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Hard Times at Douglass High

Cast: Isabelle Grant, Susan Raymond (narrator)
Regular airtime: Monday, 9pm ET

(HBO; US: 23 Jun 2008)

Handling It

Just made me stronger. I’m ready for whatever.
—Sharnae


“You are expected to be in class on time,” a principal’s voice blares over the PA system. It’s after 9am and classes begin at 8:45. Students are still shuffling in the hallways, resisting the call to start their official day. The principal, Isabelle Grant, steps out of the office to speak to some stragglers. She finds a young woman in a short skirt, and asks her to rethink what she’s wearing: “When you bend over, you knock the boys out.” The student nods and she and her friend, whose top shows all kinds of cleavage, head to class.


It’s another morning at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. And, according to Hard Times at Douglass High, airing on 23 June on HBO, nothing much is going to change the next day. As hard as Grant and her staff might strive to improve conditions, attitudes, and student-teacher interactions, they’re engaged in a losing battle. In her fourth year as principal—and her 38th working in public education, Grant is herself a graduate of Douglass, the first high school for African Americans in Prince George’s County, established in 1922 (and renowned for graduating Thurgood Marshall). Its transitions over time—new buildings, new demographics, and above all, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002—have left it in the direst of straits, namely, among the one out of four U.S. public schools threatened with sanctions for not improving test scores by 2007.


Directed by Susan and Alan Raymond (who also directed the groundbreaking An American Family in 1973 and the Oscar-winning I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School in 1993), the film shows effects of NCLB’s notorious lack of funding, training, and resources. Through interviews with faculty members and students, as well as compellingly observational sequences in classrooms, Hard Times makes a series of cases, not reducing the many problems at the school to any single cause. Instead, the movie points out that public schools generally and Douglass specifically are not only under pressure to meet standards without organization, infrastructure, or support from the state, but they are also, as narrator Susan Raymond puts it, “once again separate and not equal.”


Absorbing and sharp, the film offers glimpses of students and teachers in various sorts of trouble. In Mr. McDermott’s ninth grade English class, students fidget, chat, and distract themselves, unfocused on the assignment or even their teacher. “I’ve been really disappointed this year,” he explains, “You spend two or three hours preparing a lesson plan, then one kid yells out f—- you. It’s not even teaching any more.” Alone in his classroom on parent-teacher night, waiting for someone to come speak to him regarding a son or daughter, he laments that he needs “to see the parents whose children are having problems,” then sighs, “I’m here, I’m on the clock.” The scene cuts from McDermott’s classroom to Grant’s office, where she smiles broadly for the camera: “It was an excellent Back to School Night,” she exults. “One hundred and five parents signed up to join the PTA, so we’re looking forward to having an exciting PTA this year, wonderful, very excited.” Whether she means it or not, the lack of activity in hallways or classrooms suggests that her enthusiasm is forced or, at best, an earnest attempt to see a brighter future than can possibly be achieved given the circumstances.


These circumstances are illustrated repeatedly, in cases daunting and disheartening. Academic Dean Ms. Carter finds Audie in the hallway, unwilling to go to his remedial reading class. Repeating the ninth grade, the 17-year-old has been “protesting from day one” because, Carter says, “the whole idea of remediation because it’s a self esteem issue for him.” When she calls a security guard to escort Audie to the principal’s office, the boy is enraged and afraid. “I ain’t with all this, man,” he says, the larger man’s arm around his neck. The boy’s rebellion makes sense, and he’s sympathetic here, but Carter’s frustration and lack of options come together here in a painful brief moment.


The film crew itself has different effects on their subjects. Sharnae, 16 and in 11th grade (and a star in the school’s much-praised Recording Arts and Media Production course, explains her own situation with a cool wisdom: “I’m not young,” she says, “and I don’t got nobody taking care of me no more.” Living with her grandmother since her mother left, she says she’s been “independent five years now,” and can only focus on each day, as she works to “survive and pass all my classes.” But even as Sharnae uses the camera to tell her story, a group of younger students finds another use for it, checking that they’re being filmed as they fight with one another in the hallway. “Clown!” yells one girl as she takes after a boy and the other kids watch to see what the adults—the camera crew—will do. (They film, and do not intervene that we see.)


Other interactions appear to be more hopeful—against stiff odds. Officer Coffield, who works the hallways, is also the basketball coach. The Douglass team is perennially successful, though the school brings in a counselor from College Bound to speak to the players about their academic records, trying to help them be competitive in the eyes of college scouts. When, during a title game, the team suspects the officiating is not going their way, they meet in the locker room, frustrated. “This town stinks, yo,” hollers one young man. “They want every black boy to stay in the city. Selling drugs. Get locked up so they can make some money off of it.” It’s hard to argue with him, given the violence, poverty, and carelessness that surround them. And yet Coffield tries, sincerely and near tears himself. “This is not all about basketball. It’s about making you a better man.” His players want to believe him. They want to believe that what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger.


Just so, on senior certification day, students, parents, and faculty endure what Raymond calls an “emotional roller coaster,” as they find out who is graduating, who is not, and who can try to make deals—to complete extra work, to complete undone work—in order to change an initial decision. While the teachers are reluctant to pass some students, they also know that staying in school is not necessarily going to help anyone. Again, the non-choice is a function of money, NCLB, and multiple tiers of malfunctions and disappointments. “What are they learning if we keep them here another year?” asks English teacher Ms. Ehrler. “It’s all in the way your morals can handle it, I guess.” As everyone in every part of the system makes do with too little, “handling it” is increasingly difficult.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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