Last night, we watched the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, "A Smile as Big as the Moon" as a family.
Now, I'm a regular watcher of Hallmark Hall of Fame specials, but usually I'm on my own for them. But as soon as Dylan saw that it was a movie about kids going to space camp, he was all in.
Although it was a school night, and therefore a "no TV" night, I felt that I had to let him watch it. I'm glad I did.
The movie is about a special ed class that goes to the Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsvill, Ala.
I was a little worried at the very beginning of the movie, when they introduced the cast of characters. The class included kids with autism, Down's syndrome, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder...and several with various aspects of ADHD. I worried how Dylan would feel with ADHD kids being separated from the rest of the school population in the story.
I needn't have worried. To the contrary, he was so thrilled and excited that there were kids represented in the movie who were like him. I think he actually identified with all the kids.
The film takes place in the late '80s, when special ed was the class at the back of the hall, the kids you rarely saw and certainly didn't relate with or to. It was before (just before) ADA was enacted, before No Child Left Behind, before inclusion became commonplace.
Based on a real story, this particular class of kids was blessed to have a teacher who saw beyond their disabilities. Instead of seeing what he couldn't do, he saw a classroom of individuals who CAN do. And despite a less than stellar experience at the local planetarium, he gets it into his head that "his" kids could go to space camp.
No one is initially in favor it, including Space Camp, but he never gives up on the idea and eventually brings everyone around to it with him.
Several months pass between the time he convinces Space Camp and the kids actually go to camp. In the interim, the kids have to work on projects, memorize codes, build models, and learn to work together. As you might expect, the group of kids includes definite "types." The angry, ODD kid; the gentle giant; the girl who is picked on; the rebel; etc. By the time they go to Space Camp, you can see that there will be a crisis, but they will overcome it.
Knowing what would happen and the formula for the film don't take away from the story. You want these kids to succeed and, especially, to show the "normal" kids that they can excel. John Corbett as the lead character, Michael Kersjes, delivers a great speech about how these kids have imagination and strengths and are way more than the sum of their parts.
Hallmark Hall of Fame movies almost always have some sort of a happy ending and this one was no different. The kids are confronted with challenges at Space Camp, they have early success, then they hit a wall. The rebel stands and lives up to his potential, and leads the group to a strong finish.
It is an expected and satisfying conclusion.
Dylan was swept along with the story from beginning to end. He cheered when the teacher talked about the kids' imagination. He stuck up for them when they were bullied. He pumped his fists in the air when they won awards at the final night of space camp. It was thoroughly life affirming for him and just what he - maybe we all - needed: Belief that even amidst all the struggles with his ADHD, he CAN do. He CAN live his dreams. Even if he is different, he is not alone.
A lot has changed since the original story began. Space Camp now has a regular program for kids with disabilities. For better or worse, most kids with disabilities are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. And while bullying most certainly continues, it's not condoned or overlooked...usually, at least.
The actors in the film are all believable and likeable, including the kids. I don't know how many really have the disabilities portrayed in the film, if any besides the kid with Down syndrome, but all do a good job presenting the disorders they represent.
It's so positive to see kids who are different represented in a positive light on TV. So often ADD is used as short hand on TV, short hand for the spacey, flighty character. It's a slam, never a complement. It's never presented as a positive. It's validating for a young child like Dylan to see these kids presented in a positive light, with, yes, downsides to their disorders, but big pluses as well. The gentle giant, with autism, puts a huge model together overnight. The kid with Down syndrome can swim like a fish. What a great message not just for kids with these differences, but for all kids, all parents.
Our kids, these kids, need to dream. For every negative to their disorders, there is a positive that they can build on. The world needs to see that, teachers need to see that, and we parents need to see it, too. We need to help our kids believe just like Mike Kersjes helped his kids believe.