‘America to Me,” the documentary on race and equity at Oak Park and River Forest High School is underway. The first of 10 episodes played Sunday night on the Starz cable channel.
And now the discussion begins.
It was a major topic at our dinner table Monday night as our OPRF graduate offered up her take on how the documentary resonated for her, along with a batch of distinct observations about people she knew in the doc, remembrances of how she felt as she made her bumpy way through the school.
On page one today, Michael Romain, our education reporter and an OPRF grad, offers the first of what will be his weekly take on the series.
In conversation and on social media among recent and not-recent graduates and regulars at the school, there is a lot of shared head nodding about the ways classrooms are numbered, surprise that after all these years the tile in the hallways is not recognizable, and assorted other surface peculiarities of life at 201 N. Scoville.
And then there is divergence: Over race. Over equity, whatever that is, some seem to wonder.
For many, among all races, there is instant recognition of how real and true are the stories told about these young black students, their families, their experience at OPRF. Uncomfortable recognition of what we have overlooked, of unearned patience we have granted ourselves and this school in not confronting what is unfair, unequal, unkind.
But there is, early on in this series, the counter-reaction, the full throated defense of OPRF, the bootstrap theories, the “why aren’t you grateful for the opportunities we have given you” tone in some comments.
All this played out over the weekend and into Monday on a pleasant Facebook page called “Growing Up in Oak Park.” This is a self-declared safe space where the conversations are of how great Petersen’s Ice Cream used to be, do you remember Gilmore’s Department Store at Lake and Oak Park, and how OPRF was near perfect in the 1950s and the 1960s and even into the 1970s.
It is a gauzy world view, assuring and maybe harmless, until it is confronted, as it was these past days by people who wanted to test out their takes on America to Me in this protected place. Following from the outside, and as publisher of a newspaper with a web comment board that more often infuriates than inspires dialogue, it has been a bumpy 48 hours for the moderator of Growing Up in Oak Park.
Discussions of the documentary series were blocked, and then shunted onto a side lane within the site. Someone tried to explain that comments had become “abrasive.” Seems you can argue about whether peppermint or pistachio was Petersen’s best flavor without being “abrasive,” but, not surprisingly, talking about race and the true lives of some of our kids at our high school causes angina among a group of us.
Here’s my challenge to you: Keep watching. With your heart and your mind open. Don’t speak out unless you’ve watched. It’s like the admonition to non-voters who crab about the state of our democracy. You’re not entitled unless you watch, unless you vote.
If, like me, you’re white, embrace the discomfort. It’s good for us.
Join the America to Me watch parties at the high school where 700 people turned out Sunday for this shared experience. Turn out at Live Café for the discussions.
Listen more than you speak.