The First Grader
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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The First Grader is a film about determination and perseverance and a yearning to make things right at any cost. The year is 2003, and 84-year-old Kenyan and former Mau-Mau freedom fighter Stephen Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Litondo), has fought in the civil war, lost his immediate family, as well as his wife and son who he watched as the British executed them at point blank range. But even after all these tragedies, Maruge hasn’t lost his will to receive an education even during the sunset of his life.
He has received a letter from the government that he must read himself, and he embarks on a literal and figurative journey to the new school for first graders—he simply wants in.
Maruge makes his way to the school, which is located in a remote, mountaintop area, each day with the help of a walking stick. Just seeing him walk across the dirt roads, full of pride, wisdom and strength, is awe-inspiring. He struggles along with other students, who are about six years old, to learn his numbers. But the townspeople and the administrators don’t like the fact that the teacher is using precious resources on an old man. One local man even threatens and taunts him at his home one day. But Maruge is determined; he won’t back down.
In the midst of all this, once the news media learns about this unique student, they converge on the school for an interview. But the townspeople again interfere, thinking that the teacher and elderly student must have been paid something by the media.
When he returns, Jane reluctantly makes him the classroom assistant, but this new appointment angers the school administrators even more, so they go after Jane, who is forced to resign. The troubles that Jane face even pass on to her husband, as he is having troubles in his professional life. The transfer forces Jane and her husband to be even more separated, as they are both in distant cities trying to make a living.
Based on a true story, The First Grader allows the audience to see a lonely, elderly man who not only strives to keep up with the class but is an inspiration to the other first graders. The movie splices flashbacks of Maruge’s life throughout, to help the audience understand the elderly man’s plight and just why he needs this education so desperately. Maruge is such a dignified, sweet and caring soul, who could become quite feisty when trying to teach the children the power of the struggle.
The First Grader is such a triumphant story. Maruge went on to complete his education, speak in Washington, D.C., and be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to begin primary school. The First Grader is out in limited release.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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