Sometimes, television teaches us key lessons

Review: In `The First Year,' we follow the joys and pains of five first-time teachers in Los Angeles.

September 06, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Teaching as a rite of passage. That's the narrative that drives The First Year, a brilliant and moving little documentary that follows five new teachers through their first year in the Los Angeles public school system. It will leave you in awe at the dedication of some teachers and howling in anger at the insensitivity of some of the folks with whom they work.

I say "little" because in the sea of huge, multi-part documentaries of which PBS seems so enamored, The First Year stands out like a small, perfectly sculpted and polished stone. Its running time of 90 minutes absolutely flies by, leaving you wanting more, more, more at the end. By PBS standards, this is the documentary as haiku.

The first thing you will notice is that The First Year looks more like MTV's The Real World than yet another version of a PBS filmmaker trying to imitate the style of Ken Burns. This is a good thing. PBS needs new voices trying to tell stories in new ways.

The film opens with each of the five young teachers in bed as their alarm clocks go off for the first day of school, and soon you are totally caught up in their lives. The most interesting and inspiring of those lives is that of Maurice Rabb, a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher at 99th St. Accelerated School in South Central Los Angeles. Rabb comes to Los Angeles from Illinois full of optimism, but his faith in public education is quickly tested.

Rabb has a sweet and shy boy in his class who has severe speech problems. At first, Rabb thinks helping the boy will not be that difficult; he simply schedules a session for the boy with the school's speech therapist. But the therapist misses the appointment. Then, Rabb schedules again, and again the therapist is a no-show.

Rabb goes to the principal, and it quickly becomes obvious that the principal is covering for the therapist. Rabb says maybe he should notify district headquarters, but the principal suggests otherwise.

Typical of the unflinching tenacity of this film, director Davis Guggenheim stays with this story line until the therapist finally does show up for a session with the boy, and he shows her cooing and fluttering all over the child like someone who really cares. But Guggenheim is still there when the therapist fails to show for the next appointment.

Guggenheim, who has worked as a director on such television series as NYPD Blue and ER, puts us in the empty, after-school kindergarten classroom with Rabb and the boy as the teacher stares at the clock waiting for the therapist we know is not going to come.

Finally, Rabb gives up on the therapist, but not the boy, and starts doing speech therapy exercises with the child after school. While you wonder how much someone not trained in speech therapy is going to accomplish, at least this pupil knows someone cares.

Each of the five teachers obviously cares, but this is no simple-minded celebration of good intentions. In the case of one teacher, you'll wonder what course it is exactly that she is supposed to be teaching as she spends most of her time lecturing middle school boys on gender and sexual orientation. Not that they don't need it, but you might wonder if that's what the school district is paying her to do.

The First Year offers no easy answers. Rabb's dedication is inspiring, but it won't leave you feeling uplifted about the future of public education. In fact, it will leave many feeling just the opposite.

But great documentaries don't offer simple answers to complicated issues. They provide new information and new ways of evaluating it. They burn images into our minds and stir the soul. They make us think; they make us care. The First Year is a great little documentary.

The First Year

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

When: 9 tonight

In brief: An intimate look at the lives of five first-year teachers.

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