09/28/2010 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Superman Revealed

In case you've been out of the country in some remote part of the planet where there are no televisions or radios or pundits (first of all, congratulations!), Waiting for Superman is the latest offering from Director Davis Gugenheim and Producer Lesley Chilcott, the team behind the Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth. The film's stars and creators have been making the media rounds and the buzz about the new film has inspired talk show hosts and news programmers to treat education like a sexy topic once again. Perhaps this is good, for as long as it lasts, until the media furor dies down again and the country returns to its comfortable complacency where public education is the problem of those who have no other choice.

It is precisely those who have no other choice who are the subject of the film -- their faces and identifiable struggles as well as their future and the future of the country as a result. To be fair, the film itself doesn't offer a tremendous number of answers, and some of its segments are face-crunchingly confusing. For example, to judge from the film's animated interludes, the "successful" teacher is one who literally pours information into a student's head while the child sits passively, quiescently awaiting the enlightenment. Wasn't the 'empty vessel' pedagogical model discredited eons ago? Given the number of advertisers (to name but one group) constantly trying to sell children a specific lifestyle or product, wouldn't an education that taught children to critically evaluate what they are being offered both inside and outside the classroom actually be more beneficial in terms of their overall "success?"

By the way, what is "success?" This film, like most advocates and analysts currently discussing the problem throws around words like "achievement" and "success" without any definition. For example, is a successful teacher one whose students stay in school, memorize facts, perform well on tests, and aspire to middle-class lifestyles and values? Or are they those who teach their students how to learn, how to evaluate their place in the world and where they want to go without a dogmatic system dictating what appropriate achievements are? How is any of this measured?

(Frankly, I am willing to give the film a pass on the fact that they inadequately or improperly address some of the specific issues mentioned above as I have yet to see a reasonable exploration of these as a totality anywhere in policy, advocacy, or scholarship. In comparison to what the film gets right, the preceding actually feel like nitpicky footnotes.)

The film opens with a quote from Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children's Zone (one of the programs whose lottery is featured in the film).

One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me 'Superman' did not exist. Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming... She thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.

Emotional content/context is what the film succeeds best in capturing. Before having my own children, the common parental refrain "I would give my life for my child" seemed like hyperbole to me. I worried whether I would be able to achieve the same level of loyalty were I ever put in a situation where my child's happiness/life required me to make a supreme sacrifice. When my first child Emma was born, the birth didn't go exactly as planned. After a night in the hospital trying to induce labor, the morning brought a terrible crisis -- a crisis that even a medical generation or two earlier would have meant my death if not that of my child as well.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, I recall clearly that I never thought, much less asked, "Am I okay?" It simply didn't occur to me to care. Instead what I was screaming was "Is she okay? Is my baby okay?" over and over again. The odd thing is that looking back on the rather traumatic birth process is not a frightening experience but an affirming, positive one. In case I ever had any doubts, in those moments of terror I was given a glimpse into my ability to love someone else more than my own life.

Perhaps mine is too obvious an example; the majority of women in a similar situation would likely have had the same response. Considering Canada's quote makes me think about the sadness of the parents who not only have to dispel this childish belief but also the belief that they themselves have superpowers as well. My near sacrifice for my daughter made me feel more powerful, as if there wasn't anything I wouldn't do for her. What I failed to consider was the fact that there are things I can't do for her.

The parents and grandparents in this film tell the camera over and over again that there isn't anything they wouldn't do for their child. I am convinced that this is true, but that's not what this film is about. This is a film about parents who have the willingness to give their children a better start at life, but lack the means to do so.

Nearly anyone who has had a child has experienced the dread of a day (which we all know will come) where they have to admit that they do not have superpowers, that there are some things they just can't fix. We pray that this revelation won't come over something like the loss of a parent of a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, too often it does. So having to admit an inability to change things over something that we should take for granted in this country, access to a quality and safe education, feels like a double slap in the face of parents doing their best to be SUPER.

In the end, the real staying power of Gugenheim and Chilcott's film is not in its examination of policy or in finding groups or individuals to blame for the problems, but in capturing on film that moment any parent knows or will know intimately -- the moment when the cape comes off and mom and dad's days as superheroes are over.