A Most Beautiful Thing

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From the film A Most Beautiful Thing

I’m usually not big on New Year’s resolutions. But for whatever reason this year I have a short list of goals and efforts that I’m planning to stick with for as long as I can. Friday family movie night is at the top.

You’d think that with all of this extra time in the house we would have re-watched all of the childhood classics and streamed the more recent offerings months ago, but much of our viewing has been personal binging on our individual devices, and I thought it was time to switch things up. So for January we ventured together down the Karate Kid rabbit hole (which is another story for another day), and in February we began our Black History Month Film Festival (which, for me, also occurs in March, and April, and months ending in “er,” and months with one or more syllables).

I’d heard great things about A Most Beautiful Thing, but I didn’t dig all that deep to really know what it was about in advance, other than Black guys forming a rowing team. Clearly that in and of itself is a story, but the film ended up being so much more. Here are four of my takeaways, as spoiler-free as possible. (You should definitely make the time for this one, and watch with your COVID crew if you can coordinate your empty schedules).

1. The journey is the blessing.

My wife said something at the end of the movie that hit deep for me. She noted that she didn’t catch any of the guys mention their love of rowing. They talked about the peace they found from the water, the camaraderie, the opportunity to break stereotypes, and the new experiences and exposures, but no one said that they found their calling to rowing. The boat was a vessel to something different — safety, friends, new possibilities, freedom — if even just for a few moments.

For these guys, maybe it needed to be rowing. But maybe it could have been golf, or lacrosse, or debate, or capoeira, or filmmaking. For many of their friends, and some of the central figures in the film as well, it was gang life (which they also didn’t love, but it served immediate functions). This was a critical reminder to me that what we put in front of kids, what we position them to pursue, will become their lens for viewing the world and making their way through it. People are so much bigger than the boxes we put them in, or the corners we’ve cast them off to. We must be more intentional about building productive and enriching spaces, rather than writing off the ones that we didn’t see coming (because we never bothered to look their way).

2. Trauma is life-altering.

There were many individual and communal stories of trauma woven into the film, and they left me thinking about a lot of things — the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the Great Migration to places like Chicago (fleeing never-ending southern terrors); interpersonal violence, addiction, and the dynamics of power; and how all of this plays out in crowded homes in underfunded communities where hope seems hopeless. Who are kids supposed to talk to? Where do they find comfort when a neighborhood friend gets lost to gun fire? How do they cope? How do they find the will to want to cope? If we know this is a billion dollar problem and a loss of far too many priceless lives, what more do we need to commit to a radical reimagination and action plan?

3. Trauma is not the end of the story.

I’ve asked my previous question before — many times in fact, in many different ways. We need to do more. We need systems changes and structural shifts in how we move, connect, and grow. But at the same time, we also must fully see the day-to-day things that are happening — the life-changing work of rehab programs and therapy, the power of mentoring and storytelling, the possibilities of collaboration. A Most Beautiful Thing is a critical reminder that there will always be setbacks and new challenges, but old wounds can be healed and each day is an opportunity for all of us to be better, no matter what yesterday said.

4. There are many pathways to “success.”

As someone who is deeply concerned about college completion, there was a point in the film that really stuck out for me. The rowing team was initially put together by a White Penn grad working in the financial sector in Chicago as a way to get some Black kids from the city to college. They didn’t go into a whole lot of depth on this, but my immediate reaction was that they would have needed a few years to even begin to crack that surface. It seemed like the program had a very short run — maybe just one year, if I’m not mistaken.

The organizer initially wrote the program off as a failure because none of the guys moved on to higher education, but in hindsight, they all came to realize that the entrepreneurial workshops that were embedded in the program curriculum took root. The guys launched different businesses and shaped productive lives.

We could argue that they had it within them already, and the rowing / entrepreneurship experiences were a mere value add. If so, then it’s a win-win that I’ll take every time. We can also argue about the role of college (or lack of) in this equation, and truthfully for me it’s still a great debate. As I’m reading more about student debt (and the impact of loan forgiveness) and as we continue to deal with the uncertainty of the pandemic, I have serious questions about which life routes are the most viable, and what metrics we should be looking at to define success. I’m clear on the fact that we need to do things differently. I’m also clear that we need to ensure that our young people are prepared for more options, not fewer, and this needs to start as early in their lives as possible. More freshmen rowing teams in more underserved high schools could certainly be among the difference-makers.

I am a husband, father, writer, educator, and generator of ideas. Working on my follow through. Latest book, Higher Learning, out now at learnhigher.com.

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