Reasons to be thankful for 'America to Me'

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Thank you, District 200 school board members, who said Yes to America to Me, the 10-week fall viewing phenomenon on the Starz channel that challenged our myths, liberated us from our illusions, made us squirm, shook up our complacent community self-image, and, we hope, accelerated the process of change in an institution that needs it.

Thank you, Oak Park and River Forest High School, for opening yourself up to public scrutiny, even though transparency is always uncomfortable.

Thank you for opening yourself up to being misunderstood, and better understood, for being willing to take a hard look at yourself in order to become a better school.

Thank you for showing the entire country how gloriously imperfect we are because every human being is imperfect and that makes every institution imperfect, which means we can't change the institution until we also change ourselves.

Thank you for demonstrating that a public airing of our shortcomings and systemic insufficiencies is to be welcomed, not avoided or resisted or denied, because that is the doorway to transformational change.

Thank you for proving that the discomfort of challenging ourselves is healthy and puts us ahead of the game, not behind — makes us stronger, not weaker.

Thank you for showing us how difficult institutional change can be.

Thank you for unveiling the creative chaos that is high school in the second decade of the 21st century.

Thank you for showing us how you fail as well as how you succeed, sometimes against the steepest odds.

Thank you for showing, especially those of us who are white, the goodness of students of color and their families, for showing us how smart these kids are, even when they perform beneath their considerable potential.

Thank you for allowing us to just sit back and really listen to these families — without judgment for a change.

Thank you for showing how important the arts and other extracurriculars are to these kids, how they provide a crucial outlet for their brilliance.

Thank you for exploding the racist myth that black parents don't care, for showing how deeply, in fact, they do care and how much effort they put into supporting and trying to motivate their kids.

Thank you for showing us how these kids move forward in spite of the school — and how much they progress because of the school.

Thank you letting us root for these kids, giving us the chance to feel devastated about their setbacks and thrilled about their surges, kids we suddenly began to care a great deal about, whom many of us normally wouldn't have given a second's thought.

Thank you for humanizing all the people profiled in this series, which in turn humanized us.

Thank you for introducing us to teachers, administrators, board members and staff who have a genuine sense of mission — Jessica Stovall, Paul Noble, Aaron Podolner, Michelle Bayer, Paul Collins, Mike Powell, Peter Kahn, Chala Holland, Jackie Moore, Dave Bernthal, James Sieck, Tyrone Williams, John Hoerster, Anthony Clark, Melinda Novotny John Condne, and the rest who said Yes to having cameras in their face and space and showed a willingness to go above and beyond the job description — to see more in these kids than they often see in themselves.

Thank you to those teachers and administrators who didn't take part but watched the series and now are beginning to feel a heightened sense of mission, as well as those who didn't watch but will, with an open mind, and let it move them, which will make them more complete teachers and administrators because you can't become a more complete educator until you become a more complete human being. 

Thank you to Jada Buford, KeShawn Kumsa, Charles Donalson Jr., Caroline Robling-Griest, Brendan Barrette, Grant Lee, Kendale McCoy, Terrence Moore, Tiara Oliphant, Chanti Relf, Gabe Townsell, and Diane Barrios-Smith, the students who weren't afraid to reveal themselves and who were so honest and articulate as they navigated an already difficult stretch of life — on camera.

Thank you for helping us better understand all the influences that combine to hold back student progress, and how facing and addressing those influences can help us create a safer, more welcoming and empowering environment.

Thank you for helping us see that the answer is not to force students of color to toe the line in a white school system but to reinvent our school system. Because it's their school too.

Thank you for helping us understand that we can't empower all kids unless whites recognize that the system whites built and that they sustain is disempowering to students of color and needs to change.

Thank you for showing how this high school is doing so much, and how far it still has to go, to reach every student, but that it's doable if we can get all the oarsmen on board and rowing in the same direction.

Thank you for helping us understand that, just as the glass is always half empty and half full, so we are all part of the problem and part of the solution.

Thank you for showing that if parents and educators can do the incredibly hard work of transforming kids, day in and day out, then we can help with the incredibly hard work of transforming the schools they attend.

Thank you to Steve James and his entire crew for creating something honest and troubling and hopeful and inspiring and very close to life itself. 

Thank you to Reality TV, that most appalling of media phenomena, which nonetheless created the precedent and set the stage for this authentic reality series.

Thank you, OPRF — and OP and RF — for being willing to redefine the school's motto, "Those things that are best," because the truth is best, and if we aren't aiming for it, then really, what the hell are we here for?

And if not now, when?

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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