Who is the Real Superman?

Some people call me Superman. Although I would like to think that they do so because I'm a fantastic person who looks out for the underdog, I am certain that it's largely because my name is Christopher Reeve. Either way, I spent the last five years as a public school teacher trying to be Superman to some unforgettable, dynamic, resilient teenagers in the South Bronx, a few of whom are actually my heroes.

Last week, with heroes on my mind, I went to see Waiting for Superman.

I love documentaries, so especially wouldn't miss one about public education -- a passion, sometimes an obsession for me.

While I was excited about seeing another documentary about education, I went with my usual measure of skepticism. I was ready for another well-intentioned documentary highlighting the ills of the now-popular theme of public education, but doing so with a limited understanding of the intricacies of the public school classroom.

(While I applaud efforts to bring public education to the forefront of our nation's consciousness, I reject oversimplified explanations of and prescriptions for improving the system. Furthermore, I am wary [and hope others are too] of anyone purporting to carry the magic potion that will turn all of our young people into scholars overnight, especially if that person has no experience in education generally and in the classroom specifically. The complexity of our society, the workings of our economy, and the individual will and capacity of each student mean that there is no silver bullet when it comes to public education. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve. We have no choice. But we need to understand that improvement takes time. And we have to be ready to go back to the drawing board.)

As I watched Waiting for 'Superman', the students and their families depoliticized the film for me and I cut down on my thoughts of, "No, it isn't like that," and "But you don't consider this," -- I was wrapped in their yearning for a slot in one of the charter schools presented. As a matter of fact, when the lotteries were being drawn, I couldn't stop crying. I desperately wanted those kids to get into those schools. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I did my best to inconspicuously wipe at my tears every minute or so until the film's ending.

There is just something about a mind going to waste that drives me mad. There is something about children not getting the best that society has to offer that perturbs me.

The film brought me to reminisce. I thought of my own experience as a public school student until the tenth grade, knowing that my successful years came as a result of great teachers: Mr. Santiago (in the first grade), who never rejected me, even when I cursed at him, and Ms. Ellery (in the fifth grade), who created an incentives program that made me consistently apply my best efforts. I remembered being expelled from public high school and the great private school teachers like Ms. B and Ms. Poux, who made me understand that failure on my part was not an option for me or for them.

But why hadn't I been able to graduate from a public high school? Where were the good teachers then?

Everyone has the right to a quality public education. So why isn't it happening? Although Waiting for Superman was convincing in its thesis that for Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco, the charter schools to which they applied were superior to the public school alternatives, I am simply not ready to give up on public schools.

Contrary to what some people say, the film was another pep rally for charter schools. While I understand that there are great charter schools out there, with charismatic, inspiring leaders driven to see their students achieve self-realization, the recent charter school-embracing education documentaries fail to mention things like teacher burnout and attrition, and the fact that the charter school poster boys serve a student population that differs in important ways from that of the public schools I know.

In case there is any superhero confusion, I just want to make clear that in education, Superman is not the charter school. Superman is the great teacher, wherever he or she may teach. The challenge is assuring that all students, including the neediest, get great teachers to guide their learning. This is a decent starting point for re-imagining public education. And achieving this goal is not impossible. So don't throw in the towel on public education just yet.