Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT) hosted a series of screenings and discussions on America to Me, a 10-part docu-series that follows a year in the life of students, teachers, and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago.”
By Elise Franchino
Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT) hosted a series of screenings and discussions on America to Me, a 10-part docu-series that follows a year in the life of students, teachers, and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago. The series deals with issues of race and privilege within a well-resourced, racially diverse public high school. This blog post is a recap of the episode and conversation among LTLT members.
“O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!” – Langston Hughes
The episode opens in the wake of a Black Lives Matter assembly at Oak Park and Forest River (OPRF) High School. Attendance was only offered to students of color, much to the frustration of the white parents and students alike. Yet many students of color echoed that this assembly was a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard. As one student said, “This school, this country was made for white kids. Some things have to be ours.” This incident caught the attention of filmmakers, who requested permission to film at OPFR through one school year. School administrators and board members expressed reluctance or full opposition to a permanent portrayal of the school and its potential racial issues. Nevertheless, the documentary prevailed and filming began.
We meet Grant, an introverted freshman, who gets lost on his way to his first algebra class. It’s the first structural injustice he’ll face. The school of 3,200 students was built in 17 sections and the room numbers lack any sense of rationale. The school doesn’t post maps and the older students purposely misdirect their freshman counterpoints, and staff seem amused at their new students’ confusion. Demographically, the population is 55% White, 27% African American, 9% Latino, 6% Biracial, 3% Asian. While the film follows several key African American students’ experiences in the first episode, their stories are enhanced by diverse parent, teacher, family, community, and fellow student perspectives.
Ke’Shawn is a junior and a self-described goof. His interactions with teachers are strained – we see him confronted during a science lesson by a teacher demanding that he wear his ID, and listen as teachers describe him as a low achiever and emotionally invulnerable. He acknowledges that he and his Black classmates are pre-judged by their teachers and openly expresses his aversion towards school. Ke’Shawn is bright, as he reveals during a science lesson and even the manner in which he defiantly addresses teachers as sir. Still, he is defeated. In his words, “After so many people giving up, I know what’s going to happen, there’s no point.”
Tiara is a sophomore who loves singing and aspires for fame. She explains that she isn’t striving for Yale or Duke, while her older sister and caregiver believes that Tiara hasn’t been challenged. We watch her audition for an elite choral group in front of two white peers, who compliment her beautiful singing but ask if Tiara can beatbox instead.
The school seems to be confronting issues of racial inequity, if only for the sake of the film. For the first time in fifteen years, school leaders review disaggregated data on student achievement. African American students haven’t made significant gains in their scores and remain as far behind their White classmates as they were fifteen years prior. At their current rate of growth, it would take 75 years for African American students to even reach the state average.
Though OPFR is located in a diverse suburb outside of Chicago, their issues of racial division run deep. Roughly 60% of students are in Honors or the advanced track, the vast majority of whom are hite. Honors students are given the most attention and seen as the students destined for college. At football games, the mostly Black cheerleading team performs in front of the “remnant” section where the black student sit, while the mostly White drill team performs to the general public. Many of these overt forms of segregation are accepted by parents, students, and teachers alike.
Like a quintessential teen movie, drama builds as the often-defeated football team prepares for the upcoming game. With seconds to spare, OPFR scores one final touchdown and wins the game. The segregated crowd goes wild.
Clear racial division exists at OPFR, apparent after only one episode. The ethnic distinction and treatment of the drill team and cheerleading team is one egregious example. Adults in the building seem unprepared to handle the current issue. They nitpick at things irrelevant to students’ learning. When a student comes to gym class without a uniform the gym teacher excludes him, rather than loaning or giving a replacement uniform with his potential home situation in mind. Two teachers attempt to engage students in dialogue about race during an English class and a Social Studies class. Both lessons fall short of any restorative discourse and leave questions unspoken and unanswered.
The discussion was contextualized through participants’ high school experiences. As one LTLT member stated, “As a high school student, you don’t have agency in your life.” We shared recollections of the pain of sitting through classes you would never have selected, led by incompetent or uninteresting educators. Typical teenage issues – crushes, friendship clashes, academic and family stresses – are embedded in a story of this racialized high school. Some teens express frustration at the injustices they face, while others are swept up in teenage life and awkward racial encounters go overlooked. Microaggressions, such as the cheerleading coach telling students to be “Beyonces,” are ubiquitous. Much of this stems from the white progressive OPFR community’s blind-spots at best, at worst it emanates from racist ideals.