Date Night falls in the middle of the week. My husband and I make it a priority so we can withdraw from our businesses and enjoy some experience in common. This week we went to a theater to watch Won’t Back Down. It tells the story of two mothers who fight a failing school system in order to create a better education for their children. My husband and I, intimately concerned with our children’s education, expected to engage with this story. What do homeschoolers have in common with families trying to overturn a failing inner city public school? Plenty!
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s third grade daughter cannot read. Faced with an uninspiring and hostile teacher, Jamie seeks alternatives. When these fail, she desperately looks to a law that allows parents to take over a school if there are enough parents and teachers who support the action. She finds her first teacher in Nona Alberts, a once-dynamic teacher whose embers burn low. Together they launch the revolution that—you guessed it—succeeds in replacing a failing school with a dynamic one.
While Americans generally agree our public school system is failing, many reviewers found fault with this film for being too simplistic. On the contrary, I found it to ring true as it paralleled my life as a homeschool mother. Won’t Back Down tells a story that resonates in sympathetic vibration with the homeschool movement. I drew three lessons from it: capitalize on the strengths of the team, look to the wisdom of the ages, and sacrifice as though your life depends on it.
Jamie is a young, single mother with no education. Nona is a teacher at the failing Adams Elementary. She catches a vision for a school where teachers can do what they love to do. Jamie’s confidence knows no bounds; Nona’s experience teaches her to be cautious, to temper hope with prudence. Jamie’s heart-cry is for her daughter; Nona adds to that her own deeply cherished gift for teaching children. They both want something larger than themselves and demonstrate through their choices that a solution for their own children is not the answer. They commit to a resolution which meets the needs of the community.
Jamie and Nona make a powerful team. In Jamie’s fierce determination and boundless energy I see the young mothers of the homeschool movement. How they encourage veterans! And the accumulated wisdom of our experience, like Nona’s, gives direction to their zeal so they do not waste time going down rabbit trails as we did. Alone we can smolder into discouragement and lassitude; together we make a blazing fire. Homeschool veterans need the young mothers and the young mothers need what we can give. Our common goal is far more important than our individual grasping after what we need for our own children.
As examples of where real education lies, two presidents were quoted in the movie. We watched Nona lead her class to memorize a short quotation from a letter of John Adams, “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write!” Later, students in the new school recited John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Both of these men appear to have been classically trained; certainly their writing reflects an education in classical rhetoric. I wonder how many reviewers caught the value placed on our Western cultural heritage? Nothing we face today is new; every bit of it has been discussed in the Great Conversation. This movie hints at the wisdom of listening.
Jamie embodied the sacrifice parents make to teach children at home. Several times her love interest, a young teacher, resists the demands of her cause and protests, “I just want to teach.” She finally responds, “I just want to kick up my feet and watch the Steelers. But I can’t.” Christians know their activity matters in eternity. We homeschool parents write a scroll of the pursuits we have given up for our children! Nona recalls her mother asking her, “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” Stepping back for perspective, we hear the voice of the Lord Jesus: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.” Matthew 16:35 (NIV) Only for the priceless can we give up something so valuable. But dear God, let me remember I am a living sacrifice for You and not merely for my children’s education.
If I have a criticism of the ideas represented in this movie, it is that the reformers did not go far enough to recapture what made for an excellent education in the past. Homeschoolers cannot afford simply to create a fun learning environment. The human soul needs much more than entertainment! Learning takes the discipline of hard work and perseverance. The exhortations of those who have crossed the line before us can sustain us through many discouragements. We need the maps they provide.
Won’t Back Down shows us how to cherish those who work with us for a good education, to respect the wisdom of the past, and to live sacrificially. Phillip Brooks, writer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” will have the last word:
“O, do not pray for easy lives.
Pray to be stronger men!
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.
Pray for powers equal to your tasks!
Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle.
But you shall be a miracle.
Every day you shall wonder at yourself,
at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”