If Kelsey Carroll is to be believed when she tells viewers, "A little bit of caring will take me a long, long way," it is a sentiment that will prove difficult to deliver by the educators and family members we meet in the documentary film, Who Cares About Kelsey? Kelsey, 19, is a fifth year senior at Somersworth High School in New Hampshire and she is among the 20 percent of adolescents in the United States with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Her diagnosis is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Kelsey vows that she will not return for a sixth year of high school, and on this, Dan Habib begins filming her final year in public school.
Habib is renowned for his award-winning documentary film Including Samuel (2009), which explores the contested meanings of educational inclusion in several schools in the Northeastern United States. In Who Cares About Kelsey?, Habib once again delves into issues of disability as these are played out in K-12 public schooling. In much the same way that Including Samuel exposes the institutional structures that all but ensure educational and social exclusion for many students with disabilities, this film, focusing on one student with a history of exhibiting challenging behaviors at school, calls attention to historically unresponsive educational systems. But make no mistake, while this history is relevant to recognize and to critique, viewers will be drawn to the multiple ways that caring about Kelsey and about her future figure into the film.
Habib opens with the stark unfolding of Kelsey's worldview and unrefined commentary on her extended, blended, and yet-to-be-mended family at a celebration in the home she shares with her father, a retired Navy firefighter, and her stepmom. Thumbnail sketches of the family are narrated by Kelsey who offers in one blast: "My dad wasn't around much when I was young…I don't get along with him…we don't see eye-to-eye….my stepmom thinks she knows everything…she pisses me off…my sister is pregnant again…but she hasn't even told my dad." When describing her boyfriend, Kelsey insists without irony, "We have nothing in common. Nothing. But I guess that's what makes it interesting—we talk about everything." When Kelsey's biological mother arrives, her hard edge audibly softens as she explains: "When I was living with my mom we became homeless…we never had any money…because of her 'situation'…I choose not to remember that little part of my life cuz it 'brings me down'…I don't want to be a 'downer' so I stay away from it."
Situating Kelsey's viewpoint early on creates a framework for the trials we see her undergo in the rest of the film. Employing this filmic technique to expose the foibles of this complicated young person living in a complex context ingeniously refutes the easy appeal to audience sympathy and sentimentality characteristic of other disability films. Habib takes risks here, as seeing Kelsey's relentlessly challenging behaviors throughout much of the film can prove torturous for the audience. Although we may want to embrace Kelsey as the apparent underdog in this film, in fact, there may be little to like about her except, perhaps, for the fact that she is so consummately "challenging!"
That said, how will the audience manage to root for the underdog? Perhaps by recognizing that the real underdog in this film is not Kelsey. She is the catalyst that propels several Somersworth High School educators and staff to commit to the launch of RENEW, a program designed to "turn around" students who are disconnected from schools and have much to learn from the adults they encounter who do still care. RENEW's approach essentially entails a youth-directed planning process that connects students to the resources they need to complete high school and transition into adult life.
Throughout the documentary we meet authentic educational heroes who are powerful in their refusal to separate care from teaching. These educators and administrators accept Kelsey—strengths and weakness combined—and collectively enact support for her in subtle and profound ways. For example, Katherine Francouer, a member of the school's "Crisis Intervention Team," does not need to follow a mandated "training manual" to exercise her humanity as an educator. Ms. Francouer goes the extra mile throughout the film to support Kelsey as she slowly comes to the realization that care for the self precedes the acceptance of care from others. Another school administrator, Ms. Chamberlin negotiates an eleventh-hour bargain with Kelsey following her iPod use in class. Though Kelsey clearly violated school policy, Ms. Chamberlin recognized that a successful "deal with Kelsey" far outweighed conformance to the "rules." Such adult role models do exist in schools and Habib has mined these gems as they accept the challenge to care. This film will exhaust you as you rally for their success, as they are truly the underdogs in the film and in the average K-12 education system where such options to meaningfully support students do not exist.
It is often a given that teachers learn from formal and informal mechanisms about their students before they actually meet. Claire Handy, Kelsey's science teacher, alludes to this when recounting her efforts to avoid preconceived notions about Kelsey. She explained:
To be honest, I knew Kelsey was coming with a lot of "baggage" (so to speak), and that she could be a disruption in the classroom. And so I tried to just get in with her right from the "get go" and just let her know that I was really going to be there for her—to help her succeed. And she bought into that pretty quickly.
We see how late into the school year, Kelsey and Ms. Handy share a respectful bond, even after the school year ends. Similarly, the math teacher's first impression prior to meeting Kelsey, was: "Man I hope I never get that kid in my class … cuz, really, like what teacher is gonna want the 'trouble' kid…the kid that's going to throw things at me?" Mr. McNelly explains that upon actually meeting Kelsey, his first interactions with her were "pretty pleasant. I was like, this kid is pretty interesting. A little rough around the edges…some people are. I don't know if she'll ever lose that edge."
We then view Kelsey in math class providing a brilliant glimpse into the "intellectual-connections-as-distractions" response that students with ADHD consistently exhibit under stress. Mr. McNelly's lesson on probability involving marbles prompts Kelsey to offer: "You know that white powder on gum is really ground up marble." Mr. McNelly, pauses briefly, and with no visible lack of constraint, asks Kelsey, "Are we going to be able to get through this today?" Kelsey is quick to affirm: "Yeah. In about 20 minutes when my 'meds' kick in." That the math teacher cares about his content, cares about the other students in his class, and can still care about Kelsey drives home the relevance of the actual meaning of care in an educational setting.
In a move which offers richly textured insights into life in schools, Habib, as he has done in his previous films, includes several scenes that one might expect to see in The Wire, but not in an educational documentary. In Who Cares About Kelsey?, such scenes involve the study hall teacher, Ms. Nadeau, who reflects on her introduction to Kelsey:
When I first met Kelsey, she was actually held back at the middle school for half a year. Then she was dumped here (Somerworth HS) with no supports. She was completely like "hyper" and all over the place, completely with no direction. Yeah, she was pretty rude. She still can be. I don't know if it's me, but if I push her too far, that's when she's going to blow up.
Late into the documentary, and in the presence of Kelsey's classmates, Ms. Nadeau pushes "too far" and escalates the very behavior in Kelsey that others in the school have struggled all year to extinguish. It is remarkable footage of an all too common event. As a school-based ethnographer, I have witnessed trained professionals oftentimes provoke children with the clear knowledge of the damning consequences for the student. Ms. Nadeau's inability to maintain a professional demeanor working with Kelsey serves to potentially undermine the success of the Somersworth program in general and Kelsey's progress in particular. It is a scene I carefully unpack with my pre-service students when screening the film, as they, too, often fail to recognize the ethical shortcomings of professionals.
As Sharon Lampros, the Somersworth Principal observed of Kelsey, "There's a temper in her. She's stubborn, obstinate, very mature, and at the same time a very immature young lady. But she has the ability to become the champion of the underdog." Indeed! Kudos to Kelsey for doing just that! And kudos to Dan Habib for capturing in this film what is possible for kids like Kelsey when those who care are allowed to imagine and invest in the power of care. As for Kelsey, you'll have to watch the film to learn how deep the investment by her RENEW team impacted her high school success and her transition to life thereafter.
Note: The expanded educational materials provided with the Education Kit feature a wealth of resources for educators and families (www.whocaresaboutkelsey.com). They are designed for ready use with a broad audience.