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America to Me, Episode 7 Recap: A Tsunami of Cringe

The school wants a new pool, Brendan’s dad thinks he’s post-race, and residency agents trail students home.

Gabe competes in Illinois sectionals for a chance at the state championship   Photo: Courtesy of Starz

It’s the days leading up to and following Easter and, my goodness, there’s a lot happening at Oak Park and River Forest High School. We’ve got wrestling and bloody noses and Frederick Douglass and residency agents and Dr. Bill and Metro. In addition to the emotional highs and lows for the students, I experienced a few full body cringes while the grown-ups were speaking.

Let’s first talk about this school board meeting to discuss the proposed pool. Ooooh, buddy. Literally every single adult in Oak Park needs to settle down. OPRF wants to build a new aquatic center with an Olympic-sized pool but to do so, they’d have to tear down the parking garage.

I REMEMBER when that parking garage was built. When it was first proposed, there were rumors that it would be four stories tall and be devoted to juniors and seniors with cars to open up street parking in the neighborhood. That was not what happened, and I guess the number of students still parking on the street is the worst thing to ever happen to this one lady in the gray sweatshirt. She threatens to unleash a “tsunami” that will vote the board members out if the garage is torn down. I mean, parking around the high school is a bit rough, but ma’am, this seems like a lot. Then there’s this dude who is very concerned that Oak Park won’t be the kind of place people move to because the high school doesn’t have an Olympic-sized pool. Yeah, that’s the reason people won’t move to Oak Park.

Everyone at the meeting is ignoring the real question here: Why is a high school with a racial achievement gap that won’t go away spending tens of millions of dollars on an Olympic-sized pool?

The second question is: What is going on in that lady with the gray sweatshirt’s life that parking is causing her this much stress?

The other adult who made me to do a Level Six cringe was Brendan’s dad. Oh, Brendan’s dad, you sweet, gentle, myopic man. Brendan, in his own dude way, seems to be able to identify racial and economic disparities around him. He’s able to identify a weird hierarchy within Oak Park. South Oak Park is seen as the “ghetto” side. My eyes cannot roll harder. I mean, yes, people did and still do talk about South Oak Park vs. North Oak Park, but it’s effectively meaningless. To live in Oak Park, regardless of your address, means you have access to some pretty great things, and people from the city of Chicago still look at you as a rich suburban kid even if you’re from the WRONG SIDE OF THE HIGHWAY.

Brendan’s dad, on the other hand, is sticking with the ol’ “I’m not white, I’m a member of the human race” talking point. I thought we dealt with this in 2009 when we immediately realized that the election of Barack Obama didn’t solve bigotry and create a post-racial mocha-colored world. Brendan’s father bristles against being called a “white guy” when that’s what he is. He understands African-Americans don’t have the luxury to deny or not identify with their race, but he’s still keeping his “philosophy” anyway. I felt my shoulders rising up involuntarily to such an extent that my neck descended fully into my chest. For him, spouting a “philosophy” meaningful to him is more important than the fact that his choice of words feels loaded to other people. If this isn’t some white privilege bullshit.

And really, the school board meeting and Brendan’s dad’s reasoning feel like a lot of what’s wrong with Oak Park. It’s a place more concerned with its own comfort and convenience than the needs of others. It’s a place where everyone is more preoccupied with the words they get to use than the impact those words cause.

It’s a place that pats itself on the back for avoiding white flight in the ’60s, but has a residency office to verify where black students live.

This episode introduces us to a very intense senior named Gabe, a top wrestler who has already committed to Stanford. He’s also one of the few black students featured in the documentary taking mainly AP and honors classes. Gabe’s father has refinanced their Chicago home to get an apartment he and his son can live in within the district. Still, they are regularly visited by agents in the residency office. By agents, I mean former FBI agents whose job it is to make sure they live where they say they do. Gabe isn’t the only student targeted by these agents. Ke’Shawn’s family had to deal with them pounding on the door at night.

Gabe is now competing in Illinois sectionals for a chance at the state championship, and Ke’Shawn’s family is homeless. But yeah, the added stress of literally being followed home to prove they belong probably isn’t having an impact on black students. And building a multi-million dollar Olympic-sized pool is the best use of resources. I know the two things are unrelated but I’m STILL UPSET ABOUT IT.

The episode contains a few victories for the students. Kendale finally comes into his own as a wrestler and I legit almost cried. I just want these children to be happy. Terrence’s mother has convinced the school to allow her son to have one-on-one support because of his special education needs — something that white parents regularly advocate for and receive. The school seems to have realized that Terrence’s mom isn’t someone you want to fuck with. She’s sued another school district before.

But to me, the most meaningful victory is when Ke’Shawn perks up in his class with Jessica Stovall and tells a visiting teacher how great an instructor Miss Stovall is and that he should bring his class into hers if his students want to learn something about race. Maybe Miss Stovall should play Ke’Shawn more empowering Denzel Washington speeches! They seem to be working.

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