using the term “sexy” to describe this married  father of six, I am respectfully referring to the non-erotic definition: “arousing intense excitement.”

Just so you know, I’m not the only person in the world admitting to being intensely excited by the man. Geoffrey has aroused the ardor of a diverse body of media personalities including David Letterman,  Ed Bradley, Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper, Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck.  When Oprah first laid eyes on him she flung her arms wide for a hug and gushed, “I just want to kiss you.” (I’m feeling you, O.)

The President of the United States called Canada “a pioneer…saving a generation of children.”  First lady Michelle Obama referred lovingly to him as “one of my heroes,” and an award-winning documentary about him entitled “Waiting for Superman” (yes, that is a reference to Geoffrey) was released this fall to critical acclaim.

If you’re not up on what this man does for a living, I’m going to have to let you Google that, because as ambitious and awe-inspiring as it is, I am on a more personal mission here.  Here’s the short version of why he’s garnered so much attention:

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is transforming a 97-block area into a community of stakeholders whose primary focus is educating the program’s 8,000+ (mostly poor) children to such high levels that 100% of them will graduate from college. (Yes, you read that right.)

What Mr. Canada does is undoubtedly worthy of great respect and praise, but why he does it should also be the subject of a documentary as far as I’m concerned.  What motivates a man with a Master’s Degree from Harvard to invest it in Harlem? We can easily observe that  he shows incredible passion and tenacity in pursuing quality education for all, but what exists deep down in the man that leads him to devote his life to saving other people’s children?

Geoffrey says the calling to serve his community rang in his ears at a very young age–on one of the saddest days of his life.

“…my mother told me Superman did not exist.”

He cried.

“I read comic books and just loved them because even in the depths of the ghetto you thought, ‘He’s coming, I just don’t know when, because he always shows up and he saves all the good people’.”

Geoffrey’s mother thought he was crying for the same reason a child mourns upon learning that Santa Claus is not real, but even at such a young age, he knew his loss of Superman had devastating  implications.

“I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”

Some fifty years later, while most of us stand around arguing about whether it is poor leadership, ill-prepared teachers, uninvolved parents, disinterested students, or a multitude of other excuses for why millions of children are being academically shortchanged, this man chooses to focus instead on high expectations and successful solutions.

The urgency he feels about educating children is reflected in this excerpt from a poem entitled “Don’t Blame Me,” written by Canada in 2007.

If there is a God or a person supreme,
A final reckoning, for the kind and the mean,
And judgment is rendered on who passed the buck,
Who blamed the victim or proudly stood up,
You’ll say to the world, “While I couldn’t save all,
I did not let these children fall.
By the thousands I helped all I could see.
No excuses, I took full responsibility.
No matter if they were black or white,
Were cursed, ignored, were wrong or right,
Were shunned, pre-judged, were short or tall,
I did my best to save them all.”
And I will bear witness for eternity
That you can state proudly,
“Don’t blame me.”

I love this super man.