The School, the Boys, Abe and Ken

Posted by Michael Getler on

It's been a little slow in the ombudsman's office for the past few days; not much mail, good or bad, from viewers. So I thought I would take advantage of this time and space for a personal note of thanks, as a viewer, to the students and faculty of the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., to filmmaker Ken Burns and to the eloquence of our revered 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, for what, in my view, turned out to be a powerful, important, imaginative and emotional 90 minutes of public service broadcasting last night.

The documentary is titled "The Address," and it tells the story of a small boarding school in a small town in Vermont with some 50 students; all boys, all between the ages of 11 and 17, and all struggling with one or more of the reading, speaking, visualizing, behavioral or attention deficit disorders that seem all too commonly diagnosed these days in many American families.

The school, founded in 1978, has made it a rite of passage for these students, for however long it takes, to understand, memorize and ultimately recite, in front of the faculty and parents, one of the shortest (272 words) yet most memorable speeches in American history—Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863.

Writing in The Washington Post, reviewer Hank Stuever puts it this way: "Their issues should be familiar to anyone who has been around teenage boys or ever seen one slip through the educational system. They have dyslexia and attention-deficit and speech disorders. To that, add occasional problems with anger control and social anxiety…Watching 'The Address,' one is reminded of how little we ever see of the highs and lows in the reticent world of teenage boys; even with all the TV shows filled with fictional angst and the newscasts filled with the real-life perils of bullying and outbursts of school violence, Greenwood's boys are a fascinating and inspiring study in the fragility and strength of everyday adolescence."

Stuever's review says it better than I can. But what prompted me to make this brief posting was the coming together of expertise, creativity, imagination and emotion—on the part of the school in hitting upon this assignment and technique, the students whose struggles you share, and filmmaker Burns, who combines his unique ability to capture American history and culture on film—to produce something that personifies the educational role of public broadcasting.

Posted at 3:01 PM

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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