The First Grader
Release Date: November 17, 2011
My family has a standing joke about what will happen every time my father and his brother get together.
They have more than a hundred and fifty years of local history between them, but the only thing they ever want to talk about is what colour the school bus really was. Yellow? No, green! You get the picture. It’s not a bad miniature for the theme behind one of this year’s most endearing films.
The First Grader shows us how deeply embedded and all-consuming our past is. It also demonstrates that what seems trivial to youngsters can be the very thing that has shaped the course of our lives.
The First Grader is the true story of 84-year-old Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge’s struggle to learn to read. Some time after Kenya’s emergence from British colonialism, the nation’s government offered free education to anyone who could produce a birth certificate. The politicians have children in mind but Maruge, a withered Kenyan villager, thinks otherwise. He appears at the gate of his provincial primary school with his fluttering certificate, determined to learn. “Why does someone as old as you want to go to school?” the head teacher Jane asks. “I want to learn to read,” Maruge replies. He possesses a mysterious unopened letter that somehow relates to his past. Demands that he produce a notebook … sharpened pencils … a uniform do not dissuade him. Neither does the opposition of affronted parents or embarrassed teachers. Maruge will take his place alongside the six year olds. And as he opens his books, a wound opens in the nation’s heart about its own unresolved past.
On the surface The First Grader looks like a simple story about the value of education. Maruge tells his teacher he will continue to learn ‘until he has soil in his ears.’ But the film has more than one lesson to offer. Maruge is a member of the Kikuyu tribe and a former Mau Mau rebel who resisted British rule. His story is interspersed with brutal recollections of torture and death that explain his desire for change. But Maruge’s past is meaningless to some characters Kenya, and a deep disturbance to others:
Maruge: “They were loyalists to the British!”
Jane: “My family were loyal. The British didn’t give us a choice. You were either for them or they killed you.
Maruge: “I had two children and they killed them. The Kikuyu chose and we paid. We paid.”
In an age where Hollywood repeatedly informs us that we do not have to be bound by our past, it’s challenging to be reminded that personal guilt is complex and harder to shift than we would imagine. Sometimes it’s the decisions that others have made; other times it’s the mistakes we’ve made for ourselves. But Maruge knows that the past cannot be resolved by simply forgetting about it. He warns Kenya’s education board,
“We must learn from our past. We must not forget. We reap what we sow.”
– a truism first found in the book of Job. At the other end of the Bible, James represents the same truth but in a positive light:
“Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
But James is not offering Hollywood’s usual bogus lesson, ‘Do good things and good things will happen to you.’ The peace he refers to is much more certain because it comes by paying attention to the ‘wisdom that comes from heaven’. Only by learning what God has done for our past can we hope to attain to that righteousness.
The First Grader is a tear-inducing triumph about the power of education. It reminds us that our greatest duty is to learn from our mistakes. Ignorance may be less trouble but only resolution of our guilt offers lasting peace.