Posted: 05/19/2011


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.
At first he is told that he needs to go home—that the school is only for youngsters, but he insists that the notice from the Ministry of Education said anyone. Next he is told that he needs a uniform, so he scrounges up a few coins and buys the striped-top blue knee highs and tries again. Finally the sympathetic teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), allows him to sit in on class, but it will cost them both.

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.
At one point when he is kicked out, he tries to go to the adult school. But it is really just one, big chaotic mess with grown folks just hanging around enjoying social hour all day. It’s no place for Maruge.

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.
But the young students wage a protest of their own, in the vein of their ancestors; they refuse to let the new teacher come into the school yard, and eventually Jane returns to teach the students, including Maruge.

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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