We went to see ‘Won’t Back Down’ with Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis, a film that ignores many facts of a complicated issue that causes students to turn out illiterate and schools to be considered failures.
Soon after the movie started, I complained. “If her (Jamie played by Ms. Gyllenhall) daughter has trouble reading, why doesn’t she turn off the TV and teach her at home as my mother did?”
My wife had to shut me up before someone complained to the management and had me tossed out of the theater. Censured and mute, I still wanted to rant and rave, and I did let loose after we left the theater.
You see, when I was seven (in the early 1950s), my mother was told I was retarded and would never learn to read or write. Back then, educators did not know about dyslexia. According to those experts, I was doomed to be illiterate for life.
However, I was not destined to turn out the same as my older brother. He died a broken and illiterate man at age 64 in December 1999. By the time I was seven and my brother twenty-one, my mother had learned her lesson because she watched and agonized over my brother’s decline. At age twenty-one, Richard had already spent time in prison. When he died, fifteen of his sixty-four years was spent locked up behind bars after spending too much time drinking in bars.
How did my working mom make a difference in my life? Answer: at home with primer books a caring teacher had recommended and eventually a coat hanger. The coat hanger appeared after I refused to cooperate. After all, it was hard work, it was boring, and I hated every moment of it, but my mother would not take NO for an answer. She had already lost one son to the dead-end life of illiteracy and was determined not to lose me to the same fate.
With my mother armed with that coat hanger, I learned to read. Today, my mother probably would have been charged with child abuse, and I would have been sent to a foster home and turned out illiterate. I do not resent my mother. I thank her for making an effort most parents today do not make.
To make a long story short, I learned to love reading books. By the time I graduated from high school, I was reading at college level above most of my classmates. Over the years, I earned an AS degree, BA, MFA and a life teaching credential.
‘Won’t Back Down’ is an anti-teacher union film pretending to care about the education of disadvantaged children.
Richard Roeper’s Reviews agrees with A. O Scott of the New York Times
When my wife and I returned home from the theater, I wanted to see what the New York Times had to say about the film and was not disappointed to see that A. O. Scott had revealed the movie’s biased propaganda.
Scott said “that (the films) pious expression of concern for the children are usually evidence of a political agenda in overdrive … and this one is not shy about showing its ideological hand.”
Scott says, the film “makes the vague claim to have been ‘inspired by true events,’ pits a plucky, passionate band of parents and educators against a venal and intransigent cabal of labor bosses and their greedy, complacent rank-and-file minions.”
The promise the film makes, says Scott is that “Once teachers give up job security and guaranteed benefits, learning disabilities will be cured, pencils will stop breaking and the gray skies of Pittsburgh will glow with sunshine. Who could be against that?”
Scott ends with, “however you take its politics, the film upholds a dreary tradition of simplifying and sentimentalizing matters of serious social concern, and dummying down issues that call for clarity and creative thinking. Our children deserve better.”
I want add to Scott’s last sentence. “Our teachers deserve better too.”
I know what it is like to be dyslexic. I’ve lived with it all my life. I also know what teachers go through, because I taught for thirty years (1975 – 2005) in California’s public schools. My average work week ran 60 to 100 hours. I often arrived at school as early as 6:00 in the morning when the gates were unlocked and sometimes worked as late as 11:00 at night when the alarms were turned on and the gates locked.
In the film, it seems the so-called evil teachers’ union limits the amount of time a teacher may stay after school to help students or meet with parents. The teachers’ union I belonged to never did anything like that. There are more than 14,000 school districts in the US and most have a contract with a teacher union so I cannot say that it isn’t that way in Philadelphia’s schools. It’s just that in my experience, I never heard of it.
In addition, at one point in my teaching career, I was in danger of being fired due to a censorship issue when I was the journalism advisor for the high school newspaper. Without the union, I’m convinced that I would have been fired for defending what my students wrote and published in one issue of the school paper.
Near the end of the film, Jamie, who works two jobs (one in a car dealership and the other as a bartender) to make ends meet, reveals that she is dyslexic and didn’t want her third-grade daughter, who is also dyslexic, to be left behind too.
There is a big difference between actresses playing the roles of a dyslexic mother and daughter and someone that is really dyslexic. For me, my mother made the difference. The schools did not teach me to read at a time when there were no unions in the California public schools that I attended.
In the film, why didn’t the character Ms. Gyllenhall plays help her daughter improve her reading skills at home? In fact, why are so many parents in America avoiding this responsibility? In Finland, a country with one of the most successful public school districts in the world with a very strong teachers’ union, parents start teaching their children to read at about age 3 at home, four years before starting school at age 7. The teachers in Finland have also been given a lot of responsibility regarding how those schools operate and they do it with parent support.
Instead, when we are in Jamie’s apartment in Pittsburgh, the TV is on and no books are in the child’s hands. When I was a child, my parents always had books around and read every night and that, along with my mother and that stinging coat hanger, made all the difference.
The truth is that NO teacher could have used that coat hanger on me as motivation to learn to read—then or now. In addition, my mother only had one child to teach at home while my teachers had classrooms full of children to teach. When I was still teaching, I often had 175 – 200 students in five, one-hour classes.
As A. O Scott wrote for the New York Times, it is a ‘complicated issue’.
However, I spend a lot of time attempting to explain those issues on this Blog. It’s too bad that studies and surveys reveal the painful truth that 80% of Americans after leaving or graduating from high school never read a book again—even to and/or with their children.
Those same parents will probably never read a Blog post this long, and I am sure of this—they will be very quick to blame teachers for children that grow up with no love of reading.
Discover It’s the Parents, Stupid
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.
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