Monday, October 18, 2010

Waiting for Superman

It isn't the cute little kids in Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman that will tug at your heartstrings; it's the parents. It's Daisy's unemployed father who believes his 10-year-old can do and be anything -- if she only gets the chance. It's Bianca's mother who pays $500 a month -- $500 a month on a receptionist's salary! -- to send her kindergartner to parochial school. It's Anthony's grandmother who's reluctant to send the fifth grader to boarding school -- but is more terrified of losing him, like his father, to the D.C. streets. It's Francisco's mother who despite phone calls and letters and personal pleas from the second grader himself can't get his teacher to set up a parent conference or even to send home his work folder. (What are you thinking, Mr. Saxon?) Oh sure, the kids -- the promising victims of education's broken promises -- in this eye-opening documentary will touch you; but the parents? The parents will break your heart.

Don't get me wrong. This film isn't a tear-jerker of the obvious kind. Nobody dies. Nobody gets sick. No one is physically injured. No animals are harmed in the making of this movie. In fact, nothing much at all happens in Waiting for Superman. It's the kind of movie people in my area call "Cinema City Movies" after the theater that most often shows them -- the independents, the avant-garde, the Brittish period pieces, the documentaries -- the critically acclaimed movies that, except for their interesting wierdness, can threaten to anesthetize you with their tedium.

Waiting for Superman contains no murders, no car chases, no cops, no clues, no courtrooms, no weddings or funerals or pratfalls. It is nothing more than a look at the lives of five real families searching for the best education -- in most cases, just an education -- for their children. It is both ordinary and extraordinary; tedious and tragic.

Waiting for Superman isn't a horror film, but the statistics detailing the United States' fall from academic grace during the past 25 years will shock you. It isn't a mystery, but you will be mystified by our seeming intractable inability to educate our poorest kids. It isn't a suspense film. It tries to be, in a scene showing the familes waiting to learn their kids' academic fate in various charter school lotteries, but with their chances ranging from 5 percent to less than 50 percent, the suspense is limited. It isn't a fantasy -- at least I hope it isn't a fantasy that these parents can find an education for their kids. It isn't a comedy -- well, it definitely isn't a comedy. It isn't a tragedy -- but then again, I guess it is. And it will -- I hope -- make you cry.

If you're a teacher -- especially if you're an urban teacher -- see the movie. And tomorrow, when you go into your classroom, promise yourself that from now on you'll do harder...fight more fiercely for your students. You know you can. We all know that better teaching isn't the only answer. But it's a big part of the answer. Do your part.

If you want to know more about the movie and the families in it, check out Waiting for Superman, the website.

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