Film

America's 'Best Kept Secret': Special Needs Teaching

Janet Mino's classroom is full of energetic students who are learning to express what they want.


Best Kept Secret

Director: Samantha Buck
Cast: Janet Mino, Cynthia Pullen Thompson, Quran Key, Bradley Key, Robert Caspar, Linda Coleman, Erik Taylor, Maurice and Alyce Barnhardt
Rated: NR
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-09-06 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"Rahamid has a fear of plants," explains his teacher, Janet Mino. "We're trying to desensitize him. Outside, he won't go by the trees." She holds a potted plant in front of Rahamid, asking whether he might take it from her and put it back on the classroom shelf where she found it. "Ouch!" he murmurs. Mino presses on. "You want to put it back for me or no?" she asks. No. "You want me to do it?" Yes. "Okay, I'll do it."

Rahamid has been able to say what he wants, and that's the point for Janet, rather than the fear of plants. Mino seeks engagement and communication, asking for each student, "How to take care of yourself, how to express yourself or just get some type of language out of you?" Throughout the documentary Best Kept Secret -- opening in theaters 6 September and airing on PBS on the 23rd -- Mino patiently coaxes just such self-expression from her students at John F. Kennedy High School in Newark. These students have a range of special needs, met by JFK staff members with attention to detail, innovative strategies, and remarkable dedication. As Mino puts it, laughing through her visible exhaustion, "I should get paid overtime, always… weekends, I'm always thinking about them."

So far, so familiar: during its first moments, Best Kept Secret looks like another documentary about great work at a great school. But Samantha Buck's film takes a next step, looking at what happens after school. Specifically, it shows what's happening as, for the first time in her 20 years of working with autistic spectrum children, Mino's entire class is graduating.

Best Kept Secret follows this transition in 2011, as it affects Mino and several of her students. Outside of school, they won't have the same sort of attention or time devoted to them, and so, in the months before graduation, she sets to work with parents, guardians, and area agencies in hopes of finding situations for each graduate. As Mino confronts the difficulty of finding ways for each student to feel as stimulated and special as he -- and they are all hes in this film -- can feel at JFK. Social worker Cynthia Pullen Thompson cautions Mino that their lives are about to change radically, as the state now sees them not as students but as consumers ("Instead of a person," interjects Mino). "That's the language they use, the agencies," underlines Thompson, language designating new costs and payments to be made.

As Mino notes, her students are all "inner city," which is to say, poor. Their parents and guardians can't afford the private services of a place like the West Orange's WAE (Wellness, Arts & Enrichment) Center, a nonprofit alternative learning center where she sees students in a group situation, painting, sharing their work, encouraging each other, and engaged in the kind of self-expression she values. But even as a counselor assures Mino that "The only criteria is [sic] that you like to be here," either the state or families have to cover costs. More often, the options for Mino's graduates are "work-oriented," janitorial activities or piecework they take on as individuals, where supervisors don't have time or training to attend to what Thompson calls "social recreation," and what Mino calls "life."

Mino's efforts to find rewarding situations for her graduates seem heroic in the film, and you're invited to share in her frustrations, as caretakers and children are left with non-choices. Individual stories speak to broader constraints: Erik is thrilled to see his mother when she can make it to see him, as they've been separated owing in part to her addiction; Quran's father admits that it was difficult for "accept him for him being who he is," but still, he wants to have him tested, despite Mino's advice against such standardized assessments (Bradley, Quran's dad, sighs when he learns the results, which suggest his son has "regressed [in] some of the things that I know that he's able to do"). Another graduate, Erik, finds brief joy in the job he's "always wanted," cleaning up once a week at a Burger King, but an epigraph at film's end reveals that when his family is unable to secure a regular monitor for him, he loses the position.

Mino sees that such disappointments have more to do with her graduates' economic situations than with their abilities, or their many achievements at JFK, a point she makes during a public panel discussion with Senator Robert Menendez. But identifying that particular difficulty doesn't begin to improve it, as funding remains largely unavailable. That's not to say Best Kept Secret focuses on the disappointments, or that it doesn't return, in its final moments, to Mino's classroom. Here you see that she has a new class of energetic students who are learning to express what they want.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image