We’ve heard a lot about the crisis of education in America – about poverty, about the dropout rate, about prohibitive testing measures, about charter schools and teacher salaries and the slow decline of American education having any sort of claim to intellectual ascendancy. And while politicians can shout that no child should be left behind, they still are, they have been, and they will be. But there are some children who have now become adults and who, for a multitude of reasons, long to finish their education. Night School, a documentary from Andrew Cohn, seeks to tell at least a few of their stories.
Night School focuses on three people attending a high school for adult learners in inner-city Indianapolis, a city that, in 2005, had one of the lowest high school graduation rates of any large American metropolis.
All three students come from differing circumstances: Greg, a single father, left school because selling drugs was a faster path to money, and is hounded by his criminal record despite his earnest attempts to improve his circumstances and provide for his daughter. Melissa is a 52-year-old grandmother looking to complete her high school diploma to prove to herself that she can. And finally, Shynika is a homeless fast-food worker barely making it on minimum wage, who wants to become a nurse.
Each student has a deeply personal, complex story, but all three have their poverty, their tenacity, and their will to learn in common. As the film follows them through the course of a school year, the difficulty of their circumstances – circumstances that many of us can only imagine – highlights the income disparity in this country, and tells a story of cyclical poverty from which it is difficult to escape.
I’m afraid that in trying to summarize what this film accomplishes it will sound condescending – and what this film does not do is condescend. This is not a story about rising up from poverty by your bootstraps, and few liberal or conservative politicians will be able to find sound bites to justify their political perspectives.
Night School exposes, clearly and with deep understanding, the individualism of poverty. It reveals in each of these students the desire for an education, the extreme unfairness of our current system, and the steps that some schools are taking to try to alleviate poverty and give people not just a way out of bad economic circumstances, but out of the self-doubt that comes with being constantly told you’re not good enough.
As Night School progresses, the experiences of the three students deepen, revealing the external hurdles they have to overcome, and their internal fears and doubts about both success and failure. Shynika faces conflict between school and work, and becomes tentatively involved with the “Fight For 15” movement of fast-food workers seeking a living wage. Melissa struggles with isolation as she tries to pass her final class – algebra – and find a deeper human connection by beginning to break down her self-doubt. Greg’s criminal past continues to come back to him, in the persons of his family and of the justice system. The refrain of “knowing what makes you a man” comes back across Greg’s story, his identity intertwined with the choices he once made and the future he longs for, for himself and his daughter.
While Night School never wanders from the individuality of the three featured leads, maintaining a deep sense of the personal, it might have been served by occasionally pausing to focus on the school itself. Situating the experiences of the three in the context of American education and what the school seeks to accomplish might have better highlighted the concept that these are three people among many, all of whom might have similar stories to tell.
Some discussion nearing the end of the film with teachers and administrators does serve to open the movie outwards, but it feels somewhat tacked on following the extremely personal narratives that came before. At the same time, situating the narrative in a broader context might very well have taken away from the film’s greatest strength: its individualism and focus on the importance of very specific stories.
Night School’s great strength is in not judging its subjects, in treating them as the multi-faceted people that they are rather than symbolic figures. It is the humanity of the film that makes it so powerful – it’s not trying to force its viewer into a perspective, but rather to offer a rare and intense glimpse into the lives of people that are typically grouped together, maybe pitied, and then ignored.
The interaction of education and the growing sense of self-worth is as much a goal in education as the actual rote learning of formulas, rules, and quadratic equations. Night School largely avoids overt political statements and so, like all the best documentaries, allows the subjects to speak for themselves. There is no better argument for education than in seeing what power and confidence it can bring to the powerless.
Night School exposes the individualism of poverty and the power that education can bring to the powerless.