Sunday, November 7, 2010

1200 to 300 in one year?

A few Tuesdays ago, I went and saw Davis Guggenheim's new documentary film, Waiting for "Superman."  As a preservice teacher, I knew I wanted to go see the film.  But it was my awareness, my hyper-attentiveness you might say, to the vast social injustices in our society--the glaring disparities between various "superior" and "inferior" groups--that told me I needed to go see it.

The second education I'm currently receiving (so I can officially make the career-switch from business to public education) is responsible for this hyper-attentiveness.  The texts I read, the class discussions I participate in, the news outlets I access, and the stuff I think about all contribute to my greater awareness of the many social injustices that plague our society daily and hurt, unfairly, so many people who don't deserve it.  It can be very depressing stuff, but I actually don't mind the hyper-attentiveness I've developed as a result. For me, hyper-attentiveness just means more awareness.  And I don't think there is a limit to the amount of awareness I can or should have.  I believe the more aware I am, the better positioned I am to make positive choices in my life, and even more, the better positioned I am to positively affect others in my life.

Anyway, the point that I ultimately want to make here is that awareness is a good thing even when what we are becoming aware of is not.  We need to make ourselves aware of what is really happening around us, of how our actions are really manifesting themselves, of how other people are really having to live, even if that stuff is unpleasant or disturbing.  This is doubly crucial for people who are privileged in some form or another.  It is in succumbing to the tendency to want to turn our backs on such unpleasant and disturbing realities, to want to sweep it under the rug, forget about it, let someone else worry about it, and hope that it just magically goes away, that we actually aid in perpetuating someone else's pain.  The great majority of us never want to intentionally harm another being.  But when we hurt people unintentionally through our unwillingness to learn about and do something to help other people's problems--for no other reason than to keep us from feeling bad or depressed--what does this actually say about us?  It almost seems like just as much of a disservice as intentionally hurting someone.

When we choose to make ourselves aware of the realities that characterize ours and other people's lives, we are taking the first step toward positive change, the first step toward eradicating unsettling social injustices which are responsible for unnecessarily pitting human beings against each other.  In Waiting for "Superman," director Davis Guggenheim has produced a film that allows viewers to take this first step, specifically regarding the social injustices around public education in America.  In the companion book of the same title (2010, Participant Media), his intentions for the film are made clear: "Guggenheim wanted to take the conversation beyond staid policy discussions and into the subjects no one wanted to talk about, what he calls the 'uncomfortable truths' about public education" (Weber 20).  Weaving together the narratives of five public school students--all from various cities, in different life situations, and at different grade-levels, Guggenheim tells a story that no viewer will soon, if ever, erase from his or her mind.  He has done his homework and it shows: he includes several mind-boggling, but terrifyingly real statistics that are conveyed in an easily accessible manner and he has done interviews with top education reform leaders in the nation.  Even though there are several elements in the film that I could discuss at length, one statistic in particular has been at the forefront of my mind ever since I heard the gentleman speak it.  He was a staff member at a low-performing Los Angeles-area high school, one of the "failure factories" highlighted in the film.  He explained that they typically begin a freshman class with about 1200 students; then he said that by the time sophomore year rolls around, the class is down to 300.  I was stunned when I heard it and I'm just as stunned now as I type it.  Where are these 900 kids going?  What are they doing everyday?  Why did they decide high school wasn't something they needed to complete? Where do they think they're going to end up?  Where will they end up?  Do bad communities or bad schools come first?  Is the community responsible for the failure of the school or is the failure of the school what creates these struggling communities?  The film raises so many questions, and if you care at all about kids and communities and education in this country, it does so much more than that--it makes your blood boil.  And still for others, it brings them to tears.

Though Waiting for "Superman" is anything but a warm-fuzzy, inspiring production, it does an effective job of achieving Guggenheim's goal--to generate awareness about what's actually happening in the public education system today.  As someone who so passionately wants to go to work at an inner-city public school, Waiting for "Superman" was not only something I wanted to see, but it was something I needed to see.  It moved me to tears. And it's a documentary for crying out loud.  What does that say?  Social injustice in our society is rampant and that we willingly allow it to happen to kids and in the field of education, of all places, is downright disturbing.  It makes me want to vomit, really.

Above I say that the first step one can take toward helping to eradicate social injustice is to make the choice to gain awareness, to really learn about an issue.  The second step, then, is to take that awareness and do something productive with it.  Get involved with organizations that are already established with similar passions as you; go talk to your school board members; write letters to congresspeople suggesting ways to help alleviate problems; join the conversation, get others talking about these issues, and help to generate even more awareness; delve further into the issue by reading/viewing other similar texts; donate money to the organizations on the front lines of education reform who make the kids their number one priority (as opposed to something else); become a teacher if you're so inspired; the list goes on.  Do something, anything, to help fight the social injustice.  It can be discouraging to think that you are only one person and what real difference, what real change can one person make or inspire?  But if everyone thought that way, no positive changes would ever be made in our society.  And that's the truth.  Do not mistake small steps for no steps. Progress is progress is progress.  If we are determined and passionate enough, we can all work together to make change happen.  But it starts with awareness.  And it continues with action.