As American as apple pie — a film, a parable, a message of hope
Published: October 17th, 2012
OKLAHOMA CITY — There is in “Won’t Back Down” — starring Viola Davis as a school teacher and mom living with a hurtful secret — one of the most tender depictions of a mother’s love in recent cinema.
In the part of Nona, a public school teacher getting fed up with lethargy and failure in her big city school system, Davis (who gained deserved acclaim for her performance in “The Help”) leans down to kiss a sleeping child after a hard day of frustrating work at a dysfunctional school.
She rubs the boy’s hair, then kisses his cheek. Then his forehead, then his other cheek. And so on. The moment works because director Daniel Barnz gives viewers enough time to linger visually, and emotionally.
This is a metaphor for the process of education itself, which requires not only tenderness but steel nerves, time and determination, a willingness to lose, then try again.
The film fictionally depicts an attempt to use a “parent trigger” law to empower parents and allied teachers to take over a chronically failing public school to create a charter-like environment, free of teacher union contract restrictions.
The story includes many believable characters, including the solid union man who comes to understand that at least in schools like Adams Elementary (named for America’s second president), insistence on protecting the lowest of common denominators in the teacher pool induces despair for parents, good teachers and the children the system professes to serve.
Circumstances depicted in “Won’t Back Down” are not duplicated in all American schools, but in far too many.
As one remedy here in Oklahoma, Republican state Senator David Holt is pushing for a “trigger law” similar to the one championed in the film by Nona and Jamie, portrayed nicely by a suddenly middle-aged Maggie Gyllenhaal.
A trigger law like Holt’s would allow 51 percent of parents with children in a low-performing school to petition for a “new” school on-site, under provisions similar to charters.
In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Holt said he believes people involved in public schools like Adams, and several in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, “want what’s best for kids, but they are trapped in a system that is broken.” He said the events of the film are “not mystical. They could happen any place.”
There has not yet been a school opened under a “trigger law,” but the idea has legs. It first emerged in disenfranchised minority communities in California and is now taking on life in conservative places like Texas and Oklahoma. The power of choice in education, and its bipartisan appeal, gives hope – an important word in the movie.
For Time Magazine, Andrew J. Rotherham wrote recently, “Whether it’s ultimately a cause or effect, Gyllenhaal’s decision to do ‘Won’t Back Down’ says a lot about how education reform is moving from margins to mainstream. Gyllenhaal and her costars are themselves not backing down in the face of criticism that the film is a school reform propaganda piece.”
I thought “Won’t Back Down” was well made, and I recommend it joyfully. For those who disagree on school choice or parent triggers, consider Rotherham’s words: “[W]hatever you think of the film or of the idea of parent triggers as public policy, the plight of families trapped year after year in unacceptable schools is far more gut-wrenching than anything Hollywood could cook up.”
Do things like this story happen in the real world? Here’s an authentic tale I first encountered during the Global Forum on Direct Democracy in San Francisco two years ago.
Pete Peterson, former Pepperdine University professor and now director of a group called “Common Sense California,” has become a more or less full-time advocate of what is called deliberative democracy. He gets pigeon-holed as a “conservative,” even as he advocates sustained citizen involvement in governmental decision-making.
Peterson oftens talks about a place called Polihale, a tropical corner of earthly paradise on Kaui, at the far northwest edge of Hawaii, a place where people go to watch the sun set over the Pacific.
In late 2007, a torrential storm destroyed every bridge, every road, every means of ground access to Polihale, including the park around which much of the area’s economic life centered.
Peterson narrates the actions of a certain “plucky group of Hawaiians” who, after the storm, “when faced with the loss of their businesses due to the state government’s inability to open park roads to a popular beach and camping area, took care of it themselves for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.
After the devastation, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources acted about as quickly as government can, issuing an estimate that repairs would cost taxpayers $4 million. Predictions were the park could not reopen until 2010, let alone 2008 or 2009.
As Peterson related in an article for New Geography’s online news site, “The department convened an ‘information meeting’.” The purpose was not to discuss “how residents could work with the department to open the roads.” No, the bureaucrats were there “to provide information on how to lobby the state for more funding.”
That didn’t sit well with the surfers or the natives who earned their living working around Polihale, and it sure didn’t impress the local businessmen.
So, as Peterson relates it, “Ivan Slack, owner of Na Pali Kayaks, which operates from the beach in Polihale, summed up the community’s frustration: ‘We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part.’ Beginning in late March, business leaders and local residents organized — ‘associated’ — to take the situation into their own hands. From food donated by local restaurants to heavy machinery offered by local construction companies, a project that was originally forecast to cost millions and take months (if not years) was nearly completed in a matter of weeks, all with donated funds, manpower, and equipment. As Troy Martin from Martin Steel, which provided machinery and five tons of steel at no charge, put it, ‘We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic; something that took us eight days would have taken them years. So we got together — the community — and we got it done.’”
This was much more than a clean-up, it involved bridge-building, rest room reconstruction, and “use of heavy equipment to clear miles of flood-damaged roadways.”
Thanks to volunteers, gifts from businesses, and that determination to get it one, roads to the park reopened in time for summer 2008; followed of course by 2009 and 2010. So it went, and so it goes.
There was a time in America when, if people in a frontier town decided it was time to have a school, they would get together, come up with a plan, build the school, then raise the money to hire a teacher.
Not a whole lot different than Peterson’s story, one I call “the Parable of Polihale.” As American as apple pie — like power to the people and a willingness to do what is necessary to fix what is broken.
Forty years of education decline is enough. Triggers, choice, charters, there is not a shortage of ideas. As a popular entertainer has put it, it’s time to “git-’er-done.”
NOTE: Patrick B. McGuigan, a certified school teacher, taught two years at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school based in east Oklahoma City. He is the author of several hundred news articles and commentaries on American education. Portions of this essay appeared in 2010 in Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.