Great Barrington — The Monument Mountain Regional High School community took advantage of Friday’s half-day to come together for a screening of the Oscar nominated Hidden Figures (see trailer below) in what principal Marianne Young called, “an informative and inspirational learning moment.” The school was able to connect with Criterion Pictures, thanks to Leigh Davis at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, to obtain the film that chronicles a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. The film screening was part of an ongoing discussion in the school community after an incident of racism last fall garnered widespread attention.
The little known story of black women working for NASA in the 1960s is based on the true story of Katherine Johnson whose calculations put Americans in space for the first time. According to Young, “Hidden Figures is a history lesson, a math and science lesson, a social lesson, a moral and ethical lesson, and [the Monument community] came together to share these lessons.” The administration’s choosing to screen the film was coined a “smart decision” by sophomore student Reeve Schroeder. “Doing it in school–on a half day–is important” Schroeder continued, citing “lots of students would have never considered going to theaters.”
“[The movie was] better than an assembly” said Fionna Shea, also a sophomore, in a nod to the until now routine approach — “talks by white males” — presented to students since an incident last fall in which a white student threatened to lynch an African-American student who, during the national anthem at an away game, knelt to protest national police killings of black men. “We want to make sure that we continue to bring thoughtful and powerful material focused on the issues of race, equality, equity, and respect to our school” said Young of Friday’s film screening.
Young articulated the importance of facilitating “meaningful and relevant all-school assemblies” for the more than 500 students at Monument. As to whether or not this was accomplished, sophomore Aidan Santos spoke at length: “There are always kids who–no matter what — are not going to be impacted. There are others who know [racism] is a problem that needs to be addressed.” For Santos, who echoed his peer’s comments that the film was better than an assembly, the film was perhaps more inclusive. “[Hidden Figures] was an entertaining way to bring more information to those students who needed to see the problem up close” Santos said.
While the setting of the film was by no means contemporary — 1961 segregated Virginia — its historical lens offered a captivating, thought-provoking way of including more students in the discussion. “Of course [racism] is a well-known problem,” said Santos. But the students’ sentiments seemed to be that going back into the past allows us to see the progress that’s been made–and the progress that is still needed–regarding, in particular, what Shea called the “appalling” treatment of blacks chronicled in the film.
“At the end [of the film], everyone clapped; [they] appreciated the impact” said Shea.
“I was happy we got to see the film — I missed it in theaters” she added. As to how the discussion will be continued? Young outlined that social studies and United States History teachers will use the film as a starting point for discussion in their classes. More importantly, “these shared experiences provide a foundation for the work we do each day and help us stay focused on our mission,” Young said, a mission that states: “The Monument Mountain Regional High School community creates opportunities that foster intellectual and personal growth and challenge all to become courageous learners, engaged citizens, and individuals of integrity.” Young went on to add that the most common response at the close of the morning was, “Thank you. I had no idea this happened.”
As part of the District-wide professional development day, all Monument teachers spent the afternoon observing in other schools across Berkshire County and the Pioneer Valley, as well as Chatham, New York and Northwestern Regional School District No. 7 in Connecticut. This fact, while seemingly inconsequential, points to the attention being paid by the District to broadening the horizons of students and faculty alike through ongoing opportunities for discussion, growth and reflection.