"America's high school graduation rate has topped 80 percent for the first time in history."
A year ago, Mallory and I produced and directed a documentary at WGVU Public Media. The documentary was a small part of a local initiative of the same name Get Your Diploma. Get Your Dream. which was, in turn, a small part of a national project called American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen which was nationally organized through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to take on America's dropout crisis. For WGVU's documentary, Mallory and I worked hands-on in classrooms teaching eighth graders who are at risk for dropping out of high school how to tell stories using cameras. In a different sense, I was also working to teach them that their stories matter, that the situations they live in everyday are not okay, and that video is a powerful tool for change.
Over the course of the class, we accumulated hundreds of students' stories as they interviewed each other on camera. Of course, some were goofy and others didn't say much to the camera at all, but what they all did is move me. Even the kids who were being silly would slip in a bit about their dreams. I remember one of the student's videos I watched started out with the student who had the camera teasing everybody else because they didn't want to be filmed by him. Finally he turned the camera on himself to show them how it's done.
What he said to the camera echoed what so many other students had said: that he wanted to be the first of his family to graduate high school, that he wanted to go to a university, and that he wanted to live a better life than his parents did. When I saw that, I paused to let it sink in. Then I watched it again. What struck me was that in such a rowdy atmosphere, even the ringleader who was laughing too hard to breathe was declaring that he needs a better life, that he needs to graduate, that he needs more.
With the help of our executive producer, Steve Chappell, we slowly churned these disparate videos into a cohesive story. We decided to zero in on a few students who had remarkably compelling stories to give us "a day in their life." After picking some students I thought would truly open up, we handed them cameras to take home and journal their lives. Mallory coached them on how to narrate everything that happens and we told them that even the littlest thing - no matter how small it seems - could mean the world to somebody watching. I don't want to give too much away (because I want you to watch the film of course - see below) but on the night when I was going through the last student's video, I broke down and was crying along with her as she shared her dreams and her mountainous challenges. She said that she knew that she is not alone in these struggles and that there are other families who she wants to help.
I feel the same call to action that she does, and when I read that America's graduation rate is the highest it's been in history, I hope that our small documentary or our time spent in the classroom might have made a difference in a student's life. I hope that we helped show them that there is a life outside of how they grew up and how their parents grew up. I hope that we helped them follow their dreams.
Thank you for reading,
What are your thoughts?