“Night School” is one of the documentaries screened at this year’s 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. Beginning this past Friday and running until this coming Sunday, the festival continues its tradition “of offering a large selection of free events to maximize its outreach into the community and to make the festival affordable to all,” according to its printed program. One of this year’s nearly 60 free events was a documentary by Andrew Cohn titled, “Night School,” which features three different adult students pursuing their high school diploma while juggling work and family responsibilities.
By tagging along for one academic year with Greg, Shynika and Melissa, viewers see something very different than the average high school experience. The film starts with startling statistics of the thousands of students who drop out of American high school each year.
The film is based in Indianapolis, which is home to a unique adult education center that offers the opportunity for adults to earn not just a GED but a full high school diploma. The difference is significant. GED graduates earn only marginally more than high school dropouts. There is significant difference, however, between the earnings of those who earn a high school diploma and those who have dropped out of high school.
Rather than go to football practice or music lessons, the three featured adults return home after evening classes to family responsibilities. Greg, for instance, is a single father who struggles to care for his epileptic daughter. Shynika returns, not to a family home, but to a friend’s apartment. Bouncing from friend-to-friend, Shynika acknowledges that she is just waiting to be kicked out and needing to find another place to stay.
A main motive for each of the adults featured in the film is the promise of better pay with a high school diploma. Skynika even engages in the national campaign to “Fight for 15,” as she struggles to hold down her job while also attending classes. Greg has a criminal record that prevents many job opportunities. Viewers accompany Greg along his journey to have his record expunged, which includes a trip to the jail to turn himself in on an outstanding warrant. What purportedly started as a traffic stop for a license plate cover that was too dark, has become for Greg the last hurdle between him and a clean record.
The stories told in “Night School” may be unfamiliar to the typical SLU student, which offers an intimate look into three black adults and their journeys to better their lives, but not without challenges. Not all of the students receive their diploma on time, and viewers are likely to share in the tears of disappointment and frustration. Many of the laughs that came from the small audience present came at the expense of the adults that opened their lives to the documentary. The algebra struggles that may have caused a momentary headache for most SLU students are much larger dilemma for the high school diploma seeking adults forced to raise families on minimum wage and perpetually held back choices made as children. Melissa confessed to the camera, while cooking herself dinner one night, that had she known what she knows now, she would have never dropped out of school as a teenager.
While “Night School” does end with updating viewers with the whereabouts and current job of each of the adults featured in the film, it does not put their struggle back into the national perspective. Unlike the film’s opening, its ending leaves viewers with the stories of three adult students, rather than, for instance, the statistics of those who started, but did not finish the program, or others like it across the country. “Night School” delicately educates while appealing to the affective side of viewers, inviting them into the lives of strangers whose dedication and ambition are likely to challenge and encourage any who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their lives.