Many years ago, a crusty city editor admonished me, a lowly cub reporter, never to use “I” in any of my stories. By and large, I have stuck to that rule on the long road to becoming a graying, grizzled, veteran writer.
This season of Thanksgiving, though, I want to break the rule to say how thankful I am for (of all things) the motion picture Miss Virginia. This isn’t about me, but it is personal for me. Never before have I had a friend whose life’s good works furnished the inspiration for a Hollywood production.
Virginia Fowler Walden Ford, the courageous African-American mom who put her heart and soul into advancing school choice for Washington, DC parents—against all odds—is a dear friend to thousands of people who yearn for the educational freedom that yields opportunity for children. I have written editorials and columns about her crowning achievement, the now 15-year-old DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, but lately our friendship has grown via Facebook.
Last summer, amid hints of a possible release of Miss Virginia late in 2019, I decided to gather information in advance and be among the first to herald a movie (at last!) about everyday parents battling for the power to exercise the most urgently needed educational options for their children. A “scoop” is what a cub reporter might have called my hoped-for story. I had several good conversations with the real Miss Virginia, during which she expressed her hopes for the movie’s motivational impact on parents nationwide.
“I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the role of parents today in the fight,” she confided in me last summer. “Twenty years ago, we struggled to have a seat at the table to fight for our children. We became warriors and let the world know that our kids were our priority, and we would not stop until their needs were met.
“I worry that the warrior parent role is diminishing, which is why the movie will be important for parents to see,” she added. “They, once again, need to understand we are our children’s advocates. We must fight for them and fight hard.”
Alas, a nasty aortic aneurysm thwarted my cubbish quest of an exclusive. Late summer and autumn became a fog of catheterizations, CT-scans, consultations, six-hour open-heart surgery at UNC-Chapel Hill, overtime week in the hospital to deal with pesky blood clots, and a long-distance ambulance ride to an in-patient rehab center near my hometown. But hey, it was all good, because when I finally saw Miss Virginia, it was like awakening from a long dream, and a very good one.
Never mind that all the premieres were history, and virtually every policy wonk on the planet had done a write-up; suddenly, with the fog lifting, there was this movie available on my home TV screen atop the on-demand movies. And it was much more riveting a dramatic narrative than I had anticipated it would be.
The film powerfully relates how single-mom Walden Ford fought to free her son William from a callous and dangerous public school that had pegged him for certain failure in life because of a speech impediment. A viewer gains a sense of how a pernicious drug culture sucks in young people and uses mean-street intimidation to keep them in thrall.
Ultimately, Miss Virginia (Walden Ford) goes into warrior mode, recruits an army of inner-city folks equally hungry for private school choice, and confronts the entrenched local and federal establishments in DC—winning vital converts while enduring smears from such fans of the monopolistic status quo as teacher union bosses and politicos on their dole.
Of course, the movie takes artistic license, as most Hollywood productions do. It is not a documentary, nor is it autobiographical. Absolutely authentic, however, were the scenes that show how much Virginia feared public speaking and how she had to overcome that shy streak to become the warrior she believes parents must be in standing up for their children.
In her just-published memoir, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep (Beaufort Books), Walden Ford gives insight into how her family’s sometimes-frightening experiences with bitter-end racism during the battles over desegregation in her native city of Little Rock steeled her to the necessity of speaking out. It also provides a blow-by-blow account of how the DC private-choice vouchers came into being.
My favorite piece about the movie comes from Black Entertainment Television’s website (BET.com) in the form of an interview with Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba (best known for her role on Orange Is the New Black) who masterfully became the on-screen Miss Virginia. In doing so, she spent time with Walden Ford touring civil rights monuments and getting to know her. A few of her observations:
“I learned that power can be quiet. She’s a woman who holds space, but she’s much more so a listener and a quiet soul. … there’s still that humility, and the activist in her is still very much mission-based and focused … She struck me as a woman who was quiet but not afraid to speak when needed.”
And on the movie’s message:
“Every single person can use their voice to make change. And this story helps us to understand that a mother’s love was all that Miss Walden Ford had, and that was enough.”
So, this Thanksgiving, I propose a toast not only to brilliant surgeons who helped me live, but to the power of a mother’s love and what it can do to break down barriers to quality educational options for all children.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy for The Heartland Institute.