“Bad teachers, bad unions and heroic white saviors” are the staples of Hollywood school movies, writes Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences. Small Wonders, a documentary about her East Harlem school’s violin program, inspired Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. But Hollywood needed more conflict, so a dedicated music teacher was turned into the villain.
They publicized it as the “true” history of the music program at Central Park East school in East Harlem. They even had shots of the exterior of the actual CPE and roughly followed the history of the violin teacher. Except …
They made the school’s longtime, full-time music teacher — a remarkable guy named Barry Solowey — into a lazy, incompetent teacher who depended on the union to keep his job while the hero — Roberta — was threatened by a citywide lay-off. Barry had served 250 kids a year for more than a decade; Roberta served 100 eager volunteers — in three CPE-like East Harlem Schools (about 30-40 in each) for three or four years (at that time). Barry saw every class weekly, produced an annual opera and a Broadway musical, and ran three choral groups,—who also sang in Carnegie Hall— and he taught recorder to every interested child. Both teachers did superb work. But imagine our shame when we saw what Hollywood had done to the character clearly meant to describe Barry and a school called Central Park East.
Sometimes movies star “a strong black man, but usually it’s a highly cultured but tough white person who refuses to lower his/her expectations and never gives an inch,” Meier writes.
As for Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, Meier will see it, reluctantly. The new reformers have cast people who’ve worked all their lives for better schools as the “status quo,” she complains. The veterans of the fight are labled “lazy, self-interested, money-grubbing purveyors of low expectations.”
She recommends a French movie, The Class, for its honesty. It’s on my Netflix list.