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America to Me, Episode 10 Recap: Do Better, Oak Park

As the series and school year come to an end, storylines get wrapped up. But for the town and OPRF, the biggest questions remain unanswered.

Kendale prepares for graduation.  

It’s the season finale, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. There are so many threads to follow, as the show does its best to check in with all the students. With the school year winding down at Oak Park and River Forest High School, there are finals, last day of classes, and graduation. Think about where you were in June 2016. Were you hopeful? Had the crushing darkness not closed in around you yet?

Tiara is teetering on the edge of failing chemistry, and her mother takes her to a music producer she met in her Uber to inspire Tiara to follow her singing passion. This is probably the first time anyone met in an Uber was genuinely inspiring.

Grant is participating in the night of one-act plays at the high school. He’s still struggling to define his path in life and is very concerned about exactly the moment he’ll become an adult. Hey, Grant, I’m almost 30, and I had three bags of popcorn for dinner. I’ll let you know when I feel like an adult.

Diana reveals her history with depression and that her uncle, who is her biological father (don’t ask), was deported when she was seven or eight.

Kendale is coming to the realization most boys come to when they turn 17 or 18: He looks good in a suit. Against the advice of the security guards, he takes a huge speaker to class on the last day of school and rocks out when the final bell rings. (I was at OPRF the year thousands of crickets were released in the hallways). He also says “Fuck Oak Park” after graduating.

Terrence continues to work with his psychiatrist, who is a delight of a human, and Terrence’s final graphic design project, a clothing line and logo, makes his teacher proud and impresses his classmates.

Ke’shawn gets into a fight three weeks before the school year is over, and winds up suspended. His teacher, Jessica Stovall, notes that Ke’shawn has never been violent or aggressive in class, and his sister reminds us that their family is fighting to stay in Oak Park after losing their childhood house and being homeless. Ke’shawn uses his suspension productively, to catch up on his school work.

One of the episode’s storylines is Caroline’s quest to win a freshman science award. About halfway through the show, she finds out she didn’t get it. She can’t fathom how someone else could win the award over her. She points out that she had great grades and was in two science clubs and says, “I need to be good at things and better than some people to set me apart from them. Otherwise, I feel I’m an ordinary person and there’s nothing interesting about me … I can’t live my life like that.”

I turned to my boyfriend and said, “That should be the motto for white Oak Park.” Seriously, put that shit on a tote bag and hand them out when a new white family moves into town. It’s almost foundational to Oak Park’s identity that Oak Park isn’t like other towns. But it’s not enough to be better or extraordinary. Everyone else has to know that you’re better. Then you can believe that you don’t have the types of problems ordinary towns have.

Even OPRF’s motto is self-important: “Those things that are best.” C’mon. Why not: “Those things that are pretty good but there’s always room for improvement. We welcome your feedback.”

As we can see throughout the series, Oak Park feels it doesn’t need to address racial issues head-on because they will be solved merely by being a place where things like this don’t happen. Just be better than other people and all your problems will be solved.

A meeting of Jessica and Aaron’s racial equity teacher’s group (off-campus by request of the administration to avoid the appearance of — I’m not making this up — legitimacy) gets into how this attitude manifests itself. Clustering, a program common during my time at OPRF, involved putting honors students of color in more classes together to create community and support rather than them feeling like a token in class. The program was discontinued because white parents wanted to make sure there was a token POC student in their children’s classes because OPRF is the type of place with diverse classes.

Meanwhile, white teachers continue to push their black students in ways that are not productive. Broadcasting teacher John Condne chooses to debate Jada about her video series on microaggressions, under the guise of creating a “dialogue.” It turns into basically a screaming match because he can’t imagine that Jada has thought through her position and holds her convictions as strongly as she does. Repeatedly, we have seen white male teachers question Jada’s opinions to the point where the teacher gets emotional.

Principal Nate Rouse and Superintendent Steven Isoye are called out repeatedly in the episode for not taking action on the racial achievement gap, for not being visible around the school, for not showing up to celebrate the success of nonhonors students. The school board and administration feel like they are under pressure to satisfy a white community that fundamentally believes Oak Park isn’t the kind of place with this kind of problem. Board member Steve Gevinson does not like being categorized as a white male and wishes people would get to know him before making assumptions about him. I WONDER WHAT THAT MUST FEEL LIKE, STEVE.

Teachers who push their colleagues on these issues are effectively punished. The head of the history department was pushed out of his position because of complaints by his mostly white teaching staff that he was challenging them on their racial biases. Ultimately, Steven Isoye steps down unexpectedly to take a job at another school district, and the local newspaper editor wonders if maybe Isoye wasn’t exactly eager to be around when this docuseries came out.

So where do we end up? How do we solve the racial achievement gap? What is Oak Park supposed to do? I don’t know that the documentary has an easy answer to those questions.

But I think I have one. It’s not enough to be better. Oak Park has to do better. Turn all your superiority and intention and grand statements into action — meaningful and significant action to make the lives of your students of color better.

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