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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Real life "Wire" hard to watch

If you were to ask MJ or myself what we love about HBO's "The Wire," you'd probably regret your decision soon after considering how we'd ramble incessantly about favorite scenes, characters and lines before FINALLY hammering home the show's importance as a cultural document -- one that chronicles the sad and gritty realism of urban decay in modern-day Baltimore.

Season Four -- perhaps "The Wire's" best season, or at least 1b to the epic Season Three -- tackles the plight of inner city schools as a means of showing a starting point for the dead end street life. Turning the show over to four young, unproven actors was a risky venture for David Simon and Co., but ultimately it provided a necessary plot arc that revealed how the Avon's and Bodie's of the world are forced to fend for themselves due to a lack of resources -- something Season Five later tackles in cyclical fashion by following the fragmented unit of Namond, Randy, Michael and Dukie after their lives take divergent paths due to the destructive influences around them.

But while "The Wire" reaches into your soul like no other TV show before, it's ultimately just that -- a TV show. Tristan Wilds, who plays too-old-for-his-own-good Michael Lee, is set to star in the new "90210" spin-off. A few supporting actors have popped up in random commercials, causing a double take on my end. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if Omar shows up next to Charlie Sheen on a bland CBS sitcom soon enough. They've moved on, so should we, right?

Enter the HBO documentary "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card." I wasn't aware the doc would be airing this week, so I was pleasantly surprised to be flipping through the channels late last night -- past scenes of bombed-out rowhouses that were all too familiar from my time watching "The Wire." Except this wasn't scene setting for the latest Omar stash house robbery. This was actually someone's dilapidated home in Baltimore. And Frederick Douglass High is the oldest African-American high school in the country -- one filled with students who act like Michael and Namond, talk like Snoop and Marlo, and struggle to find their footing like Dukie and Wallace.

As the harsh images stew in my brain today, it was almost too hard to watch. Too real, I guess.

In one scene, a fight breaks out in the hallway between a boy and five to six girls -- the vicious, out-of-nowhere blows resembling a full-on boxing match with no regard for gender or safety. When a fresh-out-of-college Spanish teacher tries to get a struggling student to come to class on consecutive days, the boy can barely lift his head from the desk before saying, "Just pass me for doing nothing" while blankly staring ahead. A once-promising English teacher quits his third year in, saying, "The year that I stopped seeing progress in kids is the year I stopped finding the little joys" before packing two boxes and searching for a new career due to the overwhelming need for discipline before education.

Not all the footage is depressing. Yet much like the hard-knock life of those portrayed in the documentary, the "small moments" radiating through the TV screen hardly seem like enough to get by on. Still, the scene where a bright, wide-eyed senior boy named Jordan takes first place in the Urban Debate League -- Namond, anyone? -- will absolutely move you to tears.

The young man is so effervescent, so filled with hope and promise. With a straight face, he talks about how "it's just life" to be raised by a single mother; his father leaving at age 2, never to come back into the fold. In fact, all the students interviewed never use their broken homes as an excuse, many repeatedly uttering the mantra, "It's that way for all of us here" without batting an eye.

When Jordan's name is called as the first place winner during a Saturday competition, he clutches his trophy as though it'll forever be grafted to his body -- a sign that he accomplished something great, that he might finally become "someone" in life. It offers a real moment of reflection, that winning a debate trophy or graduating high school isn't just a phase or stepping stone that inner city African Americans move past quickly. It's something they truly own because of how difficult it is to reach those heights.

As "The Wire" hammered home in Season Four, the primary complaint about the No Child Left Behind mandate is that it forces schools to "teach to the test" in order to stay off the state's blacklist. That the test is issued at 10th grade levels when the majority of the Douglass student population can't read any better than the average 4th grader would seem to indicate that the system is irreparably broken. It's a daily struggle that Douglass students and administration have to ignore -- a lack of adequate textbooks, unqualified substitute teachers filling the majority of staff positions, the dearth of positive parental influence and support. One by one the obstacles keep piling. As you'd expect, the apathy from students is palpable. After all, why would any of these kids care to hear about logarithms in a geometry class or read Macbeth when it's so far from the reality of "just surviving" that guides their lives in broken homes and drug-addled streets?

While veteran documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond don't spend a great deal of time pontificating about the fairness of No Child Left Behind -- the doc really isn't the least bit politically motivated -- it's obvious that David Simon's "Two America's" isn't just a premise that makes for groundbreaking, scripted TV.

"Hard Times" has unbelievable heart -- more than could ever be adequately described here. You need to see the faces. Hear the stories. Above all though, it proves that if the public-at-large wasn't ready for "The Wire," they definitely aren't ready for the real thing. It'd be worth getting angry about if the sadness wasn't so overwhelming,

"Hard Times" re-airs multiple times on HBO throughout June and July, including tonight at 8 p.m. Also, to read the Baltimore Sun's extensive coverage, go here, here, and here. Or watch the YouTube clip below.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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