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America to Me, Episode 8 Recap: Time for a Good Cry

As the pool debate rages on, the students get in touch with their feelings — and have some epiphanies.

Chanti performs one of her spoken word poems.  

Maybe it’s because I just binged all of Big Mouth in one week. Maybe it’s because we’re feeling the chill of fall, the most contemplative season. Or maybe it’s because my own hormones are going crazy, but my God, this episode had me in my feelings. I had forgotten the most intense part of being a teen: the preponderance of emotions.

There are a lot of feelings in this episode. It’s like the entire Oak Park and River Forest High School student body was looking deep inside itself to identify powerful things — things I don’t think I could recognize within myself, and I took the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz! Also, if you’re asking me if I had a good cry this episode, the answer is no. I cried TWICE.

This episode doesn’t have the same focus on the racial achievement gap as previous ones. But it was there, under the surface of the continued pool debate. This is the most engaged the community has been in any issue, and it’s inspiring Tennessee Williams-esque monologues. This time the vitriol is directed at Tavi Gevinson’s dad and school board member Steve Gevinson. Apparently, he proposed a new pool plan that is somehow worse than the original one. The softball coach asks him at a board meeting, “How can a career educator fail to listen and learn? If his students listened as poorly as he does, he would have kicked them out of his class.” I’m saving that monologue for my auditions. Other board members are noticing that people show up at the meetings to shout about the pool and then leave. They’re missing important discussions about the achievement gap.

The latest idea floated to reduce this gap is to blow up the track system that funnels kids into honors, college prep, and regular courses. There are some big concerns from “the community” about this. “The community” in this context means “white people.” And the idea of unmotivated, unenthusiastic students mixing with their precious progeny terrifies them. Dan Cohen, an English teacher, asks rhetorically if white parents are willing to let their kids struggle a bit with this change to achieve a more equitable future. From all the evidence we have about Oak Park and white people in general, the answer is most likely, “We’d rather not.”

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about feelings. The first hint of them is the poetry slam team getting together to decompress and reflect on the season. Each member stands across from another, interweaves hands with them, looks into their eyes, and compliments them. THIS IS AMAZING. Why aren’t we ending every big project or meeting with intense eye contact and admiration?

With the slam season over, Charles heads to hip-hop club. Anthony Clark, a special ed teacher, started this club to provide an outlet for students who were maybe a little too rough around the edges for spoken word but still needed a place for self-expression. Mr. Clark gets it. He knows that if his students find success and confidence in one craft that it will spread to other areas of their lives. It pays off at the first-ever hip-hop club showcase, where the students thank him profusely and call him their mentor and father figure and applaud him for creating a supportive, positive space.

Let’s check in with our other students and see where their journeys of emotional and personal discovery have led them.

There isn’t a ton going on with Brendan in this episode, but when his parents offer him Blackhawks tickets or a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto if he gets good grades, he responds with “I’m just not extrinsically motivated.” That is a piece of self-reflection that most adults are incapable of. Bless you, you absurdly laid-back baseball genius.

Tiara is struggling to focus in her chemistry class, and that leaves her teacher wondering if it’s an issue with the subject, his teaching style, or Tiara. He also notes that he finds it challenging connecting with other students in his regular classes. He straight up says that he finds it easier to relate to his honors students because he was an honors student and, it goes unsaid, like a lot of them he’s white. Makes you wonder if his regular students can sense that extra distance between them and their teacher? Hmm.

We get a little more information about Tiara’s living situation. She was raised in a big house in Bloomington, but when her father left, her mother couldn’t maintain the payments and lost the home. Tiara’s mother took a demotion to move to Chicago, and Tiara is living with her older sister until her mom can save enough to put them in a house again. The scene of Tiara’s mom driving an Uber in Wrigleyville made me want to give her 17 stars because no one should have to deal with uncaring, drunk Cubs fans while you’re just trying to provide for your daughter!

Can we talk about Chanti now? They (Chanti identifies as gender nonbinary) read a story in English class about a Vietnamese woman, and they get so emotional thinking about their own Vietnamese grandmother, about what she had to sacrifice to come to America, that they have to leave class. My sophomore year at OPRF, we watched My Life with Michael Keaton in health class for some reason, and it made me cry because my uncle had just passed away, so I know the feeling.

Chanti’s Vietnamese mother talks about how her parents didn’t accept her relationship with a black man, Chanti’s father. The grandparents tried to get their daughter to abort the child, and the grandfather disowned the mother. The producer interviewing Chanti asks what this must have been like for the mother, to be disowned … and it turns out Chanti had no idea this had happened. Of all the ways to find out that your grandfather disowned your mother, being told by an interview crew as part of a Starz docuseries has got to be toward the bottom of the list.

Chanti has come to the realization that what they want to do in life is be an interpreter. Over the previous year, they felt voiceless and weren’t being their full self and so want to pursue a career of connecting people through language and being a voice for those who aren’t understood. I MEAN, GOOD GOD, THESE KIDS ARE ASTUTE.

The final portion of the episode is devoted to the state wrestling championship. And it’s where I had my ugliest cry. One of the OPRF wrestlers’ brothers was shot to death two days before the competition. The team rallies around him, and the coach reminds them that they’re family. The wrestler wins his bout. EVERYONE is weeping. Including me.

The coach and wrestlers also explain the not-so-subtle ways opposing teams and their fans exercise their bias against OPRF’s heavily black and latino wrestling program. Imagine losing your brother, then competing in an incredibly high-stakes situation — with a bunch of white people screaming at you that you’re a cheater. The situations some of these students face are impossibly difficult.

But yeah, what we really need is a big-ass pool.

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