Lessons in hope from a world on the wire
My recent TV watching, on a friend's recommendation, has concentrated on The Wire. I became an immediate convert after episode one. Set in Baltimore, America's most violent city, it's the cop series to cap them all. The best cops are flawed, the worst are crooks. The baddies almost all have some redeeming features. It is coarse, violent, almost devoid of sentiment and offers little ground for social optimism. As one evil individual or gang is locked away, another rises from the depths to fill the vacuum. Any hope in the series is through individual leaps of faith and personal redemption.
The five series explore the law against different backgrounds: drugs on the streets, the docks and people-trafficking, corrupt politics, the black middle school and the city newspaper. Fictional schools usually offer only limited lessons for real life, but Tilghman Middle shows both what's best in schools everywhere and some of the worst aspects of education in the modern world.
Pryzbylewski (played by Jim True-Frost), the young teacher (an ex-cop), struggles to keep order and teach maths in a school where many students are suspicious of schools, teachers and education itself. He wins through with most of the kids by a combination of relevance (dice, playing cards and computers) and respect for the learners.
The youngsters are troubled, many coming from criminal families or with drug-abusing parents. Violence, such as we never see in Scotland, erupts regularly: a girl slashed across the face in class by a classmate with a blade. The youngster who inadvertently reveals his knowledge of a local murder is labelled a "snitch" and his life is no longer worth living. Decent kids are sucked from minor misdemeanours into drug dealing and murder.
A project to re-engage the most alienated youngsters is led by Bunny, another ex-cop. Group work, experiential learning and the realism of the ex-cop seem to be winning some of the disaffected kids until the testing regime imposes its discipline.
State support to local schools is determined by test scores. The city insists that in the run-in to the tests, all teaching, without exception, must concentrate on the tests. Even Bunny's group, the kids most alienated by the education machine, are forced into it. Even there, however, at least one kid escapes, partly because his criminal father realises it's best for his son to be out of the only world he ever knew.
The school's well-meaning principal tends to bow to City Hall pressure. Fortunately, Mrs Donnelly, the assistant principal, creates solidity in the school: she cares for the kids but is tough as nails; she cares for the staff and encourages teachers to make the best efforts they can in horrifically difficult circumstances - and they do.
It's a world where the forces of evil are pervasive and seemingly as powerful as the forces of good. Politics are rotten, the streets crime- infested, the police corrupt. It's fiction; it's not Scotland - but it's worth watching. There are enough parallels for it to be a warning, and enough differences to keep us guessing.
School comes out well and is among the few beacons of hope. There's courage, caring and integrity, enough good folk with a commitment to public service and a hunger for a better world. In these dark days, Scottish schools could do worse than emulate Tilghman Middle.
Alex Wood is head of the Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.