Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Boys of Baraka

A colleague saw a screening of Boys of Baraka this fall, stayed with a friend to watch the credits, looking for some information on the music in the film, and ended up meeting the filmmakers. Today, they treated our students to a screening of the film in the school auditorium, followed by a Q&A.

Baraka was a boarding school in Kenya. Every year, twenty extremely at-risk middle school boys were chosen from the Baltimore Public Schools to travel to Kenya and attend the school for two years, after which they would return to Baltimore, hopefully ready to enter any of the best high schools in that city. The film follows four boys as they apply to and are accepted for the program, say goodbye to their families, and arrive in Kenya. We see them learning to deal with anger, following lizards through the bush, considering running away from the school, dancing, fooling around, and talking to their families on the phone. We find out a little about their families - the mother who is in and out of rehab programs and prison, the father serving time for shooting his son's mother in the leg, the grandmother who is doing all the parenting, the younger brothers and sisters roughhousing. Their neighborhood, at least as depicted in the film, makes the neighborhood I teach in look pretty safe and sane. And the glimpse of one of the regular schools they attend is horrifying.

It's a powerful movie. The kids are funny, poetic, heartbreaking. They talk about their dreams, their desire to have something better, to survive, and it all seems so noble and so close to impossible. Then, in Kenya, you see them beginning to become young men. The possibility of escape seems within reach. One boy figures out, for the first time, that is a math whiz. Another begins to handle his anger without fighting. Another makes Dean's List. They go home for the summer and you know it won't be easy, but you feel hope. And then the political situation in Kenya goes to hell, and the school closes. At this point, all the teachers in the room wondered why they didn't find a small farm in rural Maryland and continue the program, at least for this one class. But the boys are sent back to their zoned schools. I thought I'd cry, seeing the parents' reaction, the boys' disappointment, frustration, determination, and resignation to broken promises.

Our students really responded to the movie. During the Q&A, the filmmaker asked the kids if they'd identified with anything in the movie, or if they'd found any of it moving. One of the most difficult, defiant children in our school, a kid with a horrendous home life, a kid you want to feel empathy for but who is just so hard to be around - stood up and said that she identified with Devon, because of his mother. His mother, the drug addict, in and out of prison, making promises to do better and failing to keep them. A sixth grader told one of my colleagues that he'd realized some things from the movie, that he needed to quit playing around. A seventh grader, also among the most disruptive children in our school, just as defiant and difficult as the girl I described above, said if he loved the movie. If he had the chance to go to a school like that, he'd go. And truth be told, he might thrive in that kind of setting, if only because he's fascinated by Africa.

The film does leave a lot of questions unanswered, especially about the school itself, how it came to be, and so on. But it was such a powerful thing to show to our students.


Blogger Nancy said...

Is this movie available on DVD or anything? I'd love to see it and to show it to my kids!

9:00 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

I'm not sure - I doubt it's available on DVD (yet) as it is still being shown in theaters... check the webpage...

9:06 PM  
Blogger Epiphany in Baltimore said...

I think it's great you were able to have your kids see the movie. I hope you don't mind about me posting my blog entry about it below. I'm a teaching in the Baltimore City Public Schools System, and one of the kids featured in the film went to my school.


Just got back from Boys of Baraka. I expected to love it, and I liked a lot of it. I checked my watch the first time my eyes watered up; it was 3:43, just about nine minutes after the film started. I'm not a crier, but my eyes watered up a lot during this movie, and probably at no times more than when it focused on Richard, who was the broken heart of the film. The type of kid who, like Bobby, I would describe as having an "old soul," meaning his place in his frenetic world is one of the thoughtful, reflective, and quiet observer. This kid was the soul of the film for me, and I wish the filmmakers had given him a better sendoff than the fatalistic vision they have for him at the end, which is a woman who sees him once a year saying she would be shocked if he made it to high school and would drop dead if he actually graduated.

This cynical vision for Richard is the last we see for him, and the hope of the future lies with another profiled kid, Montrey. See, this is where I'm jaded, because I have an inside scoop on Montrey. Yes, the kid made it into a great high school, as the film shows, but he failed out after one year. He skipped all the time, and fell into the same behavioral patterns he fell into when he was in middle school. The film focuses its hope on him, closing with a beautifully optimistic vision of him enrolling in this school and saying he's going to do his best. What the filmmakers couldn't have known at the time was that he lasted just a year, and checked out long before that year was up, and seemingly didn't learn anything about how to deal with his problems from his Baraka days.

It could be said that he never would have made it that far without the Baraka school, but that's unknown. What is known is that he's now attending Forrest Park High School, his zone school, a school where 24% of kids were proficient in reading and 6% of geometry students were proficient in 2004. I know this because when we walked out of the film today, Montrey was in the lobby of The Charles, his eyes on teh faces of the audience members as we strolled out. I wasn't sure why he was there; maybe he was just seeing the movie. We talked to him for a while, and he says he wants to go back to that good school he got kicked out of, and that's great. But it's clear that the year in Baraka may have helped him get into a good high school, but it didn't help him stay. Maybe he will make it back. We can certainly hope.

I do not mean to bash the Baraka School. For one thing, none of these kids featured got to stay in the school for the two-year enrollment; it was closed for security concerns after a civil war erupted in the area surrounding Kenya. (The scene in which the news of the school closing is delivered is particularly heartwrenching.) It seems the Baraka School was serving as a liferaft for kids to traverse from their troubled elementary school experiences to a decent high school instead of attempting to go through the city's almost uniformly horrible middle schools (there's only one I would send my kid to if I had any, while there's four I high schools that are decent), but the liferaft was sunk when they were only halfway finished with their trip. Still, the sense of defeat these kids feel when they return was disappointing. The world had opened up for them, they had seen that there is a world beyond Beltimore; why are they so fatalistic when they return? I'm talking about Richard, mostly, the kid that ripped my heart out in the movie.

I've taught three kids from the Baraka school. One I had during my first year of teaching; he was a nice, quiet kid who was a terrible writer and later failed a class for plagiarism. However, the other two kids are two of my all-time favorites. I had them both as freshmen, and they're now Juniors, and they're two kids who always make a point of coming to see me to tell me how they're doing. Both were insightful, polite, and smart kids who have done well at the challenging school I work at. I've seen the program work. It's sad it's not happening anymore.

And so the film turns out to be probably all I could have expected it to be for me: moving, even devastating, and frustrated, even infuriating. And that latter part is on all fronts - infuriated by the system, devastated by the kids, frustrated at the filmmakers. The Baraka School itself is shown to be not a savior, and the filmmakers sort of emphasize that there are no easy solutations, just that this was one that sometimes worked. And then it was ended, prematuredly after just 84 minutes. I find the filmmakers' lack of classroom scenes to be troubling, almost to the point where I wondered what they were hiding. What did these kids learn? Where were the moments when they learned? Were they transformed? The film's ending is so cynical - some of it because I know what happened with Montrey - that the only conclusion I can come up with it that these kids weren't transformed by education. And that's the saddest part of all.

Props for providing something that shines some light on this problem of urban education that the nation will continue to both inflict and suffer from for years and years. Now I wish someone would make a documentary about some of these kids that don't go over to Africa. Why do they have to go to Africa to be deemed worthy of a documentary? These kids go through more than most people could imagine.

10:06 PM  
Blogger ecm said...

Boys of Baraka is amazing! To me, the most moving part was when the parents were sitting in the room demanding that their kids get more. As a Baltimore teacher, it seems like the city has trouble keeping what works. I'm currently teaching at a small successful school, but we are in danger of closing due to lack of funding. The movie reminded me that great schools can make a difference!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Demetrius Pinder said...

How are the boys doing? Does anyone know? I really hope they make it...

12:42 PM  
Blogger Dickey45 said...

The kids are learning through Direct Instruction curriculum by SRA. I've met one of the people that started it and confirmed it. Plus you can see the curriculum in one of the scenes.

1:44 PM  

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