We don’t normally get to review shows or films in advance because of our official policy of not being whores, but a funny thing happened on the airplane. First, they showed a screening of Grown-Ups, which thanks to Dustin’s sacrifice, I knew better than to plug in my ear phones for. But after that movie finished, the little NBC logo came on and I thought I knew exactly what was next, having flown an excessive number of times in the last year. An episode of “The Office” from a season or two ago, or sometimes “30 Rock.” The flight was almost three hours old, my iPod was almost dead, so I figured a little of that would hit the spot. Instead, for some reason, they showed the pilot for “School Pride,” which isn’t slated for broadcast until October 15th.
I’m not sure what made me keep watching it since I generally loathe any reality television that doesn’t involve food.
The show’s premise is sort of like one of those home makeover shows except instead of a house, they’re renovating an entire school. A really shitty middle school to be precise. Enterprise Middle School is a deteriorating school in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. Everything is falling apart, to a degree just shy of what you see in those online photo galleries of abandoned schools in Detroit disintegrating under the elements. There are holes in walls, paint not even peeling anymore because it all finished peeling a decade ago. Drinking fountains hang at 45 degree angles off of walls. The basketball courts outside have holes wide enough to lose smaller children in, and grass has overgrown so much from the cracks that there’s more green there than asphalt. The football field looks like someone detonated a series of landmines underneath it, and in one shot they catch a gopher popping up to survey its field. In short, this school is drowning in neglect.
So in come our intrepid team of four renovators. There’s the buff looking former SWAT team member leading the group, a painfully hipster chic journalist, a former Miss USA, and a former teacher. They survey the wasteland of a school and have the usual reality show montages of determined faces and setting up folding tables to gravely look at blueprints of the school. They divide up the work into chunks and then set about the next montage, because reality television is really just an excuse for more montages per minute than any other genre.
Before I give in to my hope-killing inner cynic, here’s what’s good about the show: It’s not about which colored swatches go best with which designer school desks. Sure, everything looks nicer than any school I’ve ever set foot in by the end, but there’s absolutely no focus on that process. The focus is on the community surrounding the school. See, four people (however photogenic) cannot rebuild an entire middle school in ten days, and instead of just bringing in other photogenic specialists or hand waving the entire process while obsessing over color schemes, the show is premised on getting donations and community volunteers to do the work. Local businesses are approached on camera and gently cajoled into donating the labor needed to actually do the work. The families of students are involved with the work that they can help with, from hauling out junk to painting and tiling.
The most successful part of the show by far is its decision to focus the narrative on a pair of students at the middle school. Far more compelling than the ubiquitous time lapse progression of construction is the series of small conversations cast members have with these kids while they help with the construction of their own school.
The other compelling part is the realization that there is an entire store room in the school filled with the very things that the classrooms are missing: printers, paper, projectors, projection screens. The confrontation between the former SWAT commander and the toad of a principal is wonderfully cathartic. There’s an element of what the fuck? that goes far beyond the initial disrepair of the school. But that’s also the core of my problem with the show.
While it is very successful at humanizing the community of a horrendous inner city middle school, and demonstrates the power of individuals to make a difference, there are looming cracks in the facade. The principal mismanaging the school into the ground? The community and television show can’t get rid of him, so after that confrontation, that problem is swept under the rug. There is a human element to the problems of the school that cannot be addressed by a physical renovation. They’ve used donations to fill the school with expensive microscopes and shiny new gym equipment in a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in the country. I can’t imagine what could go wrong with that idea two weeks after the cameras leave.
I’m being unduly harsh, I know. The show does a legitimately good thing and I’m looking for the rain clouds. Communities should take back their schools and they can make a difference. But that difference is only slapping bandaids on the gusher if the roots of problems aren’t also addressed. Five minutes on Google maps finds another seven middle schools in Compton, all within 3 miles of Enterprise Middle School. Can you go back to those same businesses that donated money and labor in the community and expect to get them to do it seven more times? What about the high schools and elementary schools? Are you going to get Dell or HP to donate all the computers for all of those schools too? Where is the money going to come from to maintain that fancy equipment? It’s great that someone donated projectors for every classroom, but are they also going to donate the $100 replacement bulbs for them for the next twenty years?
You can sit here and be an asshole picking holes in this sort of thing indefinitely, which seems unfair since for once a television show was doing something good. But I think that that’s exactly why the holes need to be poked at. Change without sustainability is not change, it’s just something to make you feel good without actually going through the pain of fixing a problem. It might seem boring in the context of a television show, but what I want to see is a plan. I don’t want to see a series of one-off “look what a difference we can make” circle jerks. That’s hollow. I want to see them lay it out: here’s what we did, and here’s how it can be maintained, and here’s how it can be done in every other school in the neighborhood.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.