The Michigan Theatre’s screening of “Waiting for Superman” on Wednesday night struck a chord with everyone packed in the theatre that night. The film created a symphony of sniffles as the credits rolled. The audience watched the flip side of luck bring tears to the eyes of four out of the five children we met that night. My heart broke as I was confronted with the inequalities plaguing American children.

The world I knew as a child is inextricably linked to the person I am today. I am a product of a public school and I am one of the lucky few who lived in a district that made our public school a top priority. I attribute my optimism about the world and my belief that I can make a difference to my educational experience during my formative years.

In the world that incubated me for 12 years, I felt loved and empowered. My early education teachers were genuinely invested in not only my academic success, but also my emotional well-being. I felt like I mattered to the community that greeted me every morning and waved goodbye every afternoon.

As I grew up, my relationships with faculty members, the administration and community members developed, too. My voice as a student carried weight among the adults in my world. I felt encouraged to challenge ideas and push boundaries. In my first year of high school, I had an English teacher whose expectations of excellence terrified all of my classmates and me into working harder than we thought we ever could. She inspired us to pursue our intellectual potential and gave little — if any — care to the mandated curriculum and standardized tests. She treated us as though we might all become Pulitzer Prize-winning writers.

Among my peers, it was cool to be smart. I can distinctly remember feeling socially influenced to work harder because the people who did were more impressive than the people who didn’t. Those who ostracized themselves from school ostracized themselves from the social world to which the school was so intimately connected.

And here I sit in Ann Arbor, able to write about the power residing with our generation simply because I have had the privilege of experiencing a system that worked for me rather than against me. I fervently believe that I can make a difference in this world because my experiences thus far have shown me so. But this belief in myself is a privilege of which I am not the slightest bit more deserving than the children whose names weren’t called during the lotteries documented in “Waiting for Superman.”

My heart broke on Wednesday night as I was confronted with stories to which too many children around the country can relate. Too many children spend the first part of their lives in a world that leaves them feeling hopeless and insignificant. Before they’re even old enough to realize the gravity of the injustice to which they’ve been subjected, these children are robbed of the opportunity to feel as if the world is theirs to seize. Their ability to aim high and reach far is restricted by an education system that fails to nourish their essential human need for self-actualization.

The members of the panel discussion that occurred after the screening — who were all experts on the status of the American education system — reacted to the movie, highlighting the movie’s flaws and expanding on its messages. Most thought the blame shouldn’t be placed exclusively on bad teachers, bad parents, bad principals, the teachers union, bad schools and so on. Rather, we — as a society that claims to care about justice and equality of opportunity — must collaboratively re-evaluate the nuances of what’s working and what isn’t within American public schools.

I was (and, to a large extent, still am) blind to the inner-workings of the flaws in the public education system. I won’t be able to contribute anything of value to the prescribed societal re-evaluation until I see the problem first-hand and learn about the experiences of the people its afflicting. We should feel a sense of urgency to see where, exactly, the problems lie and what, exactly, we can do to solve them. If so many American children continue to spend their first 12 years of school feeling beaten down, unspoken for and powerless, what kind of contribution can they be expected to make during their next 50 years?

Libby Ashton can be reached at

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