Tom Becka: Hello. Welcome to another episode of Tombecka.com where everyone is exceptional and everyone has a story to tell. The story of James Crotty is a very interesting one in that James did not go to school to become a teacher yet he became an educator. He did not go to school to become a film-maker, yet he made a movie.
James Crotty went to a Jesuit Catholic high school in Omaha Nebraska, Creighton Prep. He was very active in debate. He loved debate. As he grew older and became an adult, he took a look at what was happening with the inner city youth of America and how they were dropping out of school, getting into trouble, and going to jail.
He said, “You know what? The things I learned in my Jesuit upbringing at Creighton Prep, the things I learned about service [inaudible 0:52] , I think I have something to offer these kids. He wound up teaching debate to a bunch of inner city black men in the New York City.
When he was doing that he decided, you know what? We need to document this. We are going to show people that through getting kids actively involved in something such as debate it will further their education.
He will go on to college. He will end up having careers and lives, and not spending their lives behind bars, tragically as so many young African American males do.
We talked about a lot in this interview — about what you can do to get kids more interested in school, more motivated to learn, what needs to be done, ideas, different thoughts, different ways of getting the kids engaged in learning.
Interesting stats here — Half of all inner city black men do not finish high school, yet 90 percent those who participate in debate do finish high school.
We started this conversation with James Crotty, in talking about some of the perceptions that he had to get over to be able to get these kids interested in debate. How do you get these inner city black youth, how do you get these young men interested in wanting to learn?
James Crotty: When you are an Urkel in black culture, you’re a geek, you are not cool and that’s a stereotype, but black people tell me it’s true. It’s not me saying that.
Part of it is cultural. A lot of people want to beat up on educators and on schools and blah, blah, blah. But lot of it is cultural, and so these things don’t get changed overnight when they are cultural.
Tom: A black educator told me one time, it goes back to slave days because they didn’t want to have the black men educated. If they were caught reading, they’d get beaten. If a mother saw their child reading, mom would get upset and say, “Don’t read. You’re going to get beat.”
Much like the remnants of alcoholism will go through generations of family, the same sort of thing happened with African-Americans.
James: Perfectly put and this is not something that I, as a white man, am saying. There are a lot of writes, black authors, who have said the same thing.
You think, “Oh, whoa, whoa, that doesn’t exist anymore. Why don’t you change your attitudes?” Some of these things are like hard-wired into the subconscious of people.
There’s a fear. Barrack Obama wrote about it in his biography. He talked about how, “One of the keys to my success as a black man, or at least a half black man, was to not be jumpy, not to make any sudden movements.”
He actually used that language. He said, “Because I didn’t want to make white people afraid of me. I always watched that I didn’t make any sudden movements.”
Other black friends have told me that because there’s such racism in America that black men, black women, always put a lot of emphasis on looking good. They develop this finely tuned sense of fashion in looking good because, at least, they wouldn’t be judged by how they look.
At least, they could overcome the prejudice that way. To say that overnight, this sort of fear, in a way maybe, of being educated, as well, is something, it’s not going to change quickly.
But believe me, there are a lot of black educators out there who are working really, really hard to change that stereotype and there’s buy-in now from parents in the inner cities that they know. They know that it’s important for their young men to be educated.
It’s just getting there is hard, when it’s been a several generations long problem. It’s not going to change overnight.
Tom: Is it that parents want? In Crotty’s Kids, you deal with families of these young minority children, that you’re teaching debate and we’ll get to this in a minute or two, but when you’re dealing with their parents. Do they want to make sure their kids get a good education? They just don’t know how to do it.
James: I’m going to impact that a bit, because there’s a lot to it. They want their kids to have a good education. Anybody who says that black and Hispanic parents don’t want that, they have not worked in the inner city. I’ve worked in the inner city. They want that, OK?
I was just at south. The Crotty’s Kids debuted at South by Southwest, so I was at the Education Conference tied to that and talking to a lot of the major experts in the field.
They’re dealing with this issue. PBS deals with it. A lot of these companies, with the education programming, are dealing with this issue. Parents in the inner city want education for their kids, but they feel that it’s the job of the school system to do that. What they don’t understand is that most of the education of the young person happens in the home.
The next battle, and this is really the core of it, is how to get parents to be engaged in their own education, so that they can have intelligent dialogues with their children as the children become educated. What you have right now, and this is clear in “Crotty’s Kids”, is the moms have been, they’re single moms that I worked with, most of the time.
There is no dad, so you’re dealing with a mom. There is no man in the home and the moms are wondering, “Why is Hector,” or, “Why is Christian spending so much time in debate? He’s at his computer all the time. Why he is away at these tournaments with this crazy guy, Crotty? Why? Why so much work? Why so much…?”
They don’t really understand that these kids have bought in. They know how hard they have to work to catch up. Mom feels threatened by that.
That’s where, I think, the crux of why kids fall behind, because there’s not the buy-in from the parents and there’s not this understanding that you, as a parent, need to become as educated as your kid. That’s really hard.
Tom: You keep on talking about “Crotty’s Kids”.
Tom: No, we haven’t addressed that too much. “Crotty’s Kids” is a film that you made, but you’re not a film maker, per se.
Tom: I guess, you are now.
Tom: But you didn’t start out to be a film maker.
James: No, not at all.
Tom: You were an educator who was using debate to help these kids learn.
James: I can’t even qualify. One of my things in life is, even though I’m a DYI, do it yourself, kind of person, I never claim to be fully trained in anything.
I have hard time saying I’m a film maker. I have a hard time saying I’m an educator, because I really believe that there are people very well trained, like my friend, Alex Payne, is a film maker.
He went to UCLA Film School. I consider him a film maker. People who teach in Omaha public schools for a living, I consider them educators. I am a seeker. That’s been my thing in life. I’m a professional seeker. I’m always looking for truth and looking to help, basically.
How I go about that changes, year to year, or decade to decade. In this case, in this last decade, I had pretty much exhausted my vagabond life on the road, “Kerouac meets Hunter Thompson,” approach to the world.
As I said, I read this article, so I became an educator in a sense of I had to become an after school coach, but I didn’t seek to make a film about it, even though I always wanted to make a film at some point. After two years watching these debate superstars from the South Bronx beat my kids, since I was coach of Bronx Science at the time, I said, “This is amazing. The world doesn’t know how…”
The stereotype on the news is that black men are either rappers, basketball players or criminals. Let’s just be honest. That’s most people’s view of black young men.
Like it or not, that’s how it is. I saw that was not the case and that a lot of these guys were just super good at this activity.
I wanted to make a movie about it. I shot this movie. Originally it was called “Resolved”. There is another debate movie called “Resolved”, but I had registered the name, but this other guy was making the movie and I said, “Screw it. I’m not going to go sue another person.”
I had to sue “Monk” to get the rights. They made a TV show called “Monk” and I had already owned the trademark, so I didn’t want to go down that hell again.
I shot these kids and these superstars. Then, the shooter didn’t give me the footage, for really bizarre reasons. He didn’t think we had enough footage to make a good film.
I said, “Just give me the footage.” He wouldn’t do it. Finally, he did give it to me, two years later. But in the interim, I had moved from this elite public school to coach to doing what I wanted to do, which is coach at Inner City Kids.
I had taken started this program with Eagle Academy for Young Men in the South Bronx. That was what I wanting to do is to start an urban debate program. At that point, a friend of mine said, “Well, now that you’re doing this for a year and a half, why don’t we just film you?” I said, “OK.”
This new shooter started to follow me and we were going to be co-producers of this thing. He was going to be the director. Then, he dropped out. He didn’t shoot enough footage, but I said, “Well, I want to make this film. I’ve had some bad karma here as a film maker. I’m going to make this film.” I spent the next several years making “Crotty’s Kids”.
Then, the other guy gave me back the original footage, so I made from that original footage, about the debate superstars, I made “Master Debaters.” That’s really about debate. “Crotty’s Kids” debate is there. It’s a debate team. There’s stuff about debate, but it’s a bigger story about being a man for others, kind of that mantra.
It’s about mentorship and good things like that.
Tom: Let’s talk about, because you believe for these young urban kids to be able to learn, you believe that debate is one of the main keys to make it happen. Why?
James: I don’t want to just say urban men. It helps women, as well. Women are doing much better statistically, urban women, in terms of graduation rates and grades. They’re just doing much better.
We have a real crisis with urban young men and black and Hispanic men, in particular. I’m not saying that there aren’t White kids who struggle and there are not asian kids who struggle and there are not Native Americans who struggle, but really we have a problem with black and Hispanic young men.
The reason debate, there are a lot of activities that can help young men. I don’t want to take full credit, give all credit to debate, but why debate is so cool and so effective is, first of all, it plays into a long-standing black and Hispanic oral tradition of public speaking.
There have been so many gifted, especially black public speakers. Instinctively in their DNA, Black young men understand the importance of public speaking. They get it.
They see it in their churches. They see it in their communities. They know that it’s important. That’s a good hook.
The second aspect that makes debate really good is that it’s competitive. I can go out, and you see this in “Master Debaters”. One of the kids says, “One of the reasons I got into this activity and liked it so much is because,” he said, “I was dropping out of school. I didn’t go to school anymore. I stopped going to school.”
The coach said, “Well, why don’t you try for the debate team.” He went through a term and he said, “God, what I really liked is seeing how unhappy people were when I beat them.”
He loved the thrill of crushing somebody. It sounds evil in a way and bad, but that’s the thing. There’s a competitive instinct in young men. You have to galvanize it some way. That’s the second aspect. It’s really competitive.
Those two things that public speaking is important and you love competition. The third thing is you win trophies. You get to go to tournaments. You get to travel.
If you’re straight young men, you get to meet chicks. If you’re gay, you can meet the other guys. It’s like that’s how it is. It’s like I meet friends wherever I…You meet friends wherever you go.
It’s like, “Wow.” You’re meeting kids, not just from the inner city, you’re going to suburb…I took my kids to the Stanford Tournament from the South Bronx. I flew them out to California.
What inner city kid is going to get to do that? That’s not going to happen. I took them to the Harvard Tournament. That is such a thrill for these guys.
It opens their vistas and it does all these good things. The final thing is, and they understand this really clearly, that’s why I got into Northwestern, frankly, I’m not that smart, but Northwestern is like the Duke Basketball Debate, frankly.
They’re just incredible debate. We were talking about my cousin, Tom Shaws. Actually, his dad went to Northwestern, former judge, Duke Shaws. I went there, I think a good recommendation from Duke Shaws did help, but I think also it was that I was Nebraska State Debate Champion.
That’s a positive thing.
Tom: Do you get the same joy out of debate in high school when you were doing debate? Was it the competition, the winning, the trophies? Was that what it was?
James: Good question. I think it’s this community. It’s this tight community of friends, who are…You can really talk about very advanced stuff with your high school buddies that you will never, ever talk about with anybody else, including your own parents.
As smart as they may be, your parents, there’s this aspect of debate that is this…Inside baseball, it’s like, if you’re in to baseball, and you know all the intricacies of baseball, you would love to talk with another baseball geek, pitch counts to whatever trivia there is in baseball.
That’s how debaters are. You’ll get together with a former debater and I’m 54, so I stopped debating in ’77. I did one year at Northwestern, but basically ’77 for high school.
To this day, I know the resolutions I debated. I know a lot of the cases I debated and if I meet somebody from that era, we get intense pleasure talking about the cases we ran. The topics — what were they — the arcana of those topics.
There’s a kind of endorphin release, an intellectual high. It’s a high. That’s the thing, once kids get hooked, get into the activity and they start winning, they get high off of it in the same way that a basketball player gets high off of winning a game.
Tom: From that then, they have a desire to learn other stuff to help them win their arguments in debate.
James: I think that the doorway in to helping inner city guys is you get them in debate, or speech, but debate is better because it’s more rigorous intellectually. Then, they go…You don’t have to tell them anything.
They go to class during the day and they go, “Oh, right, I see now. I see this American Revolution, this US history class, has stuff that I can use in the debate room.” It’s all about how do I use my daytime classroom work — we use the term in debate — cross-apply to debate and vice versa.
“I wrote this case that I’ve used in debate. I can adapt this to the classroom and, suddenly, I’ve taken care of my essay for this English class or my history class.”
Debate is so fast, you’re moving so fast, that when a teacher talks, it’s like, she’s too slow. It’s just too slow. You get it so quickly.
Tom: Now, you’re not a teacher, per se.
James: No, I don’t want to be a teacher.
Tom: You’re just a guy who liked debate and thought, “Hey, I can help these inner city…”
Tom: “…kids learn,” so you helped them be in debate. As an outsider, in the public school system, you’re in the public school system in New York, one of the more dysfunctional public school systems in the country. Although, there are plenty of them.
As an outsider, in that situation, what did you see and, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be?
James: I write about education for a living for “Forbes”, so I could download a lot of information about that, but I’m going to make it really simple. I think the basic problem is how do we bring people like me into the system in a welcoming way, who just wants to make a difference?
I’m not looking to be paid. I’m not looking for any award. I’m not looking for anything.
All I want to do is help somebody, help people. It’s a pure desire to help. It’s staggering how hard they make it to help somebody. It’s staggering. I want to help. I don’t care about your teacher’s union turf. You, as the principal, in your turf, you can take all the credit for my work. I don’t care.
I don’t even have to have a name. I just want to go and help. How can you make this easy for me? That’s the real problem.
There are so many people who will see my film, or who just, in general, want to help inner city kids. I’m not going to give you any specifics. There’s a lot. We could get inside baseball, this whole thing, but just how as a superintendent, how as a principal, how can I bring the volunteer people out there into my school, in a safe way?
I understand there are concerns of bringing outsiders in who aren’t verified as teachers, blah, blah, blah, you don’t want the wrong people. But how can we streamline that process so they can come in and be mentors to these kids? That’s the biggest thing that these kids need. They don’t have an adult mentor who’s just looking out for their individual interest.
Tom: I talk to teachers all the time, and one of the underlying themes is: They just want to teach. They just want to teach, but because of the bureaucracy, because of all the government regulations, and because of all the things they have to go through, the hoops they have to jump through, they end up losing some of their passion for it because they can’t teach. They have to teach to the test, and they have to do this, that, and the other thing, as opposed to engaging the children and getting them to want to learn.
James: Before we went on the air, you and I were talking because we were both at the Creighton Bluejays’ game yesterday, and it was Doug McDermott’s final home game. Each of those players, especially Doug, talked about various behind-the scenes personnel who enabled them to play. They thanked them.
I think about that, and I said, “Why can’t we do that with education? The teachers are the Doug McDermotts. They’re the superstars. They’re the people we should be treating as if they were Doug McDermott or Michael Jordan. Now some of them are Steve Kerrs, and they’re not superstars. We get that. But they have a little role to play that they do well. Not everybody’s going to be the greatest teacher in the world, but they’re good enough, or they do this one thing really well. We have to look at them. That’s the team. What can we do around that team so they spend 98 percent of their time teaching, and hopefully none of their time doing anything else? Do I want Doug McDermott in charge of recruitment, and making sure we have their right basketballs and that the uniforms are clean, and keeping the stats on the game, and measuring the metrics of the team…Is that his job?
Tom: The other thing too, using sports as a metaphor here, it seems with education we always want to make sure that the slowest kid is at the same level as the highest kid. What ends up happening is the highest kids end up going down to the low level. What we need to do is we need to go and acknowledge the superstar students more, think, and understand that not every kid is going to be that superstar student. I’m not saying, “Just ignore them,” or “Kick them to the curb,” but make it so that the kids who really want to learn, and are excellent, and excel at it don’t get bored. That they don’t just zone out. Keep them engaged, and keep them interested so they want to learn.
James: Exactly, and there’s one real easy way to do this. There’s obviously individual technology things like adaptive learning where if kids are at computers and they’re really smart they can race ahead. All of that’s great, but let’s say you’re all in the same classroom. The teacher should be allowed to move ahead with the class, and as people are following, they’re following.
There’s people in the middle, and there’s people lagging behind. The way it should work is we need a volunteer cadre, a volunteer corps of people coming in who are there in the classroom to work with those kids who are falling behind. There’s just different people who are able to, based on abilities and all sorts of other factors.
If it’s just one teacher trying to get 30 kids to stay with the program, it’s so hard to do that. Of course the natural inclination of a teacher is to put the focus on the guy acting out or not following directions. Then everybody else is bored, and then there’s suddenly. Then they act out. That was my experience. I needed like 10 volunteers just to be able to deal with 30 kids. That’s how it should be. There’s other technological solutions too, though.
Tom: What you do is [inaudible 22:12] like debate. I want to get to “Crotty’s Kids” here in a minute, but when you do something like debate, do you have the authority to control them and discipline them the way you need to, to make them focus, or is it a thing where you’ve got the kids in the debate and they’re all off going in their own little thing and goofing off and stuff…I mean, is it like a football coach who can control his football team. Can you do the same thing with debate?
James: When you see the movie, you’ll see I lose my temper a couple of times, but I prefer not to. I think that the…When kids sign up for football they kind of understand that they’re going to be yelled at and it’s a little more of a military-style environment. If you make debate like that, you turn them off. My tendency is I’m pretty strict with my discipline, and kind of have to pick my battles on that. The key with debate…It’s a little like anything else, but the key is to train the top, most motivated kids, and then they teach the novices.
That’s how the best…That’s how we did it at Bronx Science. The kids that are the superstars fight to be able to be the novice director. That’s a real plum position. Then they get to teach, so your job then becomes a little bit more of a CEO of the whole operation and you just check in on them periodically.
But when you’re starting from the ground up and there’s no legacy of debate, you can’t be too hard on people because you’re trying to build a critical mass of people, so I can’t be like a football coach. I would love to have that metaphor work because I think that would be great if we could be that disciplined, but they’ll just leave.
Tom: Maybe after you build the program to a point where it has such a luster to it that you have to make the grade to be on the team, then you can. But until that point, yeah…OK, let’s talk about “Crotty’s Kids.” Crotty’s Kids is a documentary that you made about some kids that you were teaching debate. Prior to these kids…I didn’t see the film…These kids. Tell me what were they doing before you got them involved in debate.
James: Jordan Lewis was an athlete, a really fast runner. He could’ve been a football player. He’s really good. Ryan was one of these typical kids that you don’t know about because nobody writes about them. They’re very nice, kind, quiet African-American young men who don’t get a lot of attention. He’s a very quiet, tongue-tied kind of kid.
Christian would’ve probably been good at any activity. He was very motivated. But they were doing other things. They were doing…I forget this organization. It’s kind of a police…It’s kind of a National Guard for kids. It’s hard to explain, but they’re very active. “Explorers,” I think it’s called, or something. A couple of them I stole from Explorers. I could just spot the kids who had the light in their eyes that really wanted to do it, but I took everybody at first because they all wanted to sign up.
Carlos was not a hard worker, but he’s friends with Christian, so if Christian did it, he’s going to do it. Then Hector was like the star, class president, and he was in like ten activities. I said, “Dude, this is –the– activity to be in. You need to…You know, you can do those things a little bit, but this is the one that’s really going to write your ticket for life.”
It is true. Debate is the greatest after-school activity, by far, in terms of anything you could possibly do. It exhausts all your energy and abilities. I just cherry picked them, or recruited them, or they showed up, and this is just the group that ended up with me. There was a lot of other kids that came and went.
Tom: You think they had any blow-back from their schoolmates as they’re…I mean, these kids were wearing ties and suit coats and doing debate. Do they get any crap from their friends because, again, going back to the thing about education, it was not respected enough in their community outside of the debate team?
James: Absolutely. There was a scene in the movie, you have to cut things out you don’t want to cut — where the guys talk about being beat up for being debaters. They were beat up in the hallway. In fact, was it Bart McClay? There was somebody, I remember, at prep they came up to me and they called me the, a derogative term for a gay man. I can’t say it on the air, but I remember that even at prep, and I was State Champion.
There’s like an anti-intellectual quality to any school, especially an all-boys’ school because they’re insecure about who they are and their identities, the young men are. My debaters were winning. At all-boys’ school, I saw this at prep, it doesn’t matter. It’s like, “I’m going to beat you up because you’re not a jock.” Some of my guys were jocks, and I was kind of a jock, actually. In high school, I was very good in sports. But these guys were…I don’t know. It’s complicated. But they definitely told me they got beat up, and they got robbed.
There’s one story in the movie about Jordan being…But it had nothing to do with him being a debater. I remember, there was a little shopping center near the school, and the kids got jacked there. They’d go just to the Radio Shack, they’d come out, and their iPhones would be taken, routinely.
You could walk there and say, “Oh, it doesn’t look so bad,” but these things happen in just the blink of an eye. Boom, somebody’s got a knife in your back or in your stomach, and boom, “Give me everything you’ve got.” Or a gun right to your stomach, like, “Give it to me.” It happens so frickin’ fast that if you and I just walk through we say, “Well, what’s so bad?” but these things happen very fast. That’s the environment they’re living in.
Tom: What happened to the kids then? I mean, you recorded these years ago, so have the kids gone on to college?
James: Yes. I don’t want to wreck the film.
Tom: Are they breaking the cycle?
James: They’re breaking the cycle. That’s the key. The bottom line is, my goal was just to get kids to graduate high school, and my kids all graduated high school. All of them went on to college. Some of them, though, dropped out of college. This took so long to do, and I’m not sure if I want to do a sequel on this subject, but if there is to be one done…I think we’ve got buy-in from a lot of people that black and Hispanic urban men need to graduate high school.
I don’t think that anybody’s going to argue that that’s an important goal. There’s a lot of good people in this town, from the Buffets to others, who are concerned about that, and I want to work with them to make sure that that, at least in Omaha, doesn’t happen. But that’s only half the solution.
The other half is once they get to college, they have a kind of culture shock and on top of it, even with debate — and debate gets these kids operating on a very high level vis-à-vis their peers — unfortunately, one of my kids ended up at Brandeis, and his peers are no longer kids from the South Bronx. These kids are Jewish and Asian and white kids from all over America who are really, really smart and were the best in their school. Suddenly he is just out of his element. He can’t compete.
Tom: I can, in a small way, related to that because I was a kid growing up in Cleveland in a lower-middle-class, blue-collar neighborhood. My dad was the only white-collar worker on the street, as a kid growing up. When I was 11, my dad got a great promotion and we moved to the suburbs. We moved from Cleveland, Ohio to a suburb of Columbus, Ohio — Upper Arlington. Now all of the sudden, instead of pick-up games on the playground, there was, like, organized little league and tennis lessons.
Tom: There was a whole cultural shock for me in that, it was like, “That’s not what we do.” I would try to play the way we used to play in Cleveland, and the kids were like, “We don’t do that here.”
Tom: I would imagine that…
James: There are organizations. There’s the “Posse Foundation,” and what they do, for example, is like Brandeis. There’s kids from New York, from the Inner Cities, like all 20 kids from New York City, broadly speaking, come together as a group to Brandeis. They have social networking things, so it’s not…There’s a lot of talk about the cultural piece.
I think that’s still important, but the bottom line is they… I did a piece for Forbes about this kid. He was the valedictorian at his South Bronx high school, Jefferson High School. He was the best student in the school, and of course the grades mean nothing. He’s straight A’s and everything. This grade inflation is ridiculous.
There’s a requirement in California, that if you’re in the top, I forget what the percentage is. If you’re in the top 10 percent of your high school, whatever the high school is, you earn automatic admission to the UC system.
He gets to Berkeley. Remember, he’s the valedictorian. He’s the number one kid in his high school, and he cannot keep up at Berkeley. The LA Times did a story, and then I covered it on Forbes. He can’t keep up. That’s just because the differences are so huge.
That’s the next deal. These kids, I’m really focused on the high-achieving, urban black and Hispanic kids. I can’t reach everybody. But if a kid buys in and wants to be great, I want to help him be great.
But the next problem is, once he graduates high school, before he goes to college, he’s probably going to need a lot of remedial education to get up to the speed of the average kid going to UC Berkeley, and the average kid going to the Brandeises of the world.
He’s not going to keep up. That’s just how it is.
At Creighton Prep, even going to Northwestern, it was tough. Some of these subjects, especially the core requirements, even a great school like that. I didn’t feel like I was up to snuff. Especially in math and science. I didn’t feel like I was up to snuff.
Tom: I know, I talk to teachers here, and kids that graduate from high school, in Omaha Public School system. Not everyone obviously, but so many that had to take a year of remedial training at the community college before they could go on to a four-year institution.
Tom: Then it goes back to it. Is it the issue of the unions? Is it the issue of the bureaucracy? What is failing our kids in the public schools?
James: I think that anybody who chooses to be a teacher for a living should get a medal of honor, especially if they choose to work in urban schools, inner-city schools.
I’m not a shill for the teachers union. I work for a very conservative publication, “Forbes.” But at the end of the day, I think there’s too much focus put on teachers, and not enough focus put on How do we change the culture that the kids go home to?
If you don’t have a culture around you in your neighborhood, in your home, in your peers, mom and dad, the uncles and aunts, where education is the top priority, you’ll just see this culturally.
We see this all the time, why are Asian kids 60 percent of the kids that are admitted into Stuyvesant? Is it just genetics? No. Because Asian parents, by and large, are adamant that you get a good education. It’s just simple as that.
If you’re battling culture as a teacher, it’s really tough to counteract that. I think we need to take the focus a little bit off the teachers. I’m not saying there’s not bad teachers out there. The teachers union knows there’s bad teachers out there, it’s not like that’s a mystery.
Tom: But they protect them.
James: That’s an issue, but I don’t think that’s a root cause. I think that’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s the root cause of the problem. I think it’s cultural.
The “Economist” was paid to do a big study of educational outcomes around the globe. It looked at poor countries, it looked at rich countries, and it looked at, Is cost the reason? Income?
If you’re poor, do you get a worse education? Income is a factor, but the dominant factor they found, in educational outcomes, was culture. That is, what is the emphasis that the country puts on education?
This is something this country needs to decide, finally, once and for all. We’re like 17th in the world in math and science, like 25th, it depends on the PISA studies.
We’re never number one, we’re not even close to number one. We have to decide as a culture that this is more important than any other issue, and get people to volunteer, like, “We’re going to solve it.” As a city you have to make that decision.
Tom: Lord knows I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but any education that I got, I got because I had no other option. My parents demanded, “You will do your homework. You will pay attention. You will learn.” I had no other option.
James: That’s the only way it’s going to change. We could fight these battles, over teachers unions, and I’m not saying these aren’t real battles, we need to fight. But at the end of the day, there has to be leadership. Political leadership, religious leaders, all kinds of leaders saying, more important than any…
People run for office in this state now, they’re talking about all these issues, you know like, “I’m a Pro-Life candidate,” or “I’m a low taxes candidate,” or “I’m going to promote jobs, I’m going to do all these things.”
It’s like, “Wait a minute. If you just focused on education, like boots-on-the-ground, all in on education, “We’re going to put the resources of this city and this state towards education, and we’re going to become the number one education state in America,” guess what.
You would have such educated workers that people would want to move their companies here. When they move their companies here, the tax base would grow, the revenues would grow, we wouldn’t have to be debating taxes, we’d have a lot of dough around.
All those things start to fall into place. Crime goes down when people are educated, we see that empirically. Crime goes down. The more educated people are, crime goes down.
They want to talk about all the symptoms, but the core problem, the cause, is lack of education. That’s the core issue. At the end of the day, why does somebody engage in crime? It’s a cost-benefit analysis. “I can’t do anything else.”
“I can make money selling drugs in North [inaudible 36:45] or wherever I’m selling them. The risk of me being caught is not so high, so I’m going to do that. What, we’re going to put all these resources now to stop me from selling drugs?”
Tom: “Plus I got nothing else to lose.”
James: “I got nothing else to lose.”
Tom: If you have a good education which gives you a decent job, now you got, “Oh man, I’ve got to behave myself because I can’t lose this.”
James: Maybe people think that’s reductivist or simplistic, but that’s my takeaway, having been in this world, writing about it, and teaching it, and coaching it.
We’re throwing so much money to drug enforcement. We’re throwing so much money to building prisons. Everybody’s bemoaning what teachers get paid, and how much for taxes, and do we have enough to pay for all these benefits and everything.
These discussions would go away. They would go away.
Just look at Nebraska. If we were, instead of whatever we are, 15th or 20th in the country, if we were one, two, or three. It’s not like a magic bullet that solves everything, but if you have educated people…
We already have a good life. It’s not like it’s a super polluted place, it’s not dense. Just think if we had great education, and all the other positive attributes we already have here, it would be ridiculous how prosperous the region would be. It would be just out of control.
Tom: I’m going to move on to another issue here, OK?
You were a guy that just wanted to help out these kids, so you go on to become a debate coach. You worked with them, and you get these kids through.
They all graduated, and most of them are doing well in college or did well in college, and then you make a film about this.
Now, you’ve got a finished documentary on these debate kids. How do you sell this, how do you get this out, how do you get people to see it?
James: It’s such a giant discussion because then that’s the whole discussion of the film industry.
I was just visiting with my cousin, Tom Schatz, who is probably the leading film scholar in America. He wrote a book called “The Genius of the System.” He’s the head of the University of Texas Film department.
He’s coming out with a new book about the new conglomerate Hollywood. I hope you don’t kill me for saying that, Tom, but it’s coming out, I hope, next year.
Tom’s an expert on the industry. I am kind of an expert now, in terms of the grassroots aspect of filmmaking.
Filmmaking is such that the middle of the business has been hollowed out. When there’s any technological revolution, the middle gets destroyed, and the low-budget thing survives, and then the blockbuster survives.
If you could throw 500 million at a movie, and you put that frickin’ image from the movie on every McDonald’s package, and it’s everywhere you turn, you just literally bludgeon people into going to the bloody movie.
It’s like, “What are we going to do tonight?” “Uhh Frozen.” Because it’s everywhere, you have no choice, in a way. That’s one way. That’s the blockbuster way.
The other way is my way, which is the micro, micro, micro budget film, which you raise some money from Kickstarter, and you rent out your New York apartment, and you have a little bit of money, and you go make a film.
You didn’t put so much into the movie, so there’s a chance you could get that money back.
Theatrical these days, I’m just telling you the industry perspective. I’m not saying this is going to happen with my film. I’m still interested in having theatrical and broadcast distribution.
But basically, the business now for small budget or micro budget films is, theatrical is a loss leader.
In our day, when you and I grew up, we saw movies at the theater. That’s how people made money. There was no DVD’s, it was just, you went to the movie theater. You didn’t watch movies in your home, except if they were on TV.
Now, you try to get a little bit of exposure through a festival. This is the first phase of the process. Then you try to get a limited distribution to raise awareness and get publicity for your film.
The main way is people stream it through Netflix, or they download it to buy from iTunes, or you sell some DVD’s. I’m doing that through Crottyskids.com, but basically, the money is going to come online. In various ways, online.
There’s educational distribution [inaudible 40:58] doing, but it’s a whole different game with education, because they slice and dice the content up into five-minute segments that the teacher can use in the classroom.
You take this 87-minute movie and you make five teachable moments out of it. I’m going through that whole process. I have a production company in LA, and editors, and colorists, and all kinds of people, and sound people, I have all these people, they don’t work for me full time, but they’re my people. We take the content and we slice it and dice it for the medium.
Tom: It’s interesting. I heard a person do a seminar once on education. He started out by saying, “Everybody’s looking for 100-percent solution for education. There is no 100-percent solution. There are 101-percent solutions.”
That just really resonated with me, and I realized that applies to pretty much anything anymore, doesn’t it?
There’s not one way for people to go see your movie, “Crotty’s Kids.” It used to be, you’d go to the theater and that was it. That’s not it anymore.
Now, Netflix, download, DVD’s, Blu-ray, streaming onto your phone, whatever it might be, not to mention TV, theaters, and everything else.
James: I’m going to do all of it. But there’s even things that you haven’t mentioned that are really trippy.
There’s this thing called Yekra, based in LA, and they have a player, and I’m debating going with them.
You don’t want to cannibalize your market, so you want to stagger things. Some people do it all, like, “We’re doing it all at once, we’re putting it all out, everywhere, all at once.” But I’m staggering things a bit.
Yekra is a thing where you download the Yekra player. You’re a fan of the film, and you play it through your Facebook page, or you play it on your own page, or you play it wherever you want to put it.
Anytime anybody downloads it, you get a cut. That’s how you galvanize your friends and fans to becoming distributors of your film. If somebody downloads the film, or they buy the DVD, you get a cut.
There’s another new thing called Tugg. Tugg is social media driven exhibition of films.
You get your friends, say you have friends in Cleveland. They love you and they love Crotty’s Kids. They love me and Crotty’s Kids, whatever. They go, “Well, we’re going to organize a screening in Cleveland.”
What they do is they get 50 people. You set the minimum as a filmmaker. Say you have 50 people who agreed to pre-buy a ticket.
They’ve left their credit card but it has not been charged. Once they hit that 50-person threshold.
Tom: Now you’re doing the event, and…
James: …the interface of Tugg says, “OK, this theater is now getting exhibited at this time.” Once you hit the 50 thresholds, boom. You’ve got a screening.” Isn’t that a trip?
Tom: Like you said, there’s so many different ways of doing it. By the way, it is a good movie. You see these kids, and you see them genuinely wanting to try.
One of the scenes that I just loved was when you were going on a field trip. You had a debate contest. You were supposed to meet them at the train station, and they’re not there. You’re pissed. You’re angry, and you’re on the phone, yelling all this stuff. Turns out, they were at the right place and you weren’t.
James: We were both at the right place. That was the point. I said, “Meet under the big sign.” I forget what the sign was, it’s in the movie.
“Where New Jersey Transit and Amtrak are, in Penn Station.”
There was another part of the station where there’s a New Jersey Transit and Amtrak sign, so when I got there I go, “Oh, Jesus, this is another sign.” They weren’t in the wrong place, in the sense that there are two signs. This is just how it is with kids.
The teaching moment there is, which now that you brought this up, I think I could make this a five-minute short. I’d have to bleep out all the cuss words I use in this scene, but basically, a teachable moment there, is how much leeway do you give your kids?
That’s always my debate inside of myself. I want them to be independent of me, and then when I let them do that, are our communications clear?
You can drive yourself crazy and go insane, trying to micromanage every aspect of kids, and when you take them to tournaments, it’s really frightening.
Stuff goes bad, you’re sued, the schools sued, anything goes wrong, you’re screwed. Your life is over. It could be bad.
Tom: You’re responsible now.
James: It really puts you on edge. That’s part of the reason maybe teachers don’t want to do after-school programs like debate.
It’s already enough stress in the classroom, then what? “Oh, you’re asking me to take these kids to tournaments? Are you nuts? That’s a risk I don’t want to take.”
That’s where, in a way, the teachers union is good. I didn’t have a teachers union behind me, I was a private contractor, so anything that happened or went wrong, I’m on the hook for that. There’s nobody to back me up. That’s kind of the issue too.
Tom: What I liked about that scene, personally, was that it showed, here are these inner city kids in New York, and you know what? That same sort of thing could happen in a classroom, in the most affluent suburb in America.
That same sort of scene could have happened in any school in America. Kids being kids, going out on their own, and miscommunication. It did show how much more alike we are than we want to admit.
James: Amen. That’s the thing I’m always…
There’s a scene in the movie where a woman accuses one of my kids of sexual harassment. He was inappropriate. He was doing this, like Quizno’s commercials, to girls in the hallway. He was going, “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
They come out and they confront me, “Your kids are guilty of sexual harassment and it’s punishable, and you could go to jail.” It’s like “Huh?” Because I was busy coaching and judging, I didn’t even know that this had happened.
Then, when I went and edited the film, a year or two later, ”I see, Oh! There’s the frickin’ footage.” The kid did do it.
Afterwards, having not known that he did or did not do it, I remembered this thing about. My goal here is not to get these kids imprisoned. How do I deal with their bad behavior without sending them to prison?
If I got in trouble in Omaha, Nebraska, my dad was a doctor here, and I did something like that, that was inappropriate, no way. No way would anybody say, “You know that’s punishable and you’re going to go to prison.”
But if you’re a black kid and you’re at a tournament in lily white suburban New Jersey, and a white coach comes up to you and says, “That’s punishable by prison,” guess what. It could happen. You could end up in the prison system.
Tom: I thought she totally overreacted to it.
James: But I’m not going to say that on film, because it’s inappropriate behavior.
That’s the subtle point here. They’re being kids. It’s to your point.
Kids do stupid stuff, OK? They do inappropriate sophomoric stuff, regardless of race or background. That’s a fact.
But the deal is if you’re from a certain background, it’s treated differently. You don’t even see it. It’s treated differently.
That’s why a lot of these kids, for stupid stuff, they end up in the prison system as opposed to like the principal’s office, where they belong.
At Prep, if you did something knuckleheaded like that, you went to this thing called Jug, which was after school. You sit there for two hours, you can’t leave school, and you have to do a math equation or something to be able to leave.
That was Jug. Everybody at Prep knows what Jug is. The proctor of discipline sat there and waited until you got it done.
They should have Jug in public schools, or some kind of punishment like that. But they don’t. The kids end up like…There’s no in-between punishment system.
There’s no dad in the home in a lot of cases, so there’s nobody to run interference for them, and that’s why this stuff happens.
It’s not just about the education. It’s about kids ending up in the prison system because there’s nobody to run interference.
He was being a knucklehead. Nobody’s to say, “Hey, that does not mean he should be arrested or charged with anything.” There’s nobody there to do that, you see?
That’s why mentorship is so big a part of this. It’s got to be there.
Tom: If people want to see the film, or find out more about “Crotty’s Kids,” again, how do they do it?
James: Right now, the simplest way is they go to Crottyskids.com, and there they can watch the trailer or buy the DVD for “Crotty’s Kids,” and “Master Debaters,” That’s the easiest way people in Omaha can get it.
It’s not expensive. I cover all the shipping and handling and taxes and everything. That’s the easiest way. Just go to Crottyskids.com.
Tom: I’ve got to tell you, I love stories like that. Stories where one man says, “Look, I could make a difference.” One man says, “I can change some things, I can help somebody out.” They put their mind to it, and they get it done.
It’s at Crottyskids.com. Get the DVD and more information about what James Crotty is doing.
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