Race to Nowhere, the movie

Website here.

Movie was good. Yard Sale of the Mind says: Check it out. Saw this movie for free with a bunch of parents, kids and teachers at a local high school. 30 minute comment period followed.

Honesty check – despite what I write below, I got choked up at several points in the movie. The emotions are real, the tragedies are real, and my heart went out to all the suffering kids and parents portrayed. So, please keep that in mind as I get medieval (you know, relentlessly and compellingly logical – just like they did in the medieval universities) on this movie, and especially on the audience.

Race to Nowhere is a documentary intended to get people to change their behaviors in order to reduce stress on school children. It tells us much more, and on different topics, than the creators consciously intended.

On the surface, it’s a 90 minute story of tragedy – of children whose childhoods, health and even lives are destroyed by the relentless pressure to succeed in school. Their parents contribute important interviews. Teachers and experts are also shown, some even brought to tears by their frustration and sadness with what they see happening to kids, but they are minor and largely irrelevant characters in this tale, used to voice a few key concepts.  At the end, we see a series of timid ideas scroll across the screen for making schooling a kinder, gentler people factory.

While the idea of change is actively promoted, it’s not too hard to see that change, to the makers of the documentary and, especially, the audience,  means the absolute bare minimum needed to make everybody feel better about doing the same old things. One teacher in the audience went to lengths to say that the issues in the movie were ‘complicated’ and later added that she’d asked her own classes, after viewing the trailer, if they felt stressed – and most of them said they did not. This teacher was evidently entirely immune to irony: presenting kids with the Cliff Notes (the trailer) of a very emotional movie, a movie in which a series of child psychologist speak at length about how hard it is for kids to talk to adults about emotional issues, then asking them a potentially embarrassing question in front of their peers – she gets the answer she wants to hear from kids who have spent years learning to regurgitate what their teachers want to hear.  Her cluelessness was truly awesome.

More about the audience later.

The stars of this movie are a 14 year old girl who kills herself over failing a math test, another 14 year old girl who has a breakdown caused by stress,  an 8 year old boy who is already stressing out over homework and tests, and a high school age boy from a disadvantaged background who is trying to use school to escape poverty. Many other kids also appear, but these 4 are the most memorable.

The parents of the first three kids also get a lot of screen time. We discover how – shock! – they all just want the best for their kids and had *no* idea how constantly talking up success in school, constantly nagging about homework and tests, constantly talking up how you *need* to get into a “good” college to succeed, how – as they can readily see by the upper-middle-class or better homes they live in –  they need to make lots of money to be happy – how all that translated into crushing pressure, how their kids loose sleep, never play relaxed informal games, take uppers,  learn to ‘present’ as sane and well adjusted no matter how insane their lives are, and sometimes even kill themselves because their parents, either through commission or omission,  hold up an insane idea of success for them to strive for.  As Syndrome so succinctly put it: “Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super —  no one will be.”

All this should come as no shock to anyone who has been around teenagers much – except that it is a shock, because, as endless TV shows, movies and books persuade us, there is an unbridgeable gulf between teenagers and adults, between these ‘Nots’ – not children, not adults – and us real people. Teenagers learn – and learn it so well that few are even aware they are doing it – to reply to adults with what the adults expect to hear. Adults then play the part assigned to them by getting upset at superficial answers – ‘fine’, ‘OK’, ‘alright’.

– Adults: Why don’t you ever talk to me?

– Nots: Maybe because I’m expected to do homework and pull ‘As’ for 6 AP classes, play soccer, be a student rep, study the violin AND act grateful for the opportunity? Because if I tell you I’m stressed, you’ll make me feel like an ingrate and tell me to buck up?

Several times in the movie, most notably in a most tragic and moving mother’s account of her 14 year old’s suicide, the theme of how could we know? There was no sign of trouble! comes out.  I need to be specific here:  I’m not saying the mother caused her daughter’s  suicide. I believe the mother when she says there was no sign, and that her history with her daughter gave her no reason to suppose her daughter would kill herself over failing a math test. Suicide by children is a tragedy shrouded in mystery, and I can only offer sympathy to parents who suffer this loss. I am saying that adults in general and schools in particular create an environment of non-communication by simultaneously expecting massive levels of work and commitment from teenagers while at the same time treating them as infants.  (Your 13-year-old can spend 6 hours a night on homework and represent her school in sports and public performances – but she can’t be trusted to walk off-campus to get lunch with her friends. For example.) How can you talk with an interlocutor who treats you as a baby one moment and as obsessively responsible adult the next?

The movie ends with a series of suggested steps for various groups. For example, it is suggested that students

  • Speak to the adults in your life about how you are feeling.
  • Make sure you get plenty of sleep.
  • Unplug and slow down.
  • Make time for things you enjoy.
  • Limit AP classes to subjects you enjoy.
  • Limit extra-curricular activities.
  • Seek colleges that use a comprehensive approach to looking at applicants.
  • Learn about the long-term impact of caffeine and performance-enhancing medications.

The value of this list is that it hints at an alternative view of reality – alternative to the status and wealth obsessed culture of home and school. However, since it does not and cannot lay out another way of looking at life (given space considerations and, more fundamentally, a lack of consensus as to what that view might be) it is unlikely to have any effect. It  is being pitched against a set of expectation absorbed over a decade or more of school, reinforced at home, backed by everything kids see on TV, in the movies and on the web, and enforced by peer pressure. It would be remarkable if this message made any impression at all.

Now, about those unintended messages. The movie is about the children of social climbing upper-middle-class white people. The few minority students shown are clearly kludged on – the movie would not be materially different if they had been left on the cutting room floor, as the only added angle these kids bring is that the economic pressure they’re under is of the ‘climb out of poverty’ kind – otherwise, the pressures depicted are the same in both groups. These upper-middle-class white parents are worried that their kids will ‘fail’ by only getting admitted to Cal State Fullerton or – oh, the horror! – the local community college instead of Stanford or Harvard. They are not afraid their kids will drop out and develop a crack habit – which sometimes happens in Oakland and Richmond,  CA, where the underprivileged kids in the movie went to school, and where the dropout rates are around 50%.

The houses, cars and school facilities (playgrounds, soccer fields, theaters) that provide the background are all *very* nice – for example, two of the houses featured baby grand pianos in spacious, well-appointed living rooms. We do very briefly see a couple interior shots from the poor kids. Missing are the other 90% of Americans, who don’t live in million dollar homes and drive $75,000 cars, nor do they live in crowded urban apartments.

Now, no film can do everything, so it’s no crime to portray what you know – the creative force for the film is a mom from Lafayette, CA, so that’s what you get. It’s risky, however, to generalize from what the top 2% of wage-earners experience, especially when, as is laid out in the opening sequence of the film, you see this mom own up to having had a stressful, insecure childhood and to have vowed to become a ‘success’ so that her children would have an economically and socially stable childhood. Her stress and insecurity about her place in life is palpable, and seems untouched by her obvious personal success. Something like this dynamic seems to be at work in the other parents as well.

I wonder how much different this movie would have turned out if shot among less affluent people more comfortable in their own skins.

About maybe 100 people stayed after for the discussion, mostly parents with a few teachers and students, and a couple mental health professionals thrown in. With the exception of a couple people who might have been of Indian  origin, there were no obvious minorities in the crowd – not surprising, as this was a held at a upper-middle-class suburban high school.

Everyone was very careful to not rock the boat – apart from a couple minor quibbles, all comments were in line with the movie’s suggested actions – attend PTA meetings, sign petitions, talk to your kids – even though the movie itself put a toe in the water of real reform by suggesting that maybe homework wasn’t really necessary, and grades don’t really help. No one would risk even the comparatively tame: ‘After hearing what those experts said about the minimal benefits of homework, and the huge benefits of sleep, family time and play, how bout we don’t assign homework anymore?’ even though that line of reasoning was explicitly laid out in the movie.

Nope. Instead, we hear from the teacher mentioned above that the issues are complicated, that the kids in her classes aren’t stressed – they told her so when she asked them in class! – and so let’s not get too carried away. And from a kid who’s taking 4 AP classes, commuting 40-50 miles a couple times a week for sports practice, not sleeping much, not playing much – and loving it! No problems here! Everything’s fine! She’s not the problem, she’s the solution – we just need tougher kids.

So, since we’re stuck in denial and don’t really want to change anything, what are we to do? Here’s some suggestions from a petition on the movie’s website:

We the undersigned demand policies and practices that

  • promote quality curriculum and teaching in every school;
  • reflect quality research and practices supporting the developmental needs of “whole” children and adolescents;
  • engage students in developing inquiring minds and a passion for learning while nurturing the uniqueness of each student; and
  • ensure their right to a safe and healthy childhood.

Well, then, what about apple pie and motherhood? There’s nothing here any sane person could object to – because it’s all so vague that any parent, teacher or school administrator could read it to support whatever it is that they are currently doing or would ever want to do.

How about some bullet points based on the information in the actual movie?

  • Ban homework entirely, because kids need time to play, sleep and spend with their families. Homework’s value is minimal, but the cost in time and energy better spent elsewhere is very high.
  • De-emphasize (or even eliminate) grading and tests. Again, the cost is too high when compared to the benefits.
  • Teach parents about how damaging their agendas – overt and unspoken – can be to their children. Children have always learned best what you do not say. Be clear that your children are loved regardless of what they do in school.
  • Teach students, teachers, parents and administrators about the importance of play, sleep, downtime, family time. These are not extras, these are life.

And, one more just from me:

  • Arrange for kids to meet happy people from all walks of life – because the world needs happy auto mechanics, bricklayers and domestic help, too. There’s no shame in honest work.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Race to Nowhere, the movie”

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