A few weeks ago, my mother invited me to a movie screening for “Won’t Back Down” at Gallery Place. The evening was significant for us: we are a twosome that traversed a rocky educational landscape from kindergarten to college. The film celebrates two mothers who are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to provide the best education for their children. She could relate, and so could I.
The movie is set in Pittsburgh and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, the mother of a second grade girl who has dyslexia and Viola Davis, known as Nona Alberts in the film, as the mother of a young boy who is struggling to learn as fast as his classmates.
Davis is a teacher at the school Gyllenhaal’s daughter attends, an environment plagued with large classroom sizes, insufficient resources for students with learning disabilities and unmotivated teachers. The two women decide to take control of the failing school with the help of a new parent trigger law, which allows moms and dads to take over a school that is underperforming. Davis is also working hard to make sure her son, who’s at a different school, catches up to his peers.
In a packed theater, teachers, community leaders and many others in the field of education waited to see their life on the big screen. Before the movie started, Alton B. Pollard III, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, which co-sponsored the event, had a special greeting for us: “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” His message was clear; we’ve got to get a hold on education in America because the ones who suffer the most from its flaws are our children. The African proverb was the perfect opening for our night.
Before seeing this movie, I could tell you from first-hand experience exactly what it takes to give a child a good education. That’s clear from the person who invited me to the screening: my mother. My mother, who serves as the assistant dean for student affairs at Howard’s divinity school, has been in education for years. When I was a child, she always stressed that because I would be a product of the District of Columbia’s struggling public schools, the only way she could guarantee my success was to be heavily involved in my education.
She held my classroom teachers responsible for my daily education, my school administrators responsible for the strategy and oversight of my education, other parents responsible for remaining active in the Parent Teacher Association so that issues could be discussed and resolved, and yes, she held me accountable for doing my absolute best at all times. At one point in the movie, we joked that my mother was at my school probably more frequently than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character. She seemed to be at her daughter’s school almost daily to talk with teachers and the school administrators; my mother was the same way.
I spent many nights at the kitchen table doing homework. Even after a long day of work, she came home and found the time to go through tough assignments with me. My mother, sometimes to my annoyance, always displayed an undying passion to make sure that I had access to the best schools and resources available.
As the parent of a D.C. public school student, this wasn’t easy. She fought hard to get me in to a Gifted and Talented program when I was in elementary school. She met with my teachers regularly to tell them they needed to continue to raise the bar for me. And when the shortcomings of DCPS failed to challenge me in math and science, she enrolled me in the Saturday Academy at the University of the District of Columbia. Later on, as I neared high school graduation, my mother made sure I took advantage of the Good Sports program that Kaplan Test Prep offered to high school athletes to assist with SAT preparation. (Kaplan is a subsidiary of The Washington Post corporation.) It seemed like my mother was everywhere.
As a child and adolescent, sometimes it was embarrassing that everyone knew my mother. Everyone from the principal to my everyday teachers seemed to know Jason Jackson’s mother. For a brief time, my mother even ran the DC College Access Program office at my high school. She recently reminded me of the time she paged her own son to come to the DC CAP office to research colleges and work on applications. Educating me was definitely a relentless effort on her part, the same relentless effort that Gyllenhaal and Davis exemplified throughout the movie as they faced obstacles but never wavered in their effort to take back control of their school and children’s futures.
After viewing the movie I realized something about all my mom did for me. It was never about her -- it was about my education. Sitting in that movie theater next to my mother I realized no matter how hard the task, she did everything in her power to help me get to where I am today. She selflessly put my education and my future first. It was something that she reminded me of frequently growing up when she would say, “This isn’t for me. This is for you.”
This movie isn’t about teachers, unions, school administrators, school systems, and to be honest, it isn’t about the parents either; it’s about educating our children. It’s going to take an all-hands on deck approach to prepare our children to be the best. While we look for ways to ensure their success, it’s important that we remember that the effort must be selfless. I would recommend that anyone, whether a product of the public school system, a teacher, an administrator, or a parent, sees this movie. It’s definitely a gem.
Not much has changed with my relationship with my mother or her passion and level of involvement in my life. As the movie ended, she identified several of the event’s organizers and her coworkers that she wanted me to meet. Of course, this was an effort by her to push me further in my career and professional development through networking. Even though it’s not education anymore, she’s still pushing me.
“Won’t Back Down” is scheduled for release in theaters Friday, Sept. 28.
Jason A. Jackson is a native Washingtonian and local blogger living in Montgomery County.
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