PBS has a documentary series called POV, meaning Point of View. Last week’s POV was “American Promise,” a film that followed two young, promising black boys in New York City over thirteen years, while they attended one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Their parents filmed them for 13 years, from kindergarten through high school graduation, and ask if it was worth it. After watching it, all I could think was, “Good question. Was it?” Then, I walked away with a sick feeling in my gut, recalling my girls’ 13 years of school.
The point of the documentary, as stated by PBS was, “Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation, this provocative, intimate documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class and opportunity.” In other words, its mission was to show how difficult it is for minority students to excel in the privileged setting of private school. But, after watching it, I thought it wasn’t so much about race and privilege as it was about pressure and the need of some parents for their children to excel.
In an early scene, Idris, one of the boys, probably nine years old, is shown after his team has lost a basketball game. He’s clearly distraught, crying, while his mom walks him to the car. His father, a psychiatrist, is waiting for him in the parked car. He tells his son that his team played horribly and “sucked,” while his wife repeatedly asks if they really need to talk about that now. The poor little boy slinks into the back seat, buckles up and looks at the floorboard while his father berates him. Forward to sophomore year of high school when the child makes the junior varsity team, and is crushed not to make varsity. Mom calls it “the summer of basketball,” then reminds her child that French and Math camps are coming up, while he covers his face with his hands and shrieks.
For those of us who didn’t change the channel, the next scene was of the parents doing homework with the kid, yelling, nagging, bribing, persuading, only to learn that the child left a crucial notebook at school. Mom yells, “We’ve worked for two weeks on this. How could you screw this up?” In the next scene, the boy is seen rushing out the door to school. Flashback to the printer freezing up, and he is unable to print the ten pages of notes he planned to study on the train on the way to school. Mother is yelling, while child walks down the steps to the bus, head hung, shoulders slumped.
In yet another scene, several sets of African-American parents confab around a kitchen table. Lots of wine is poured, and the parents bemoan the fact that they can’t motivate their kids to try harder. They all share stories about critical notebooks left at school, tests not studied for, etc, etc. Much more wine is consumed. Eventually, all admit feeling better, now that they know their child isn’t the only one struggling.
I finally had to walk away from the television due to the tension in my neck and back. This was not the story of minority parents of minority students facing unique struggles at an exclusive private school. This was the story of all of today’s children facing the pressures of trying to excel in high school and get accepted into college. It was about AP classes, exams, college applications, class rank, acceptance letters, rejection letters, peer pressure. More than that, it was about us, the parents of these poor students. Why must we adults, white, black, brown, yellow, spotted or striped, who presumably already attended college, feel the need to put such pressure on our children? Why do we feel the need to attend our child’s every sporting event, yelling, cajoling, pressuring, over-reacting? Why do we persist with the math and language tutors, checking on every night’s homework, reviewing papers, and, even completing our children’s college applications? Seriously. What personal needs are we trying to fill by ensuring that our child succeeds, or, better yet, excels?
The two boys profiled in the documentary took different paths. One transferred to public school while the other continued in the exclusive private school all the way to graduation. Both attended college. Neither got into the college of their choice. What was that all about? Was it worth it? I truly can’t say.
“Idris Brewster was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 2012 he graduated from the Dalton School and began his freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is an avid skateboarder and enjoys a game of basketball every now and then.” From PBS’ POV.
“Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest son of Tony and Stacey Summers. He graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academy in 2012 and began his freshman year at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is a black belt in karate and enjoys drawing.” From PBS’ POV.