I posted a blog a few weeks ago in which I mentioned two films that renewed my faith in public education. That post focused on the film The New Public. The second of those films is The Graduates, an Independent Lens documentary that will be shown on PBS, the first segment on October 28 and the second on November 4. I want to share with you why I am so high on this film.
First, you should know that Independent Lens continually produces superb documentaries, shown once a month on PBS and also in free special community theater presentations across the U.S. With The Graduates, they have another winner that should be seen by as many students, teachers and parents as possible.
The film is presented in two parts, Girls Hour and Boys Hour. Collectively they tell the stories of six Latino adolescents from across the country, focusing on the obstacles they must overcome in order to have the opportunity of attending college or following other avenues to successful and enriching lives.
Girls Hour focuses on three Latino girls: Darlene, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who became pregnant and is now a young mother; Stephanie, an émigré from El Salvador, who attends a school in Chicago that feels more like a prison; and Chastity, whose family lives in a homeless shelter in New York City's South Bronx area.
Responses to movies are always very personal, so this is certainly my personal "hit." While all three stories in Girls Hour are compelling and important, it's Chastity's story that has stayed with me weeks after seeing the film. It also somehow embodies the heart of this film.
We watch as this young woman transcends almost impossible odds to both take care of her family and eventually graduate and enter college. She has the support of her three brothers and her mom, who says. "She sees what happens if you don't have an education. Thank God she loves school!"
In part she loves school because Emily Task, the Student Success Center coordinator from the Children's Aid Society, becomes her mentor. With Emily's encouragement, Chastity develops her gift for writing. She writes about her struggle and, in one of the strongest scenes in this film, shares her story, written as a poetic allegory, with her class. The writing is powerful and poignant and makes it clear that she is a truly gifted writer.
Emily helps Chastity resolve her conflict between going to college and helping her family. She learns that by going to college she'll set a critical example for her brothers. The Girls Hour peaks with her marvelous graduation speech in which she urges the graduates to "think about how you see yourself and not how everyone else thinks about you."
Boys Hour also focuses on three Latino adolescents: Eduardo, a former gangbanger from San Diego, California; Gustavo, an undocumented kid from Griffin, Georgia; and Juan, a gay adolescent from Lawrence, Massachusetts. Each story is inspirational, and the film captures them intimately. They represent a population with a very high dropout rate, one that is higher than that of Latino girls, because the boys are more likely to feel the pull of the streets and of work.
In this segment, it was the moments with Eduardo that most captivated me. He doesn't know any kids who went on to college and made something of their lives. His expectation is that he'll deal drugs and probably not live to be 18. But he goes from gangbanger to being a role model for other Latino youth.
He was continually in fights and ended up being arrested, facing six years in jail. He was well on the road to destruction. Then he was truly saved by "this white guy who came up to me and said, 'My name is Chris Yanov.'" Chris is a leader of the Reality Changers, an organization that works to help rescue kids like Eduardo. Chris helps save Eduardo from jail and draws him into the Reality Changers program. It's a turning point. He eventually becomes a leader in the organization, helping other kids by telling his story and more. As one kid says, "He used to be like me . . . I learned from his mistakes."
Eduardo finishes high school and goes to college, where he eventually majors in psychology, while continuing to work for Reality Changers.
If it's Eduardo’s story that's most inspirational, the best single moment in this segment belongs to Juan. What are the odds of a gay, overweight, Latino male, who has been bullied and ostracized, making it through high school to graduation? There is no scene more uplifting than the one late in the film in which we witness Juan joyfully and beautifully dancing onstage before a wildly enthusiastic audience, followed shortly after with a scene of his graduation.
Special Care That Really Counts
Over and over again, the clearest message in both parts this film is that it's an individual, a group of individuals or an organization that makes the difference. Although we also see how each of these kids has some special quality that just needs to be awakened, each needs that assistance.
All six of these stories are microcosms of thousands like them all across the country, and one reason why The Graduates is such an important film to be shown in all schools and communities. In the meantime, catch it on PBS.