Roll Camera

Monday, May 29, 2006

I was going to write a long post detailing everything that's brought me to this point -- but then all my errands today took longer than I expected, and at the moment I'm only about half an hour away from my optimum bedtime. And there's no way I'm actually going to make that bedtime, but I figure I should at least make the attempt, and writing a thorough background post just isn't part of that plan.

So instead, for the time being, I'll write about the questions and issues that are at the forefront of my mind as I prepare to shoot tomorrow, and come back and fill in the details later on. In a nutshell, though, I'm working on a film about the Mississippi Teacher Corps, about the Mississippi delta students it serves, and about the new class of incoming teachers that begins its two-year course tomorrow.

I've got nearly three hours of footage already, having taken a trip into a typical delta town with the program director, Ben Guest, where I got to meet a lot of people and made a sort of mad dash to understand the key issues and problems facing the teacher corps. I talked to students, I talked to authorities, I talked to teachers who have already finished their first year. I came away, predictably, with many, many more questions than answers. And that's okay -- I don't need to have all the answers at the beginning, if in fact I can ever expect to have them at all. But I do need to know which questions to ask.

The big question, the question above all the other questions, is what the purpose of this film is going to be. Is it meant to promote the MTC, to attract new recruits and more funding, to sell the program to the outside world? Or is it meant to tell the Teacher Corps' story? Hopefully the two will ultimately be one and the same, or at least compatible. There are moments, though, when I'm not certain that they are. The idea of "hope" seems to be very much in doubt; asking people why they teach in the delta has so far only produced non-committal statements of vague, modest purpose. Most of the second-years just seem to want to get through the experience alive and intact. There's very little trace of passionate idealism, although I can't imagine that they all entered the program so jaded. So I'm very eager to get in with the incoming class as soon as possible and ask them why they came and what they hope to accomplish before they become as worn-down as their predecessors. Because, after all, "it's almost hopeless but it's still worth doing" isn't that great a sales pitch for potential recruits and donors.

Having said that, the experience itself has no less value just because it's a difficult one for most. An almost-hopeless story is as worth telling as an almost-hopeless job is worth doing. So I've isolated a few major themes that I find particularly compelling at this early stage, which hopefully make up a synthesis of the underlying issues in the Mississippi Teacher Corps:

Race: certainly not all of the new teachers are white, but generally speaking most of them are. Almost all of the students are black. Thus, many of these teachers will be having their own first minority experience in the delta, so I'm interested to see both how their students react to them and how they react to their new society. Will there be culture shock? And if the ultimate goal of teaching these students to see them graduate and, ideally, go off to college, for many of the students it will mean their first foray out of black society and into a world where they become a social minority for the first time. There's a lot of crossing back-and-forth between two segments of American society implicit in the situation, which is, for most of the people involved, a break from the comfortable status quo.

Class: Being white obviously doesn't necessarily mean that one comes from a privileged or middle-class background; and being black doesn't necessarily mean that one comes from the underclass. But in the delta, race and class are inextricably tied. The general trend in the Corps is of people from fairly comfortable, stable, well-educated backgrounds coming to the aid of people from bad schools and third- and fourth-generation poverty. Some of the teachers will have had first- or second-hand experience with poverty already, but I'm guessing that just as many will not. Of course, those with resources helping those without is the whole idea. But as with race, class is going to be an inherent source of tension.

Students and Teachers: Or more explicitly, which is which? The teachers are themselves students who rely upon their own students to help them learn. The assumed student/teacher dichotomy only tenuously applies in the teacher corps.

And most importantly:

Saviors and the Saved: Not to imply that anyone involved thinks of themselves as a superhero, but the obvious narrative line in cinematic terms would be one of an outsider arriving to help people who, for whatever reason, cannot help themselves. In light of all of the above, this one is frought with problems. How many teachers will attempt to help and find that their help is rejected? How many will find that, regardless of whether their help is accepted, they lack the means to produce much change or make any progress? What would it mean to "save" a student, if such a thing is even possible? What does success look like?

From what I've seen so far, these incoming student-teachers will face three major sources of conflict during the program: their students, other teachers and administrators, and their own disillusionment. I find myself in the happy situation of being able to go through the coming year alongside these new teachers without actually having to do any of the hardest work, and I have the luxury of being able to take an analytical and interpretive approach to their experiences. Since I won't have to deal with the stress and exhaustion and conflict myself, I've settled on a role for myself as the stubborn optimist, relentlessly hanging on to whatever ideals the new teachers express to me in these early days. I'm going to trust their first hopes to guide the development of the film, and use them as a compass to navigate around the obstacles ahead.

All this means that I'm reliant upon them to share their experiences and tell me how it really is for them, the bad parts as well as the good parts. My objective is to make a film on behalf of the teacher corps, but my aim is to do that by letting these new teachers speak as much as possible for themselves. They are the teacher corps, they're the ones who found enough value and enough hope in the idea to promise two years of their young adulthoods to delta kids. I'm betting the success of the film that that'll be all the sales pitch I'll need.

And it's now well past my optimum bedtime -- I'll see you all tomorrow.