Swagger-like but not

Rebecca Berlin Field
4 min readSep 15, 2022

Most of my students have not seen Swagger, the Apple TV+ show that has been filming at our school for a few weeks. The plot centers around a Black teenager, growing up in public housing, who has the potential to be a basketball star if he can learn to heal from the trauma of his childhood and the place where he lives. John Marshall, the school in which I teach, has been “staged” as the underfunded public high school that the star attends; the school he has to overcome despite all odds. I don’t know the story behind how John Marshall was chosen as a location for the second season of Swagger, and I don’t know details of the deal that was made for compensation, but I do know how this experience makes me feel as a teacher.

As the crew and cast have been filming in the gym, my students are going to classes as if all is normal. My classroom is right next to the auditorium, which has been home base for the extras that are on the set each day. I’ve seen blond cheerleaders walking down the hallway, which is definitely a change from the usual hallway walkers. In fact I was in the hall today when the tardy bell for 2nd period rang, and students went running for the swiftly closing classroom doors. A crew member from Swagger with a clipboard peeked her head out of the auditorium and asked “Do the students run through the hallways all the time?” I explained our tardy sweeps to her and she said “Wow, everyone is so serious about punishment here.”

Yes, Swagger crew, this is also the story that you should be telling. We have security guards, and metal detectors…and we are serious about kids getting to class on time. We have a police officer in our school who is a nice guy, but has the power to arrest our kids. We have students who experience all of the “ripped from the headlines” story lines in Swagger. Our students mourn the deaths of friends to gun violence, lose their parents to incarceration, and if they make one big mistake, end up in the prison system before they learn how to drive. Our kids are just as complex and brilliant as the writers have made your characters, and have trauma and experiences much like them.

The intersection of fiction and real life, however, is happening only for a few weeks at John Marshall. Once Swagger finishes filming, Hollywood possibilities will remain very far from reach for the students. My school does not have a theater program. My teenagers cannot audition for school plays or productions. They can’t learn in class about costuming, stage makeup, lighting or stage crew, or directing. They can’t learn the history of actors and directors that look like them and have had amazing, fulfilling careers. We don’t have funding for a theater teacher allocation. My students can watch all of the filming action happening at their school, but they don’t have a way to participate, learn skills, or fulfill dreams of being on stage.

Apple TV swooped into our lives and exploited the conditions of poverty in my school. Although our district received a location fee for the use of the building, this money will never be used to hire a theater teacher or to replace the moldy curtains and sound system in our auditorium. Most of the money will just disappear into our dysfunctional school system as it always does. The excitement of hosting the production of a TV show will not give more respect to our arts programs. We will have our leaky unrenovated facilities on view for all the world to see, but my students will still lack basic pathways to becoming professional artists. This tragic narrative perpetuates a future that does not include my students’ truly exceptional voices.

I am an art teacher. I think in symbols and meaning. Each of my students has the right to full and meaningful expression just like I do. They should have every opportunity to create works of beauty and justice rather than just survive. This week I have watched people tell the story of my students while at the same time withholding their potential to tell their own story. When will they be treated like people who have goals and dreams? When will my students be seen as fully human rather than as a commodity? When will art truly bring potential rather than just greed. I’ve watched the first season of Swagger. It’s all about the choices that we make between what is right and what is easy. It’s a really great lesson for audiences. Unfortunately it is just fiction.

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