The Lottery and Tears

Yesterday, I watch The Lottery, a 2010 documentary by director Madeline Sackler (who wasn’t even 30 when she produced the film. You go, girl!)

This documentary confirmed for me that if  Cory Booker ever runs for president, there is a good chance I’ll vote democrat in that election. Ever since I saw him speak at a conference, I’ve been keeping an ear tuned to what he does as governor of New Jersey.

But, politics aside (or as much as they can be with this issue), I have to say that this documentary was so powerful I actually turned it off 20 minutes before the end, and I sat on my couch, and I cried.  I was looking at kids who represented a school system that would most likely fail them if they couldn’t get into charter, private, or magnet schools. And, I was seeing a system unfold before my eyes that was so rife with bureaucracy, lobbying money, and stupid pride that I was angry. I think that’s mainly why I was crying — the anger.

Before I say what I’m going to say, I’ll fully admit that I haven’t read all the reviews for the film or cross-checked all its facts. I fully recognize that documentaries are one-sided – though in this case, I did research enough to find out that Sackler approached the teacher’s union reps for interviews and her offer was declined. And, I fully recognize that this isn’t an issue just about schools. So many other issues about unions and whites flooding back into urban communities, which can cause harm to the people who have been in the communities for generations, also intersected with what was playing out in front of me.

But, I can tell you this.

First, tt’s tough to watch a father tear up because he wants his child to not be excluded from being a doctor or astronaut simply because no one ever mentions in his child’s educational environment that these things are possible. I’m grateful that this documentary challenged me to distance myself from the perspective that many urban children are failing in school because their parents just don’t care. I’m still sure there are some who don’t care. Of course, I’m sure there are some suburban parents who don’t care and some wealthy parents who don’t care. What was heartbreaking was the lack of choice that the urban parents are given.

Next, paid protestors make me angry. The film shows a protest taking place outside a school that the city of New York was planning to shut down due to poor performance. A charter school wanted to move into the building because it wanted more space, so it could open up more lottery spots to accept students, including students from that neighborhood. I sat there shaking my head at the sheer nonsense that a community would want to let a building potentially be abandoned and would rather have no kids in the neighborhood get into a good school rather than opening the opportunity for some. (Though the tensions of racial shifting in a neighborhood was understandable a fear here). Yes, that resistance to good education baffled me. But, what made me mad was the fact that some of the protesters were being paid to stand in front of that school. It let me to wonder just how much the actual community resisted the charter school. I’m fine with protests; I’m glad our country allows them. I could definitely do without some (like the insensitive, ridiculous stunts staged by Westboro Baptist). But, at the same time, I can see the benefit of others (so many to count during the Civil Rights era and some of the early work of the Invisible Children movement). But, I think the idea of paying protestors cheapens the whole process. A protest should be about enlisting people who care about the cause to show up and to make their voices heard. In this free will model, the protestors showing up most likely have at least a nominal education about the cause they are protesting (though, of course, in-depth knowledge is preferable).  When protestors gets paid, I see a slippery slope. Much like the broken lobbying system in our country, protest will start to devolve into a system where the richest side, funded by entities who have ulterior motives not directly linked to the issue at hand, wins.

But, the scene in the movie that finally made me cry in anger was when the director of the charter school sat before a city council to advocate for why her school should be allowed to occupy the building of the failing school. She said that a school that has only 10% of its eighth grade students reading at grading level deserves to be shut down. And, she was attacked for saying it. Is that what the rhetoric surrounding this debate has come to? Is it not ok for someone to suggest that when 90% of eighth graders can’t read at grade level there might be a problem that demands some dramatic action?  I actually yelled at my TV when another council member called the administrator a liar for saying that she lived in Harlem — when she does.  I wanted to get up and give the administrator a high five through the TV when she calmly shut down one of the council members who tried to back her into a corner by claiming smaller class sizes were the reason for her success. She was ready with the facts and rendered him speechless when she informed him that the charter school had kindergarten classes with enrollment on par with the zoned, failing schools and that the charter school overall actually served a higher percentage of children with learning disabilities than the failing schools.

The documentary is only an introduction to the issues in our educational system, but it’s an introduction worthy of watching if only to make sure that people look into the faces of the children who are being harmed by the injustices currently being lived across the country every day.