Let America be America again/Let it be the dream it used to be/(America never was America to me).
The new 10-part docuseries on a year in the life of OPRF High School, America to Me, gets off to a strong start. The first two episodes, shown at the Lake Theatre on Aug. 13, are consistently absorbing. If the other eight match that intensity, then director Steve James and his crew have really accomplished something significant.
If you go in with preconceived notions, watching it may be something else entirely. If you’re already convinced that white people will be blamed for all the challenges black students face at OPRF, if you assume the series will “reflect badly” on this important community institution and “tarnish” its reputation, you’ll miss a lot.
If, on the other hand, you can let go of biases and fears, this series will take you somewhere. Somewhere important.
It accomplishes a number of things:
It gives a clear-eyed view of life at OPRF High School in its many and varied dimensions: controlled chaos, which is often edifying and uplifting.
It humanizes students of color, who for many have just been statistics in our ongoing discussions of the achievement gap. These kids have a lot to say. They’re kids you can root for.
It manages to make the viewer hopeful and uncomfortable — in equal measure, perhaps the ultimate measure of a successful documentary.
It shows teachers like Jessica Stovall, Paul Noble, Paul Collins, Aaron Podolner, Peter Kahn and others working hard to make connections with students, not all of whom are highly motivated. It shows them doing the hard work of making OPRF a more welcoming place, not just for students who are easy to reach and teach.
The students have plenty of insight. As Charles Donaldson, who excels at spoken word poetry, puts it, “Everything is made for white kids because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids.” It’s systemic. It’s not “their” job to fit into “our” school. We need a new school where everyone fits in, a school made for all kids.
In one class, the teacher has his students write down areas where they have not been successful. At the end of each statement, he has them add the word “yet.” For the most part, the school comes off looking quite good — not because it is “succeeding” but because it admits it isn’t … yet.
In America to Me, the word “yet” is another word for hope.
The team of four filmmakers, each of whom followed three students for an entire school year, is headed by Steve James. A 33-year Oak Park resident whose kids went through the public schools here, James is also a critically acclaimed filmmaker with a ton of experience, so he’s perfect for this task. The crew amassed 1,300 hours of footage, he said, covering school, home and what goes on between.
One of the most interesting students is Ke’Shawn Kumsa, the kind of kid who drives a lot of white teachers crazy: extremely intelligent, extremely charismatic, hates school. Ke’Shawn is the type of kid who will probably be either very successful or very unsuccessful and underscores what one of his teachers says — that their job has a real life-or-death urgency.
Yet Ke’Shawn poses the central question of the series (thus far). He says, sarcastically, “I don’t know what makes Oak Park so special,” then pauses, pulls back, and looking directly into the camera with disarming sincerity says, “I don’t know. What makes Oak Park so special?”
What would you tell an African American kid like Ke’Shawn? We think we’re special. Other people think we’re special. But why?
We could say we’re special because we want to decrease, and ultimately eliminate, the achievement gap. But we’ve been saying that for two decades while pursuing it with glass-half-empty enthusiasm, which smart kids like Ke’Shawn see through in a second.
Our history of passing the Fair Housing Ordinance, and our half-century record of welcoming and managing diversity makes this village unusual, but not necessarily “special.”
Part of what makes us special is accepting, even embracing, the challenges of educating a racially diverse student population. And part of it is recognizing that we aren’t doing a good enough job at it and that we need to make more progress. Not many school systems get even that far. But are we really working to improve or are we satisfied with how far we’ve come? The former is “special.” The latter is not.
Are we willing to face up to the racism inherent in any institution “made for white kids” or will we defend, consciously or unconsciously, white privilege while paying lip service to leaving no child behind? One is special. The other is not.
Do we see our black kids and white kids as “our kids” or do we really see black kids as “somebody else’s problem”? One is special. The other is not.
Ta’garista, Those Things That Are Best — isn’t that still OPRF’s motto?
The filming for this series took place three years ago. I wonder if Ke’Shawn, and all the other students featured in this series, has a better idea of what makes Oak Park special. If not, is that their fault or ours?
At the moment, what makes us special is that our high school board and administration allowed this amazing project to move forward, giving filmmakers remarkable access, and giving students a chance to have their say, even at the risk of “coming off badly.”
Judging by the first two episodes, OPRF comes off as a remarkable institution with remarkable students, teachers, security personnel, and administrators who are trying to address at least some of the challenges facing a diverse educational institution — and not being afraid to hold themselves up for the world to see in all their glorious imperfection. That’s special.
In fact, that’s goddamn inspiring.
If the majority of Oak Park and River Forest residents actually watch this series in its entirety and discuss it, then that, too, would make us special. The series begins at 8 p.m. this Sunday, Aug. 26 on the Starz cable channel. If you don’t have that channel, watch parties are forming.
O let America be America again/The land that never has been yet/And yet must be.