Boys of Baraka
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.