The experience of watching a reality show about your high school is tense and surreal. Doing so, it’s not hard to find yourself transported back to that era.
In my case, while watching the second episode of Steve James’s America to Me this weekend, it was extremely easy to recall my time at Oak Park and River Forest High School, because a photo of me appeared on screen! It happened as the school’s Spoken Word Club leader, Peter Kahn, described the group’s most famous alumnus, Iman Shumpert. There, in the photo he puts up of Iman during a spoken word performance, standing next to him in a hot pink cardigan, is yours truly, in all my mid-2000s, haven’t-quite-figured-out-my-natural-hair, American Apparel-wearing-because-I-could-still-fit-into-it glory.
Episode 2 of America to Me centers on OPRF’s homecoming dance, opening with the first preparations for the event and ending with some of our lead students at the dance. Beyond that, there are a few narrative threads that run through the episode, the most potent one exploring the students’ various friendships and friend groups.
Along the way, we’re introduced to a new student, Kendale McCoy, who splits his time between the drumline and the wrestling team. Kendale talks candidly about the difference between his two friend groups. Contrary to what the film Drumline taught me, OPRF’s marching band is mostly white and its wrestling team mostly black. Kendale feels a pull to both groups, but finds himself spending more time with the wrestling team. His white friends, he says, don’t understand his references, and he can’t talk to them about race. I found myself wondering if the racially charged environment in the school and in the news contributed to students wanting to find some commonality.
Kendale continues: In his honor classes, he says, he’s often the only black male student. When he reads his assignments aloud in his creative writing classes, he fears that white students will assume his fictional stories are plucked from his real life.
I was lucky. In many of my honors and AP classes, there was at least one other girl of color in the room with me. Still, their presence didn’t always quell the type of ignorance that Kendale describes. I remember, in American History class, seeing exactly which white students eagerly volunteered to read the n-word aloud from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Once in the same class, a white student didn’t understand why the Three-Fifths Compromise was racist. After all, there were more African Americans in some areas. Why did it matter that their vote was only worth three-fifths of a white man’s vote?
That’s a real thing that happened. The argument went on for WAY too long.
Another new student we meet in Episode 2 is Chanti Relf. Chanti is biracial, with a black father and Asian-American mother. Chanti is a member of the Spoken Word Club. In one scene, Chanti, who is non-binary, performs a poem about feeling uncomfortable playing sports with girls. Later, Chanti's parents discuss trying to raise Chanti with a colorblind worldview, which didn’t stop friends from saying incredibly racist things to Chanti. Chanti feels increasingly drawn to black peers in Spoken Word Club.
(Spoken Word Club, by the way, is an incredibly black thing lead by two non-black people. It’s one of the few outlets at OPRF where black students can speak their minds without fear of retaliation from school administration. I was a member of Spoken Word Club for two years in high school. Peter Kahn, who leads the group, recruits members through classroom visits, which he shows up for when students least expect it. I was recently giving a talk and Peter Kahn showed up with chapbooks from my time in Spoken Word. The man shows up.)
The academic side of the episode focuses on Jessica Stovall, a teacher who recently spent a sabbatical year in New Zealand researching how that county addresses achievement gaps in its schools. Jessica has developed a workbook to help her fellow teachers. The school administration is very excited that she has the research, but has little to no interest in actually helping her share the information.
Another black woman on the school board meets Jessica in private and tells her there won’t always be a seat at the table for her.
We spend a little more time with Ke’Shawn, who’s struggling in Jessica’s class. Jessica strikes up a deal with him: if he stops into her room each morning, she’ll work with him until his grade is above a 75 percent average.
Later, Ke’Shawn’s mother tells a heartbreaking story of her own time at OPRF. She attended the school in the '90s, and was a student on the fourth floor. At the time, classes held there were called “OC” for “on-campus.”
Of course, every class at OPRF was on campus, so the rooms on the fourth floor became known as “Outta Control.” Those classes were still called that when I attended OPRF; it was just something we repeated without thinking about it. Ke’Shawn’s mother, Danielle, says that some days her teachers on the fourth floor told them they weren’t going to learn because the students were incapable of learning — yet another soul-crushing expectation exposed by the show.
Danielle’s time at OPRF ended when, after undergoing surgery and stitches, she asked for an elevator pass to get up to her classes on the fourth floor. She was denied. (Her dean, in fact, reportedly told her, “I will give you nothing.”)
So she took the elevator up anyway, and when she arrived on the fourth floor, a security guard was waiting. He radioed, “I’ve got her, get her paperwork ready.” After the security guard claimed Danielle tried to show him her privates, she was expelled. (She says she was showing him her scars from the recent surgery, which she told him ought to be the only pass she needed to use the elevator.)
How can a mother have faith in that school to look after her own child? How can a student have faith in a school that treated his mother that way? This made me VERY mad.
Meanwhile, OPRF’s assistant principal is leaving to take a job as principal of another prestigious high school. The reason: OPRF, she says, supports white cultural norms, and if she doesn’t exhibit the mindset of a white male, she won’t fit in. In fact, she says that she feels more affinity with her black female students than some of her own peers.
The episode also focuses on a program at the school for students who read below their grade level — some of them entering high school reading at a first grade level. In one scene, the school board sends out an email saying that the program will be audited. At a meeting, board member Steve Gevinson explicates the decision, saying that the school needs to know “where their money is going.” It’s unnecessarily callous, and nearly impossible to read as anything other than an attempt to further disadvantage students of color. Where is the money going? Teaching children to read, Steve. (The school board ultimately votes against the audit.)
The homecoming dance closes out the episode. Students get dressed up and take pictures with their friends. Grant comes out of his shell and tries to dance with girls; Tiara spends time with Tatum to escape her own home life; Kendale skips the dance altogether to train so he can be a starter on the wrestling squad. These images, one after another, remind me of a powerful feeling that defined my high school years: longing to fit in. These students are looking for a space where they can be authentically themselves.
As the episode wraps, the assistant principal says she wants OPRF’s black students to live, not just survive. Meanwhile, those students are realizing that may mean spending more time with other people of color — and that’s okay.