Rich Hill: An intimate look at poverty’s impact on kids

rich hill2On the recommendation of someone who said everyone should see the movie “Rich Hill,” I attended the early show this morning.

I hadn’t read anything about the film before going and didn’t know it was a documentary about three families in Missouri. Rich Hill is near the Kansas border on highway 71 between Kansas City and Joplin. One of the families also lived temporarily in Thayer and Nevada, MO.

The movie focuses on three adolescent boys and lets them tell about their lives in their own way and their own words. To say they live difficult lives doesn’t begin to describe the tragic circumstances they are dealing with. None of the boys has a stable family or capable parents. One boy does receive some affection from his drug-addicted mother and mentally challenged father. The other two boys are constantly criticized for their behavior, which, of course, makes them act out even more.

This evening, I called up the list of programs on my DVR to find something to watch that wasn’t about Ferguson, the police, protests and the racial divide in our country. I chose an episode of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and the guest was Tracy Droz Tragos, the woman who made the Rich Hill documentary. What are the chances of that?

Jon Stewart tried to describe the living conditions in the places where the three boys lived but had trouble verbalizing something so totally foreign to him. I would imagine the scenes in the movie would be foreign to many of us too, but they are just a short drive away from our safe, comfortable homes. A person doesn’t have to go very far off one of Missouri’s major highways to find conditions every bit as heart wrenching as those in Rich Hill.

Stewart commented that the congresswoman who represents that part of Missouri voted to cut SNAP benefits. I assume he was referring to Vicky Hartzler. Some of the progressive blogs mentioned her several times during the debate last year about the farm bill and food stamps. I’ve become so numb to the injustices committed by our U.S. Congress and Missouri General Assembly, that it takes a movie like “Rich Hill” to force me to experience them as real.

One of the scenes that made me shake my head was in the principal’s office when a boy suffering from having been sexually abused by his stepfather as a child wants to call his grandmother to come get him. The principal follows the rules and tells the boy he can’t keep going home pretending to be sick. In an exchange with the principal, the boy exhibits quick thinking and logic that reminded me of an attorney questioning a witness. But this is the same boy who is confused in the gun and knife store when he can’t find any money in his wallet to buy another knife.

I think about the conversations I’ve had with friends about why parents don’t take more responsibility for their children’s education. How can parents not know when school is beginning? Most of them have television, and they must see the “Back to School” ads. How can they not be curious enough to find out when the first day of school is? Why don’t they feed their kids a healthy breakfast and get them to school ready to learn?

This movie made me realize I’ve been asking questions based on all the wrong information. I’m reminded of a recent panel discussion about gun violence where the superintendent of the Jennings School District described why the school provides breakfast and lunch on Saturdays for their kids. She said that, in some cases, it’s a long time from Friday night to Monday for kids dealing with events in their neighborhood that no kid should have to experience.

The kids in Rich Hill shouldn’t have to live in such abusive situations either. Jon Stewart and the filmmaker talked about the boys’ resiliency. One of the boys is, in fact, the parent to his mother, father and younger sister. He keeps hoping God will help his father find permanent employment. When he realizes his father is not mentally or emotionally capable of sticking to one job very long, he rationalizes that his dad has hopes and dreams like anyone else. No rancor. No accusations. After failing at everything else, the dad decides to go west and look for gold or silver. He says he wants to have enough money to take his two kids to Wal-Mart and give them each $400 to buy whatever they want. The postscript on the screen after the movie said that the mother died of an overdose and the boy is living with his father and sister in Colorado.

As we left the theatre, my friend said, “Well, that was depressing.” That’s all she will probably think about the movie, but I always want to understand and ask why things are the way they are.

From “The Other America” by Michael Harrington to “Rich Hill” by Tracy Droz Tragos, have we, as a society, made any progress in the poorest parts of rural America? From the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-sixties to protests in Ferguson, have we made any progress in our attempts to treat all groups with respect and dignity?

Looking back 50 years, I think we can say, yes, there have been some good things happening. Child molestation is a serious crime with serious penalties. In the movie, the stepfather wasn’t arrested because the police said there wasn’t enough evidence. The boy’s mother is now in jail for trying to kill her husband. I’d like to think the police would handle a case like that differently today.

We’ve made progress in many ways, but, in many parts of the country, we still seem to be falling deeper and deeper into helplessness. I have to agree with those who say some people create their own failures by the choices they make. I’m thinking about how almost everyone in the movie smoked, including the 13 year old boy. One of the mothers lights her cigarette from the heating coil of the toaster. Several of them were smoking in bed. Where do they get money for cigarettes? One of the boys calls his grandmother and begs her to spend part of their food stamp money on an energy drink for him. She explains she has only $200 for the whole family, and it has to last a month. The boy who gets kicked out of 6th grade for assaulting other students plays violent video games at home. It makes me wonder what in the world those parents are thinking.

But then I see commercials on TV where scantily dressed supermodels are taking big bites out of enormous hamburgers. I see ads telling us to relax, pamper ourselves, call in sick to work to go to a baseball game, borrow money for cars we can’t afford, TGIF. No one ever says they are anxious to get back to work on Monday. We never hear people talking about how they love their jobs and feel good about making a contribution to society. We leave all of that to charities, churches and other non-profits.

I keep going back to a book I read in the early 1990’s by Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1984 and analyzed how television and other forms of visual entertainment were changing the basic ways people see and process information. Most of Postman’s predictions have come true. We have become consumers not just of material things we don’t need but of political propaganda intended to keep us ignorant. There are ads on TV telling us how to get out of paying taxes. We’re encouraged to blame everyone else for our problems and sue anyone who causes us distress. There are lawyers who will gladly champion just about any case where there is money to be made. We’re more interested in the sex lives of celebrities than in what our kids are learning in school. Newspaper articles discuss what percentage of the tax “burden” the middle class bears. I remember when newspaper articles began with the facts (who, what, where, when and how) instead of an emotional story about one of the people in the story. Education has to be “fun” or kids tune out. But so do their parents, so what can we expect of the kids?

Obviously I am not talking about 100% of Americans. No need to list the hard workers and their achievements. They get their share of attention, and good for them. But can we honestly say the values needed to keep a society functioning properly are strong enough to keep us afloat much longer? The stock market is doing great, but wages haven’t kept up with inflation. CEO’s earn 400 times as much as their employees. Corporations are not embarrassed about using “inversion” tactics to open an office overseas and avoid paying taxes. Sea levels are rising but we can’t do anything about it because fossil fuel companies control Congress and the media.

So who can blame those people at the bottom of the economic ladder for not setting goals, planning ahead or trying harder to be self-sufficient? Letters to the editor blame parents for not providing a stable, healthy learning environment for their kids. But what if those parents didn’t have a nurturing home as children, and their parents didn’t either?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will take programs like that in the Jennings District to open up opportunities for success to students whose families are not up to the task. Students in that district receive good nutrition, after school tutoring and activities, home visits by school personnel including the superintendent, help with buying uniforms and keeping them clean, and challenging classroom activities. Not to mention dedicated teachers. To increase attendance at PTA meetings, parents receive a bag of groceries as they leave. This may be what will have to happen all over the country. There probably are many more examples of communities raising children and giving them the positive environment they need to develop character and ambition.

In Missouri it will be an uphill battle because there are profiteers who have been sabotaging districts that need more help, not defunding. They set up impossible goals and then punish districts that can’t compete. Anyone who goes to see “Rich Hill” will recognize the futility of making more and more demands on students whose splintered lives make it impossible for them to meet our expectations.

I, for one, will not be making any more judgmental comments about a world I know nothing about.