The power of a teacher who believes in their pupils is a familiar, inspiring Hollywood go-to. From Miss Honey in Matilda, Dr. Larabee in Akeelah & The Bee, to one of Robin Williams most iconic roles as Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society. These are just three of countless more films where teachers shown as heroes driven by their passion for enabling young minds to grow and flourish despite the obstacles they may face. What can be most heartwarming about watching these relationships is that we know teachers like these exist in real life. Director Lillian LaSalle zeroes in on one such individual; charismatic Bronx educator Pedro Santana. My Name is Pedro provides a thoughtful, emotive portrait not just on his impact – but the seemingly insurmountable constraints faced when simply trying to put children first.
Growing up in South Bronx, Pedro was a Special Ed student with a stutter. Inspired by the nurturing relationship between him and his teacher, he saw his calling in paying it forward and teaching young people. Turning his troubled Bronx middle school, MS 391 around, featuring in New York Times articles, and working his way up to Assistant Superintendent in the East Ramapo school district New York. We follow Pedro walking the school hallways, a sinewy figure with long curly black hair; excited shouts of “Michael Jackson” ring out. He laughs amiably as he reveals that his children bemoan his appearance and failure or look and dress like a ‘normal’ dad. Yet in this striking appearance, Pedro finds power. He doesn’t fit the image of what many expect from those in his field, and while he may not be Michael Jackson, he also wants to make a memorable impression that will change lives.
Comparisons to the King of Pop aside, the importance of Pedro’s visibility as a Latino man in a position of authority within education cannot be undersold. In a community filled with Black and brown students, many dealing with socio-economic hardship, being able to see a teacher who they can recognise and relate to is invaluable. In a particularly poignant moment, Pedro speaks to a group of children, aligning himself with the majority who raise their hands when asked if they feel they don’t fit the norm. Detailing the struggles he faced in Special Ed elicits small nods that are subtle, but speak volumes as you see the seed of perseverance start to resonate. This common ground is amplified when Pedro breezily recalls lying to welfare officers to help his family. Many children smile knowingly, recognising their own lives in the teacher before them.
LaSalle uses these early snapshots to set up Pedro as a shining light, before bleeding in the local politics that threaten to stifle it. Changing demographics in East Ramapo mean that the Orthodox community make up two-thirds of the area, and as such have taken control over school boards and their funding. However most of their children attend faith-based schools rather than the public schools their decisions to cut spending actually affect. Blame is carefully sidestepped however, as the film is keen to highlight that with two communities arguing over a lack of resources, ultimately it’s the children who lose. What isn’t glossed over, instead shown in painstaking detail through meeting footage, is the self interest of the school board. Pedro’s career is not without turmoil, and as he finds himself at the mercy of the board, the manner in which parents, students, fellow educators and even Orthodox members unify in their ardent defence is genuinely moving.
My Name is Pedro is a lovingly well-crafted feature. While being presented with a subject who speaks about impact so emphatically from the get-go can teeter on making the documentary seem sickly sweet and one-note, LaSalle contextualises at just the right juncture to hold attention. She succeeds in illustrating the turbulent nature of school district politics and over the course of the runtime, we’re taken on a gut-wrenching journey, where we acutely feel the anguish of parents relying on and needing more mavericks like Pedro to fight for their children.
Ultimately, what lingers on after watching My Name is Pedro is the essence of the man himself. His infectious optimism, unapologetic values and the true sense of someone doing what they were born to do. The story of Pedro Santana takes turns that both delight and despair, and may be missing the Hollywood gloss, but it’s a depiction of hope rooted in reality, which can be all the more fulfilling.
MY NAME IS PEDRO will be released on VOD and DVD on 23 February 2021 in US, Canada and UK.