The difference $15 can make

Over at his popular Chicago Sun-Times blog, Roger Ebert calls attention to two documentaries that recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Both films look at education, though from quite different angles. The first, Waiting for Superman, exposes the disaster of U.S. public education, and was so persuasive that it left the reliably liberal Ebert with this conclusion:

Decades of research and test data indicate that the primary factor determining a school performance is not its budget, physical plant, curriculum, student population or the income level of its district. It is teaching. The most powerful opponents to better teaching are the teachers’ unions. I am a lifelong supporter of unions. But “Waiting for Superman” makes this an inescapable conclusion. A union that protects incompetent and even dangerous teachers is an obscenity.

The second documentary, A Small Act, is less political, but packs more emotional punch. About 25 years ago, an unmarried Swedish schoolteacher named Hilde Back began sending $15 a month to a charity providing educational support to poor African children (I believe Save the Children was the group). She was matched anonymously with Chris Mburu, a young boy living in a mud hut in Kenya. Over the years, Back faithfully sent in her $15, and Chris worked hard at school. When he eventually graduated, his participation in the charitable program ended, and Hilde no longer received updates.

That’s a shame, because Chris Mburu took full advantage of the $15 the little schoolteacher sent every month. He did well at the primary and secondary school Back paid for. He followed that with a degree from the University of Nairobi… and then a law degree from Harvard. He now works as a human rights lawyer at the United Nations.

A Small Act tells their story, capped off with the friendship that has developed between Back and Mburu after they met for the first time in 2003.

Here’s the trailer. If you happen to be at work or in some other environment where loud sobbing is discouraged, you’ll want to wait till you get home to watch this.


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Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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