Confession: When I accepted the invite, I was mostly looking forward to wearing a cute outfit (boyfriend jeans, the new fringe booties I'm obsessed with, a cute un-kid-friendly beaded top) and sneaking out for a long overdue girls' night with my dear friend Katie.
I mean, they were giving us free popcorn. I was in.
Then the opening credits started to roll and I forgot all about the popcorn, and the booties, and the fact that I was NOT wearing waterproof mascara. Because I was captivated, inspired, and powerfully moved starting about 30 seconds into the film. Those feelings stayed with me long past the movie's end (though I can't say the same about my mascara. Oops.)
Inspired by actual events, the film follows two determined
The movie opens with Malia Fitzpatrick, a second grader struggling with dyslexia and newly arrived in a rough public school, desperately trying to sound out words on a chalkboard. While her unsympathetic and disinterested teacher shops for boots online, her classmates tease and bully her mercilessly.
Jamie Fitzpatrick, her mother, is a single mom working two jobs and tortured by her inability to provide Malia with the education she needs. When all other avenues prove to be dead ends, Jamie decides to take over Adams Elementary and make things right for her daughter. With unparalleled tenacity (and a million-watt smile) Jamie joins forces with teacher and fellow mom Nona Alberts to take on the school board, the teachers' union, and the thousands of people who say what they're doing is impossible.
Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance was captivating. She played her role as struggling, fiercely attached and idealistic single mom to perfection. As Jamie Fitzpatrick, she was literally able to make me laugh and cry in the same pitch-perfect moments. Viola Davis, as teacher Nona Alberts, delivers an equally stellar performance battling inner demons while struggling to live up to a legacy she was destined to inherit. These two women transformed the screen into a portal to another world, one where I was as invested in their struggle as any character in the story.
I live in Los Angeles, and the public education system here is a nightmare at best. Every year, the budget is cut. More jobs are cut. Good teachers are being laid off. The ones who remain are teaching to the statewide tests, sacrificing opportunities for creativity and passion so their struggling schools can stay afloat. Janitors are being laid off; parents are cleaning the schools in their off hours. And that's only at the schools were the parent community still cares enough to get involved.
E is four years old. Next year, she will start kindergarten. Our district elementary school, located two blocks behind my house, is not an option. In fall 2012, almost 30 children in my neighborhood started kindergarten. A handful of them got in off lotteries to nearby charter schools. The rest ended up in private school. Not a single one went to our local elementary school, a charming three-story brick building just steps away.
I have lost countless nights sleep wondering where, and how, I'm going to get her into a charter or magnet school, or how we're going to come up with the money to fund private K-12 educations for her and Baby N.
And I'm not a single mom. I'm not even a working mom in any real sense of the term. We own two cars and our own home and are living more comfortably than most people in the country ever will in a lifetime.
Won't Back Down wasn't just an incredible movie. It was a message, to all of us. Moms and dads and citizens who care about what this country will look like in 15 years when our kindergarteners go off to college--or, as the movie points out, off to prison. I can't remember the last time I walked out of a movie theater not just inspired, but determined to act.
Based on actual events, Won't Back Down shows us what is possible when parents use their voices in shouts, not whispers. In one of the most moving scenes of the movie, Jamie Fitzpatrick says "I just keep thinking, this is the thing I gotta let her down on?" And she's right. Complacency about our children's education isn't doing them any favors. It it isn't do us any favors, either--these children are our future.
My children are the future.
An email has been languishing in my inbox for far too long, neglected from a combination of ambivalence and uncertainty.
"We are a grassroots group of community members and educators
hoping to start a high performing and diverse charter elementary
school. We've joined forces with a team of people who've created 4 other high performing schools from scratch - we have the blue print, we have the dedication, all we need is you. It's already happening, the question is, do you want in? We need you."
I've been ignoring the email because I wasn't sure if such a thing was possible. If I could find the time to volunteer in my already packed schedule. If my efforts would be better spent applying to and figuring out how to financing private school rather than hedging my bets on an idealistic dream. If I was willing to take such a giant leap of faith.
I got home from Won't Back Down last night, wiped the mascara off my face, and filled out the volunteer application. This movie showed me that these kinds of dreams really are possible. And they certainly wouldn't be if moms like me ignore opportunities, as Jamie Fitzpatrick and Ghandi say, to "be the change you want to see in the world."
E might still end up in private school next year, or at an established charter school. But there are hundreds--thousands--of other LA kids who have no such option. If I can be part of creating a space where public education truly gives our children the knowledge and experience they need to succeed in this world, then I'll be teaching my kids an incredibly important lesson.
I'll be investing in their future, no matter which path they take.
I think Jamie Fitzpatrick would be proud.
Won't Back Down opens in theaters everywhere September 28. I urge you to go see this movie. It's not often I can say a movie changed my life. But I'm fairly certain this one? Just did.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend this press screening by Circle of Moms and PopSugar and compensated for my time. I also received free popcorn. All opinions, as always, are 100% my own.