The Unfulfilled Promise of "American Promise"

by GREGORY A. THOMSON

The treatment of African American boys in the American education system is rife with severe misunderstandings, discrimination, and widespread damaged outcomes. An achievement/outcome gap between Black boys and other children has been well documented and persists, but the root causes and remedies still require closer examination. A close examination may well reveal serious shortcomings, and improper bias or discrimination, in many school environments.

American Promise is a high-visibility documentary, theatrically released after a major Sundance Film Festival award, which promises to address this issue. The film is vast in scope: filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson follow their own son and his best friend from age 5, when both are first admitted to Dalton, an elite Manhattan private school, through high school graduation 13 years later. It is a film essentially impossible to replicate, and at least, is a commendable effort.

The filmmakers are unabashed about their mission. Joe and Michele are actively campaigning to improve the prospects, perception and treatment of Black children, especially boys, in the education system. At a recent screening at Manhattan’s IFC Cinema, the filmmakers asked audience members to sign up and join their efforts, and postcards for the couple’s upcoming book on the subject were distributed. The couple has done an extensive press tour, including a video profile in the NY Times and appearances on MSNBC and Huff Post Live.

Despite its promise and potential, American Promise contains severe and glaring shortcomings that not only impair the film’s ability to serve Joe and Michele’s laudable mission, but that may actually do harm to their cause.  American Promise’s issues are especially important to examine, because many parents will use this documentary to inform their own life-altering decisions in an extremely challenging education “market.”

By way of background, I am an African American male who attended a prestigious New York private high school, to which I commuted 2 hours roundtrip every day. I have also navigated the New York City private and public school system as a parent, and have many friends, Black, white, Asian and otherwise, with children in private schools, including Dalton. These experiences inform my own perspective, but I write without allegiance to any school, nor to NYC’s private school system.

THE ISSUE

As it happens (SPOILER ALERT), American Promise has a tragic aspect, because both boys struggle quite a lot at Dalton, although both end up in acceptable and appropriate circumstances by the film’s end. Joe and Michele’s son, Idris, struggles academically before being clinically diagnosed in tenth grade with ADHD. His friend, Seun, is diagnosed as dyslexic, also struggles academically, and leaves to attend a local public charter high school, and then a state college.

Here, then, is the essence of this film’s entire story: both boys have clinically-diagnosed, specific learning disabilities: ADHD (Idris), and dyslexia (Seun).  Idris does not get diagnosed until after almost 10 years of struggling at Dalton, and struggling at home with his unaware parents. Seun gets diagnosed in middle school, and leaves after 8th grade. Result: while both boys appear to fit in with Dalthon’s social environment, neither boy fully succeeds there academically, as a direct result of their learning disabilities.

American Promise, therefore, is really a film about two African American boys who attend an elite private school and struggle there, not because of socio-cultural issues (they fit in well socially, at least), but because they have clinically diagnosed learning disabilities that at least one set of parents neither recognizes nor understands for many years. The problem: filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson do not seem to understand that this is the central issue in their son’s story.

This is not to say that cultural differences, potential misperceptions, and challenges in navigating the neighborhood vs. their school do not play a roll. But American Promise simply does not adequately explore any causal connection between these issues and both boys’ failure to thrive.

Joe, in particular, takes the view that Dalton itself has failed both boys, and has failed Black boys more generally. Joe expresses this view in the film, he expressed it a post-screening Q&A, and in interviews. A Dalton administrator expresses a similar, generalized concern roughly midway through the film’s 13-year chronology, notably right before the school substantially expanded minority enrollment as part of a deliberate effort (Dalton is currently said to be roughly 50% nonwhite).

But if the takeaway is meant to be:

Dalton, like other elite private schools, fails Black boys then we must ask: does the factual record, both depicted in and omitted from this film, plainly support this damning conclusion? Or is something else at work?

DENIAL AND LAYING BLAME

Following a promising start, by grade 3 or 4, Idris starts to struggle. Teachers note problems with organization, focus, and time management. The school soon suggests Idris may have ADHD. At the time, Joe says on film that he’s a trained psychiatrist familiar with ADHD, and says unequivocally that Idris does not appear to have ADHD. Notably, Joe does not have his son tested! 

Instead, Joe plays the hard-driving, tough love father. When an elementary-age Idris’ team loses a weekend basketball game and Idris is in tears in the car home, Joe plays a contained kind of hardball with his son. He accuses Idris throughout the film of not applying himself, of not working hard, of being lazy. Indeed, Idris seems often distracted, unfocused, and kind of head-rolling bored. The child seems mildly miserable through much of this film, at least when interacting with his parents.

Sadly, Dr. Brewster, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, takes an approach to his son’s discipline and learning that is exactly the WRONG approach to take with a child who suffers from ADHD. Finally, in the tenth grade (six school years later!), Idris is tested and diagnosed with ADHD. He starts taking meds, his grades improve, and so do his college prospects, but not after years of needless, intense suffering and damage (including irreparable damage to his all-important college prospects). And Michele shows she’s part of the problem, too, even if more softly: she complains near tears on camera how by age 16, she herself was far more independent and focused than Idris is at the same age, and rails in desperation that she can’t understand why – even though the symptoms she describes in her own son are classically ADHD; even though she is a highly-educated and thoughtful woman married to a Harvard psychiatrist.

We know that it can be extremely difficult to be objective and to accept uncomfortable truths when it involves the people closest and dearest to us. But Joe’s own mammoth failure here (harsh but true) is, frankly, unforgivable. Now, it might be forgivable if Joe himself at least acknowledged his own responsibility. Something like this:

“I didn’t see it. I just couldn’t see it. I didn’t believe my son had ADHD. I thought  I knew better. We should have caught this years earlier, and gotten our son the right help in elementary school. Yes, sometimes it’s hard for a physician to be objective with the people dearest to him. Yes, maybe the school could have done more, too, but this is on me. It was my responsibility first and foremost…”

But this is exactly what we do NOT get in American Promise, nor do we get it from Joe in his public appearances, statements and activism surrounding the documentary’s release. Instead, Joe and Michele are putting forth the view that it was Dalton, and by extension perhaps elite private schools generally, that failed Idris and that fail Black boys. The reality in at least Idris’ case is more the OPPOSITE: the school identified indications of ADHD in Idris by 4th grade and plainly advised his super-educated parents, and Idris’ psychiatrist father quashed any effort to have the boy tested, instead repeatedly pressuring his son with misplaced and contextually inappropriate tough love while failing to get their son any help whatsoever for his condition.

In a post-screening Q&A, a young man asked in his own polite way whether, in effect, Joe would have handled Idris differently with hindsight (i.e., be less hard driving and overbearing). Joe answer was lengthy and entirely lacking in contrition; defiant, even. Joe ought to know better. Even worse, in two lengthy live television interviews on Huff Post Live and MSNBC, neither Joe nor Michele ever even MENTION that their son has a clinically-diagnosed learning disability that presented debilitating symptoms by the fourth grade. Instead, the couple appears to blame the school for not handling their son and his friend properly based on race.

Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s omission of these boys’ clinically-diagnosed learning disabilities from the discussion in nationally-televised interviews is misleading and irresponsible. Many parents (in particular) will view American Promise, or simply read about it and see the interviews, and use this widely-praised film to inform some of the most important decisions they will ever make for their families. Those parents deserve better.

Joe and Michele’s interviews, clearly and deliberately, invite the conclusion the boys’ difficulties were the result of bias, discrimination, and cultural disconnect, but American Promise does not present any direct evidence to support this position. The boys do complain onscreen, in middle school years, that they feel misunderstood by teachers and administrators based on race, but beyond these statements and generalized perceptions raised by Joe, Michele, and Seun’s mother, the film does not adequately probe this issue.

IMPORTANT BACKGROUND INFORMATION OMITTED

Further insight into what is really happening with Idris and Seun’s Dalton education is revealed by two monumentally important background facts that, inexplicably, American Promise ignores almost entirely. These facts come together to spotlight the couple’s own shortcomings in managing their son’s education, and on where blame, if it is to be assigned at all, should be primarily laid.

First, there is Joe and Michele’s own backgrounds. These Baby Boomers are not working class or lower middle class African Americans. Joe is a psychiatrist, with degrees from Harvard Medical School and Stanford. Michele herself is a Columbia-trained lawyer. They own a home in a gentrifying, prime Brooklyn neighborhood. These distinctions are significant, because they should give the couple access to information, social networks, cultural familiarity, and peer-level social status (unfortunate but true) that would enable them to much more readily navigate a world of private school administrators, and often super-rich, type A-plus families.

Incredibly, there is no mention of any of this background until midway in the film, when Joe mentions he’s a psychiatrist. Michele’s education and profession are never mentioned at all, we never see her going to work, and the film provides not a clue as to whether she even works outside the home at all. Joe’s Harvard education is mentioned only late in the film, in discussing Idris’ college applications, and no mention of Joe’s Stanford degree is made even when Idris is filmed in an on-campus Stanford visit. Why were the parents’ backgrounds not mentioned at the film’s start, since it plays an unquestionably large role in their choices, perspectives and expectations, and indeed, in the place they occupy in New York City?

Second, the film never mentions that Idris’ commute from Ft. Greene, Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Upper East Side takes nearly two hours round trip by bus and subway, or by car. Idris plays basketball, and stays late as a result. Two hours of commuting is rough on a child: it takes valuable time away from study and sleep, and it makes it vastly more difficult to maintain strong friendships with classmates outside of school. It is hard on parents in early years, who must take the child to and fro. This distance also puts parents far out of the social loop of information flow among parents: the kind of talk, gossip, and information sharing that helps give parents a more complete, inside view of what is really happening at the school, and what a child has to do to prosper.

So, Joe and Michele have the educational and social/cultural background that should have enabled them to gather information effectively about the school they were paying dearly to send their son to, but the constraint of geographic distance and social proximity served as info-gathering/sharing obstacles. And Joe himself is a Harvard psychiatrist who one might think has a certain edge in evaluating and understanding his own child.

Note that both of these factual omissions require special outside knowledge from the viewer, as this information can’t be gleaned from watching the film alone. I personally know of many NY families who moved within NYC or the suburbs based on where their children ended up going to school; this is quite common, and Michele and Joe appear to have had the means to have made this choice. Not to say they had a duty to move closer to Dalton, but rather, that it was a choice not to move closer, and the film would do better to acknowledge the choice they made and the foreseeable consequences.

OUT OF THE LOOP

Joe and Michele’s missteps are not confined to Idris’ ADHD. When the school eventually strongly recommends that a struggling Idris get tutoring, Joe expresses surprise and consternation on learning that many families are spending up to $30,000 annually just on tutoring, on top of sky-high tuition.  The reality is that tutoring is commonplace and extensive among white NYC private school kids, with an entire flourishing market of premium-priced independent tutors and services like Kumon.

Not to be harsh, but Joe and Michele should have known this. The reason they do not may owe to their being geographically out of the parental social loop, but this could and should have been remedied by persistent information-gathering and mingling among Dalton parents – access to these information loops is one of THE main reason to fork over the cash (tuition is now $40,000 annually[!])) to send one’s kids to these kinds of schools in the first place. Had Joe and Michele not been super-educated professionals themselves, then we might more readily understand if they were more reticent to connect with other parents. But in reality, this couple is not socially unconnected, and should have had access to helpful social networks even away from Dalton (e.g., other Harvard doctors with kids in elite schools, as just one example).

Some clue to just how important this information loop access is comes in a scene during Idris’ middle school years, when Joe and Michele sensibly invite several other Black parents over for a kitchen-table discussion about navigating Dalton. One parent, who lives much closer to the school, notes that many white parents complain of similar issues regarding their own kids’ ability to cope with Dalton’s rigorous academic demands. This cogent comment should have clued Idris’ parents to the need to network further, and to the greater nuances of their son’s experiences, but there’s no evidence in the film that this insight had any effect on Joe and Michele’s outlook, nor is there any evidence that they regular shared this kind of insight beyond this seemingly one-off meeting.

IN SUM

One key takeaway is obvious even from American Promise’s trailer: getting one’s child admitted to an elite grade school does not mean that the child is on an escalator to lifelong success. It certainly does not mean that one can follow the old-school model in which Baby Boomers were usually raised: send your kids to a good school and let the school take care of it all. We know by now that that just does not work; the evidence is all around us. But what exactly have the Brewsters learned from this experience, and what do they mean to communicate about this issue to their audiences? This much is unclear.

But in the end, American Promise’s particular facts and examination don’t provide an especially useful insight into how one’s Black or brown children might fare at an elite NYC private school: both Idris and Seun have clinically diagnosed learning disabilities that, while not uncommon, are not at all representative of any group of gifted children, minority or otherwise. How might they have fared with their talents and popular and amiable personalities absent ADHD or dyslexia, or absent (in Idris’ case) parents in denial about these disabilities? Were white students with similar disabilities treated differently than Idris and Seun? We don’t really know, and the film doesn’t do much to illuminate this issue.

Put another way, American Promise is a film about two bright African American boys from stable homes and educated parents who struggle with learning disabilities at an elite Manhattan private school, while at least one boy’s parents don’t recognize his disability. The problem is that the filmmakers themselves apparently do not recognize that this is what their film is actually about.

None of this is to harp on any human frailties, nor on these particular parents/filmmakers’ shortcomings. Rather, because American Promise is intended to highlight a particular set of problems and to inspire specific corrective action, it must be held to a high standard of accuracy, as inaccurate ideas and analyses often inform bad individual and policy decisions.

Gregory A. Thomson is lawyer and writer in New York City. He attended an elite private NYC high school to which he commuted two hours round trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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