Does the little guy only win in the movies?

As a teacher, I want my students to believe they can do whatever they want. Sometimes I wonder if that’s true


This quarter, my fifth period senior English class is doing their film studies elective. It’s week two, and our selection this week is Frank Capra’s classic, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” My seniors complained at first, of course — because it’s March, and they’re seniors, and the fact that the sun rises in the east and they have to expand and contract their lungs to breathe air is enough to justify complaining, so watching a movie from back in the days before the earth was colorized is a torture equivalent to waterboarding. But as we watch it together, the complaining drops off by about 20 minutes in. They start getting the jokes, and by the time the corrupt Taylor machine is working its evil magic to run the gawky and naïve Jeff Smith out of the Senate, they’re furious on his behalf. At the end, I’m not the only one reaching for Kleenex.

My kids are inner-city teens at a charter high school. Their lives, at first glance, don’t seem remotely connected to the idealistic black-and-white world of Frank Capra. But there’s something about the film that we can all identify with — the belief that willpower and honesty and decency can win over corruption and graft and greed, that the little guy can go from being a pawn sacrificed to the system that’s supposed to protect him, to a hero changing that system for the better.

This time around, I’m tearing up right at the start of the movie — right from the schmaltzy, melodramatic Ode to American Democracy that is Smith’s first visit to the Lincoln Memorial, complete with a ragtime medley of patriotic songs. Critics can rightfully mock it as overly sentimental. But this week, as I read articles and Facebook posts about the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio, as we sat in our department head meeting yesterday going over new Race To The Top and NCLB requirements, I guess my normal hardened cynicism is especially vulnerable to patriotic sentiment.

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