with love and squalor

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 15 2011

Hard Times at Douglass High

I just finished rewatching the movie that I first found out about TFA through.  It’s an HBO documentary called Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card. I think I watched it when I was in ninth grade, and I remember sitting in my basement, all alone, open mouthed while I watched this documentary.  I guess it especially hit home for me because I went to a public high school in Maryland and had never given much thought to the absolutely excellent education I received.  It disgusts me now, in retrospect, but I was so entitled and so wholly self centered that I never realized the unbelievable injustices taking place throughout our country, but particularly in my own state.  I included in this blog a few entries back an excerpt from my thesis which states, just to reiterate, that Maryland is ranked the number one state by College Board and Newsweek etc. for public education.  I would say that at my high school, literally, 98.9% of students go to a four year college right after graduation, and maybe about 70% of those schools are out of state.  At Frederick Douglass High, in the class of 2005, 50 of the 200 seniors who graduated (500 students enter in 9th grade; about 180-200 typically make it all the way through 12th), went to college.  So, in other words, Maryland’s “impressive” statistics are widely skewed due to the affluent Washington suburbs.  Baltimore is Maryland’s largest city and is considerably more racially diverse than the rest of the state.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that this movie is fantastic.  I enjoy all of the education documentaries I watch, typically, but this one is different.  It’s hard to find.  It isn’t on Netflix or iTunes, so I had to buy it off of Amazon when I decided I needed to watch it again (it’s worth the $15, believe me) but it probably comes on HBO sometimes.  Unlike the other recent documentaries tackling this subject, such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, it doesn’t pass judgment on anything except, perhaps, the United States government and specifically NCLB, as NCLB was new and just being implemented while the movie was in production.  There is no snark about the teachers’ union, no condescension about impoverished students, no showcasing of pathetic or abusive teachers, absolutely no mention whatsoever of charter schools, no blame put on much of anything at all except for history.  There is very little commentary; it really is just an insight into many students’ and teachers’ lives throughout the school year of ’04-’05, and their collective struggle to make their school adequate in the eyes of the Maryland state BOE.

There are several times I cried while watching this movie.  It is truly heartbreaking in many ways, and due to the lack of commentary it is pertinent for the viewer to make his or her own inferences about what is going on within these school walls.  There is one corps member showcased throughout the film, who teaches Spanish, and I recall opening my computer and looking up Teach for America the first time I watched this movie, and deciding it was something I definitely wanted to be a part of.  I can’t believe I have made the dream a reality.  While the movie is, to put it lightly, horribly depressing, it is also somewhat hopeful.  At least in the sense that it made me so excited about taking my due opportunity to attempt to correct some of these injustices.  And, I mean, it’s not like I watched this movie and reflected on my own high school and thought I could make these kids’ lives so much better if I just swooped in, or something.  It’s more like, I watched this movie and it left a bitter taste in my mouth and completely colored my entire high school experience.  It is impossible to feel proud of even grateful to my high school when I know that 45 minutes away, students in the same state are having an experience that is the polar opposite of what mine was.  It’s not right.  My high school, and others like it, by their very nature of being and benefitting from the residue of a racist and oppressive and systemically unfair and prejudicial educational institution, are contributing to the problem.  I don’t really know how to express this in words better than that, although it leaves something to be desired.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re given 100 marbles, and told to shoot a marble into a hole in the wall, and your neighbor is given, maybe, 10 marbles, and you make it into the hole on your 89th try, and they’ve been out of marbles for hours, then you can’t really feel too proud of yourself, can you?

Anyway, I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in teaching, TFA, or Baltimore.  It is really eyeopening and there are some very illuminating interviews with teachers.  Although I’ll be teaching ECE, there is one 12th grade English teacher who says that, by the time her kids reach 12th grade, all of the problems they have are typically the cumulative result of what was lacking in their previous 11 years of education.  I am so excited about teaching young children and helping them acclimate to school in such a way that they actually enjoy it and believe it is a place they can reach their true potentials.  I can only hope that by the time that my future kids reach 12th grade… well, that they will have benefitted from having me early on.

And, I know this is getting long, but one more thing.  This movie is also so hard to watch now, even harder than it was when I first watched it, because of the content of my thesis.  Frederick Douglass is probably the number one person I am citing/using in my thesis, particularly due to his extensive and radical views on education.  The school is (obviously) named after him, and, to give a brief synopsis of one of the only commentated part of the movie, I’ll quote:

Douglass has a long history of struggling with adversity.  Originally called The Colored High and Training School, this segregated school school was established in 1883 and is the second oldest school in the United States built specifically for African Americans.  As the school continued to grow, the name was changed to Frederick Douglass High School, and among the graduating class of 1925 was the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.  During the post WWII period, Douglass was supported by an activist black community that fought for equal rights and nurtured a school that sent one third of its graduates to college.  In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education.  This landmark case ended legal segregation in American schools, and set the historic precedent for equality in education.  What was heralded as a new era for public education, had mixed results for Douglass.  Through the 1960s and 1970s, its brightest and best students and teachers gradually left for better schools elsewhere in the city.  By the 1990s, the city’s economic downturn caused both the white and black middle class to move to the Baltimore suburbs, leaving behind a concentration of the very poor.  As the students pass through the entrance way, a statue of Thurgood Marshall looks over a school, which, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, is racially and economically segregated and, once again, separate but not equal.

5 Responses

  1. Kim Willay-Jenkins

    I’m a black woman who grew up in Baltimore.

    No father, mother wasn’t home. Poor.

    I worked hard, I fought harder to graduate and get out.

    With those same schools, same lack of funding and same teachers; I learned and earned my diploma.

    Am I special?


    You are white and are racist for patting blacks on the head with this article. That’s a white liberal thing where you pat them on the head and act like you can save the day while praising them for what they do in a system out to get them.

    It starts at home. White kids sit still in class because they fear the office, parents being called or a suspension.

    Poor blacks don’t fear the office. They damned sure don’t fear parents being called and suspension means vacation.

    Until you change THAT, it won’t change.

    You can build 1000 schools, stocked with 100000 teachers to create a nearly 1-1 ratio, stock it with computers and books and labs.

    That won’t compel anyone to learn if they don’t care to.

    Unless a kid has people at home to guide, punish and reward them or in my case serve as an example of what I’d be if I followed suit; you won’t be able to teach that kid.


    Go read that.

    A black man’s view.

    So now, that’s two poor blacks who got educated and here you are a liberal guilt white person shedding a tear like the phony Natve American in a 1970′s recycling ad because this movie inspired you.

    Forget inspiring you.

    If those kids aren’t inspired, you and all your Prezbo muster won’t break through.

  2. wingofmadness

    Great, thought-provoking piece. I am going to rewatch this documentary, too, after reading your post.
    I think your marble analogy is spot on. That is precisely the situation–it’s not about talent, or native intelligence, or ability; it’s about resources. Period. It helps to have those other things, of course, but if you don’t have the latter, you’re not getting out of the starting gate. At least not without major, major difficulty.
    I found the commentary you quoted very moving, too, btw. Amazing to think this same school spawned the likes of Thurgood Marshall!
    Thanks again for a great post.

  3. Cameron

    Thanks for the post! As a Maryland native and Anne Arundel County high school graduate, I am very interested in seeing this documentary.

    I definitely agree that it is shocking and appalling that so many schools are still marginalized and “hidden” behind the nationally-recognized success of Montgomery and Howard counties (and the countless other high-performing schools throughout the state.) Even my experience growing up outside of Annapolis highlighted the staunch difference between the haves and have-nots. Pssh-just go to my high school to see it!

    While I am very eager for my upcoming placement in Texas, the Old Line state still has my heart. I wish the best for you and your students!

    • aea107

      Thanks for your comment! Strangely, I feel the same way–the Old Line state really has a place in my heart, too. The shock and disgust this sort of reality inspires is amplified by the proximity of Baltimore. It’s true, too, like you said, that many other parts of the state are struggling very much. The disparity of wealth and educational opportunities in Maryland is simply appalling, but it’s all too easy to block off that reality when you live in MoCo or HoCo. I think the most eyeopening part of the movie was the scene in which students are struggling to take the HSAs. I remember taking the HSAs–it was basically a snow day for us. I used to doodle in the margins of my test booklets while waiting to switch over to the next section.

      • aea107

        Oh, and one more reason this movie might be interesting to TFA corps members–it follows one English teacher who decides to leave the school in the middle of year. It does a great job of observing him without judgment, but unflinchingly portrays the deep ramifications of him leaving his students “high and dry” (his words).

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