Film Review: Go Public

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Last night I went to a preview for an independent documentary film called Go Public: a Day in a Life of an American School District. I would’ve posted yesterday, but it was already pretty late and I was tired. Go figure…

The film is, as the title suggests, a non-narrative look at a day in the life of persons involved in public school life. The film was made with 50 crews, 50 subjects, all within 1 day (project planning and editing, of course, not included). Of the 50 film crews, 10 of them were led by actual students. The film also featured various persons including students, teachers from all grade levels, special education, counselors, principals, parents, custodians, coaches, security guards, a school board member, and the superintendent. All 28 schools in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) were featured. The Go Public Project has gone on for about 2 years now and is currently in its grass roots stage, where local communities watch and discuss the film independently before it is released or distributed.

The website at http://gopublicproject.org also features a series of 4-minute shorts about each of the subjects.

The Pasadena Context

The City of Pasadena is world-renowned for being the home of baseball hall-of-famer Jackie Robinson (who also went to a PUSD school), the annual Rose Parade, and whose surrounding communities also hold the Huntington Library and Gardens (San Marino) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (La CaƱada). Pasadena is resident to a very diverse population, as is reflected by the public school system. Many of the “old rich” families had their homes in Pasadena, including the Gamble House (of Proctor & Gamble) and the Wrigley’s Mansion (of Wrigley’s gum, which is now the Tournament of Roses HQ).

The City of Pasadena (and more specifically PUSD) is found in many high school political science textbooks thanks to the public busing system, where kids from all over the city were placed on buses to schools across town in order to remove the city’s de facto segregation in the 1960s.

And yet in this city full of history and tradition, there is a huge problem: how the public eye views the PUSD system. Roughly 30-40% of all the children under 18 years of age in Pasadena go to private schools, perhaps the largest percentage for a city of its size to have in the entire nation. A lot of things have probably caused that, which I will get to later, but certainly that statistic has never been helpful to PUSD, its workers, but most of all, to its students.

Go Public attempts to show the public eye what really goes on in a PUSD school, both good and bad; and in my opinion, shows it fairly accurately. Having been through the PUSD system for 12 years, I had mixed feelings about the film’s portrayal. On the one hand, I was glad that the real events that happened were shown, as I had remembered going through the school system so many years ago. On the other hand, it broke my heart knowing that of the 50 subjects in the film, even they were not immune to the budget cut problems and some were in fact laid off after the filming had been completed.

As an aspiring teacher specifically for a public school I know that such a fear is reasonable and many have tried to tell me to stay away from the idea, especially in Southern California, but I see this as an opportunity to change things for the better. If you couldn’t tell from the portrayal of my writings including Prof. Ginkgo in my fan fiction, I will not go quietly and stand idly by as things around me start to go awry. I am a person who sees a problem and finds every way I can to solve it.

White Flight

Coupling the Pasadena context, and more specifically the PUSD bus initiative from the sixties, is perhaps one of the most unspoken issues in the problem at hand (by the way, the Go Public film does not mention it at all). Ever since the decision to desegregate Pasadena schools then, many white families opted out and sent their kids to private schools immediately. In the years following the busing initiative, more private schools sprouted up than ever before in Pasadena; and consequently, many of the white (and at least back then, the highest performing) students moved in to them. Now I know that private schools do in fact allow some people of color into their doors, so long as they behave well, get high marks, and of course, pay for the tuition; but for the most part, the rise of private schools has become the choice alternative in Pasadena to public schools.

It is true that PUSD cannot turn away students from any of their schools. Everyone from the most well-behaved children to the delinquents groomed into someday becoming criminals are placed under the same roof. I get that. The stigma behind this, however, is that all students in public schools will not have a chance, and the fear of having children who have no affluent future drives many families away from the public school system altogether. And yet for most families with these fears, it comes to no surprise that none of them have ever been in a public school. Ever.

My two siblings and I were placed in the PUSD system for 12 years apiece. Due to unusual circumstances, we went to the same elementary and middle schools but decided to go to three different high schools; but all the schools were public nonetheless, and yes, all were in Pasadena. Now certainly my family could have afforded private school if they wanted to, and for a brief time in middle school, I even wanted to get sent to one; knowing of course that my mental health history probably would never let me in one of them. My parents, however, decided to keep me in a public school and even more specifically in the regular track (as opposed to special education, which believe it or not, was an option for someone like me). I probably have never told them, but I’m glad they made that decision (the public school decision, of course). I probably would’ve never been the person I am today without that decision.

Children Will be Children…

No matter where they go. One of the panelists for the film last night told us an anecdote about sending his daughter from the Montessori school to a PUSD school long ago. Many of the other parents were talking about sending their kids to certain places, but finding out he would send his daughter to a public school seemed out of the question! “Your kids gonna get eaten alive!” he said as he retold the story. It’s as if no one in a public school will ever survive coming out.

“Bitch, please,” a common mĆŖme says; the public school system isn’t as bad as folks make it out to be; and to be honest, the children act the same way no matter where they go. There’s a charter school down the street from where I live, and their kids (as higher-performing as they are) always invade the local McDonald’s whenever I’m there, it seems. I thought public school kids were bad when I was in middle school; these kids are just as rowdy.

It’s also a common misconception that public schools are a hotbed for drug activity. While that is true, private school students are also known to use drugs as well; only more expensive and sometimes even more lethal ones than that of public school students.

One of the teachers in the film said that kids are not necessarily bad or good; but are raised a certain way with their families. If anything, the school is like a family to many students; and like a family, one must learn to deal with the way others are. Public school is a perfect means to truly learn how to be with very different people (and I mean VERY different). Of course, I’m the kind of person that thrives off of being different, no matter where I go. If I had to be in a school where everyone was just like me, you bet your ass I’d do something outlandish to show that I’m different; and you bet your ass if I was in private school that I’d probably get kicked out!

Intrinsic Value

At the end of the day, there are a lot of people that are involved in making the school system work. From the teachers to students, from families to community, from maintenance crews to custodians, from principals to board members; one thing is quite common for those who are in the industry. All of them truly care about the well-being of their students, no matter who they are. One teacher in the documentary said that if given the choice of a million dollars and being happy every day, he would choose being happy. And doing things for his students makes him happy.

This is the true value that life has to offer. One of my goals in life is to inspire others to think more critically and be the starter of changes in this world. While my current background is not apparent to others, I deeply care about children and truly believe they are the ones who will carry on traditions and hopefully not struggles when my time has passed. If I had to choose to be a person who makes things happen or stand idly by, I’d rather do the former; because let’s face it, I can’t sit still to save my life!

Such are the reasons I plan to become a teacher. And yes, for a public school

Find more details about the Go Public movie at http://gopublicproject.org. Also, check out what’s going on in Pasadena Unified School District at http://pusd.us.

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Book Review: Mudbound

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Posted from my Facebook, January 19, 2011.

Pasadena’s OCOS choice for 2011 is Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, a novel about two families– one black and one white– from the rural South during and after World War II. It is told in six perspectives: a farm owner, his wife from the city, a drunken veteran, a sharecropper, the sharecropper’s wife, and a black soldier. While this story is a tragedy of how these two families interact with each other on the Mississippi Delta, it gave me a fulfilling ending that brings hope that things will all turn out okay.

The first thing to note is the setting of where these six characters live and interact: the delta. While the land there is rich in nutrients and ideal for cotton, it is also a dangerous place to be during raining seasons. Floods block the roads, the earth turns to mud, and in this time period, the white man is king. Each character has his or her own opinion about the delta and what it means to be part of the culture there. For Henry, it is a dream come true to own and live off of a farm. For Laura, it is a hellhole of uncivilized people. For Jamie, it is a place sucking his own life dry. For Hap, it is a land worth working in order to someday own a share of it. For Florence, it is a home where her family and her ancestors have lived and died. And for Ronsel, it is a nightmare away from the life he had when he was in Europe. The Mississippi Delta is a place of bounty, but it is also a place of terror not only by the environment but by the people who own the land.

Mudbound also shows that the perspectives of people who live in a single area can all have different opinions about what it means to live there. One example that comes to mind right now is actually from the Jewish doctor whom at one point fixes Hap’s leg. In their conversation, the doctor says he is from Austria, where Hap tells him that his son Ronsel is fighting in Austria killing people there. The doctor gives a smile, saying he was glad to hear it. Hap doesn’t quite understand why the doctor was glad to hear that the Austrians were being killed by his own son, not realizing that– at least in a historical perspective– Jews were persecuted in Austria by the Nazi regime. Just because people live in a particular place doesn’t mean they think the same way as everyone from that place. Similarly, just because someone is of a similar race as others, doesn’t mean that person thinks as others would of that race. This theme becomes apparent when Ronsel is held by the KKK for “defiling a white lady” (from Germany) and Jamie tries to stop them by butting in.

While the story is told in six perspectives, there is also a theme of silencing, where things are left unspoken. Silencing is an effect which either forces a person from not being able to communicate or express feeling or the person chooses not to speak on a subject out of fear or a sense of protecting others around him or her. Laura, for example, is often silenced out of choice when it comes to her family as she dutifully obeys her husband to keep him happy. Meanwhile, Hap is often silent from trying to fight because he feels that fighting a white man is inevitably hopeless for him. Interestingly enough, the most silent character who is not one of the six perspectives is Pappy, Henry’s and Jamie’s father, who does not express or defend himself in the novel and simply complains or insults the other characters in the story. In an author’s perspective, this was a clear choice because it is assumed this man had nothing good to say anyway and he is the one character readers are supposed to hate. The story begins with a flash forward of Pappy’s burial, so we know the punchline is that he dies anyway. When it came time for him to finally die in the story, I was actually happy that he did.

One of the more controversial issues about this book is the contextual use of the N-word used to degrade and insult African Americans (I’m sure we all know what that word is). While we are now out of the time period of Mark Twain, the use of this word has been taboo for decades; and its use in this novel is no different. As usual, the N-word is used by the white supremacists as well as by the black family all to mean one thing: a black person in the most disgusting of terms. For readers who are offended by this term, I do have to say that this is in a historical perspective, and anyone who says it in the novel is meant to be hated anyway for saying it. Whether or not Hillary Jordan should be allowed to print it in her novel is a completely different argument.

The last thing I really want to discuss at this point is the very title of the novel: Mudbound. While this refers directly to the nickname the farm was given by the characters in the novel, this name also has a few other meanings to the story. The inferred double meaning in the story is how things are bound by mud, as in to come together or stick together. Mud is known at least in an older time period to be an adhesive for buildings (I’m thinking adobe) but comes at the cost of becoming weaker when it rains. Similarly, this is the relationship that the characters have with the land and each other. They are bound by mud where they come together in love only temporarily, and a metaphorical storm forces them to fall apart and the relationship becomes unstable. The story’s example of this is Laura’s definition of “cleaving:” a word used in the Bible as a means to attach oneself to God, but is used in human terms as a way to sever something apart. Things that are mudbound are also cleaving in both senses of the word: to attach and to separate.

For me though, mudbound could also mean a longing for or a return to mud, as in the phrase “homeward bound.” To me it seems that all the characters are proverbially heading toward the same direction: back to the earth, or in this case, the mud. Whether it is Henry’s longing for a piece of land, Jamie’s return from the war as an airplane pilot coming back to the farm, or even Ronsel’s unfortunate homecoming to a place where he is hated, they all seem to return to a place where the land itself is treacherous and the foundation is unstable, a place we can all call “home.” My best argument for this meaning is the beginning and the end of this story: Pappy’s death. Pappy is buried on the farm, where Henry and Jamie find a skull of a mystery person inside the hole where the coffin was to be laid. Henry insists that this is not a grave fit for Pappy as it was a [N-word]’s grave, but they bury him there anyway. Hap comes to give him a final blessing by sharing with the surviving family a word from the Book of Job, something that does not necessarily comfort the dead. Pappy may have been a racist white bastard throughout the book, but in the end, he shared the same fate as that of an ancestral slave in the rural South. As in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it matters not whether one is noble or a peasant in the eyes of Death, for we are all heading in that same direction (Alas, poor Yoric). Just as Pappy was buried in the same place with a slave, we are all returning to the earth in death, for we are all mudbound.