My mother, an educator, believes teachers are born, not made.
"Beyond the Blackboard" (CBS, 9 tonight) is the sweet, inspiring, and yes, a little sappy story of a young woman born to be a teacher and the challenges she faces on her first job that turn her into a better one.
Emily VanCamp plays Stacey Bess, a young woman who always wanted to teach; her calling was interrupted when she got pregnant in high school and married. We meet her later as the young mother of two with a loving husband. She's finished her education and is looking for her first teaching job. The school board's personnel director (Timothy Busfield) has just the spot for her and she can start right away; it's teaching homeless children at a special school created because the itinerant children can't register at typical schools. (A law has since passed changing that.)
When Stacey arrives at the school for her first day, she's stunned. The school is at a homeless encampment, and the substitute she's replacing describes the kids as savages and tells Stacey her role is to simply babysit. Her classroom is a warehouse space that shakes when trains pass and where rats climb through holes. There aren't books or desks. Stacey feels overwhelmed and wants to quit.
But, of course, she doesn't. The movie subtly shows that Stacey has to learn to let go of her notions of teaching and deal with its realities. That transforms her teaching methods and turns her into an advocate, one who believes and must get others -- and the homeless themselves -- to believe these children deserve the same education other kids do.
The movie also reveals another truth; we typically dehumanize the homeless. But as Stacey learns, before they were homeless they were people with families and abilities, and most want the same things the rest of us do. Soon Stacey finds she can tap into those abilities and desires.
VanCamp is lovely in the part; you believe her compassion and love for her students. She's in almost every scene. Treat Williams also appears in as small role as a helpful superintendent.
But it's VanCamp's movie. Although the journey couldn't have been as easy as depicted for the real Stacey Bess, (the challenges and behaviors of the homeless can be extremely tricky, especially for a fairly naive 20 something), this Hallmark Hall of Fame movie isn't going for complexity. It's message is simple: Education shouldn't be a privilege. Can't argue with that.