My brother and I went to separate high schools due to us having moved when I was nearing the end of my adolescence. Brian Schwartz was a math teacher at his school, and he was legendary. I remember a family friend commenting on how he never married or had children, saying “He’s devoted his life to his work.” Not a putdown, but this person appeared to be lauding Mr. Schwartz. Someone on CoSP posted this article recently about Lou Kokonis, so dedicated to helping students he also forwent the route of marriage and children.
I thought of both of these educators during Hard Lessons (aka The George McKenna Story), a little known TV movie from 1986, starring a young Denzel Washington as George McKenna, a dedicated high school principal who turned Los Angeles’s George Washington Preparatory High School from a harbor of graffiti, gang violence, and drug dealing into a bastion of educational values.
It’s an uphill battle for McKenna. Immediately upon his arrival at the school, he’s greeting with an egg to his back and a subsequent shove from a group of rowdy students. But he persists. He starts a homeroom program, in which teachers count students in for the day and provide a listening ear to talk to students about their problems. Many of the kids in the neighborhood are bussed to schools in more affluent neighborhoods, but he reaches out to them to convince them to stay close to home. He and a crew of students paint over graffiti on fences in the surrounding neighborhood.
It’s a struggle. The gang members redecorate the fences. Some of his teachers are happy to remain disengaged, showing movies in place of teaching, and one tries to get him fired. But his vision is infectious to others, who help him. Some complain about the extra work they’re taking on (“I have a personal life,” one protests), but he presses on. That’s the life when you’re teaching in a mostly minority-populated school, as I’ve experienced myself.
The movie makes the Pro-Single List due to the relationship with his wife. At the beginning, she’s supportive, but after a few too many late cancelled dates in favor of evening meetings with parents and heart-to-hearts with students, she’s done with him (“They’re your family now; there’s no place for me,” is her insight). While I do empathize with her position, my work has taken priority over romance, so I can be on board with that. And the movie argues that it’s worth it when, during graduation, a student presents him with a plaque that says, “We are family, and we love you, Mr. McKenna.”
In some ways, I can relate to McKenna, as I have sacrificed romance for a career as an academic, writer, and sometime activist. And I’m glad Brian Schwartz and Lou Kokonis have been celebrated for eschewing the relationship escalator for the gratification of helping others’ children. I only wish women would get the same accolades. For that reason, I’ll review Freedom Writers in a future post.