Last Chance U shows one junior college football team’s pursuit for a national championship. It shows how you can easily love and hate a head coach. Last Chance U clearly defines which part of the human anatomy a coach must embody to win games. It shows how much student athletes care about working in the classroom and on the field. Last Chance U shows how players and coaches attempt to navigate the inevitable grey areas between the violent hits before and after the whistle.
I don’t believe these revelations will shock anyone. What is shocking is that Last Chance U also shows, better than anything else, what it looks like to be a teacher in 2016.
Movies like Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds all attempt to give you the perspective of a teacher. All of those movies are a glossier version of what an actual classroom is like. Even the scenes that were supposed to be gritty, like Michelle-Pfeiffer-in-a-leather-jacket-gritty, don’t seem to capture how overwhelming it can feel when you are standing in front of thirty-two unique faces with thirty-two unique frustrations.
If every story needs a hero, then Last Chance U’s heroine is Brittany Wagner. Like all teachers her desk is usually covered in paperwork and a half-eaten snack. I knew she was a real teacher when I saw her cutting manilla folders in half. I have no clue what she was going to do with separated folders, but real teachers repurpose all of their supplies. She is like no teacher I have ever seen on screen. Wagner is more like Leigh Anne Tuohy, from The Blindside, but with a filthier mouth.
Ms. Wagner’s office looks like a typical teacher’s set-up. She has embraced the chalkboard wall decal trend. The wall behind her desk is littered with selfies with Ms. Wagner. (Did you notice the picture of her and ZaDarius Smith?) What is different than some classrooms are the conversations. She has to explain that Joy Behar is a woman and that garbage men don’t make “a band or two a week.” She is constantly fighting the battle that every teacher is challenged with, trying to understand the brain of teenager. She tends to begin her questions with this phrase, “Explain to me the mentality…” Explain why you quit when something doesn’t go your way. Explain why you are afraid to put forth effort. Are you afraid of failing? Explain under what circumstances would anyone name a man, “Joy.” Student athletes have to do a lot of explaining to Ms. Wagner.
There is a moment in Freedom Writers when Hillary Swank’s character tells the students that she is not “anyone’s mother here.” Wagner takes mothering to a whole different level. She has to explain what it’s like to be in a committed relationship to the players. Her job is to check on the player’s attendance. She helps them get over their fear of flying. She seems to be a mother to an entire football team. Wagner even says, “I cry in December and then I cry in May…it’s like losing children.” She does more mothering than Carol Brady.
Putting educators on screen can get cheesy. It’s an easy profession to fake sincerity. What’s not easy to fake is consistency. Throughout the docuseries, Wagner consistently checks on her athletes, mothers her students and disciplines them accordingly. This week, preseason for school ends for most students and teachers throughout our state. Many Ms. Wagners will wake up, pack their snacks that will go half-eaten and drive to their decal-walled classrooms. They will fight the battles of missing pencils and students almost literally glued to their devices. It’s a battle that is not as interesting as a bench clearing brawl on the football field, but it is definitely a fight worth fighting.