Of Hearts and Hope: Three Perspectives on American Youth
By Vicki Meade
Young Hearts and Minds, a program of three short documentaries which was shown at the Annapolis Film Festival, is all about hope.
The actual subject matter involves blind teenagers, funerals for the homeless, and potential high-school dropouts. But the real-life stories—not always pretty, sometimes heart-wrenching—left me feeling great about our young people.
“The Potter’s Field” by Edward Heavrin and Nick Weis (42 minutes) chronicles high school students in Louisville, Kentucky, who volunteer to give burial services for homeless and indigent members of their community. As a point of contrast, the film also describes how two of the nation's largest cities, Chicago and New York, dispose of their deceased poor.
Early on we see pine caskets stacked in a U-Haul, men in overalls transferring boxes into a mass grave—no mourners anywhere. A teacher gets the idea to recruit students as volunteers—boys in blazers and ties, girls in plaid skirts and white sneakers—who serve as pall bearers, say quiet prayers, and sing “Amazing Grace” for people they’ve never met. “How could I live a life and end up having no one?” one boy wonders. “It’s a scary thought.”
The film includes interviews with a homeless ex-sergeant who did tours in Iraq—and now, his speech halting, teeth broken, shoes falling apart, he paces the streets and worries about his future—the personification of unknown people the students help bury. We soak up images of wind-swept cemeteries and yawning dirt holes—and witness tenderness, such as the businessman who finds a homeless man living in his basement and houses him until he dies, and the staffer at Hart Island, where New York’s Potter’s Field is located, who tears up over a letter written long ago by an inmate who helped bury the indigent.
In “Teach Me to Sea” by Mara Bresnahan (39 minutes), a blind teenager says, “There’s something exciting about not knowing what’s coming,”a statement that encapsulates the film’s spirit. Here are two dozen students at the Perkins School for the Blind near Boston planning a senior trip to Cozumel, Mexico—a cruise packed with things they’ve dreamt about, from karaoke and discos to splashing in the sea.
We get to know Ashley, born with shortened limbs and no eyes; Eliza, a healthy child who rode horses, excelled at soccer, and played guitar until a mysterious “brain attack” left her blind and forgetful; Travis, who gradually lost his vision starting at age 6 months. Their fears are the same as anyone’s taking a cruise for the first time—sea sickness, sharks, what if the ship hits some rocks? But they bubble with joy, acting like teenagers everywhere.
We see them petting a baby shark, riding in a pedicab, kayaking, swimming, playing bingo, singing, dancing, laughing. “People with disabilities can party!” one student exclaims. I imagine these kids made the cruise more fun for everyone on that boat. Fast-forward to prom, then graduation—with Ashley, whose legs are malformed and half the normal length, as valedictorian. “You couldn’t create such an unusual combination of people if you tried,” she says proudly of her classmates. She’s heading to college to study counseling—and when her mom says, “Ashley will do great things,” I believe her.
“Doing It for Me,” by Precious Lambert and Leah Edwards (25 minutes), explores the dropout crisis in Washington, D.C., from a young person’s point of view. Egged on by one girlfriend, two others work toward high school graduation—and as I watched, I was swept back to my year as a writer with the D.C. Public Schools—with a student body that is 70% African American and overwhelmingly low income (three quarters qualify for free lunch). Once, a guidance counselor at a grade school in the poorest corner of the city told me his biggest challenge was kids with no hope. “Some can’t envision a future,” he said. “They can’t imagine being anything when they grow up.”
These girls fight inertia and decide to continue their education—each in different ways, such as Job Corps—but all resulting in a diploma. And their excitement about ambitions they plan to pursue—college, nursing—is sharpened by having come so close to missing out.
Annapolis-based freelancer Vicki Meade has 25 years’ experience in communications for health care, business, and technology. She has written for many magazines and websites and is an adjunct instructor of writing at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.