I often refer to VanDamme Academy as a “cultural oasis.” We are known among the local high schools for producing some of the best academically prepared students in the county. But there is something more, an intangible quality to the culture of the school and its lasting effect on students, that is truly special, and that has always been difficult to communicate. It is that quality that prompted one of this year’s graduating 8th graders to write in my yearbook, “Miss VanDamme, This school is the best thing that ever happened to me…”
People who have experienced the school’s culture for themselves, who have either sat in the bristlingly energetic classrooms, or been regaled with stories of the school’s successes, or heard graduates speak nostalgically and gratefully about their VanDamme Academy years, or read my writing and wished that such a school had existed for them or for their children – those people get it. They get why a teenage girl would unfathomably call her junior high school experience “the best thing that ever happened to her.” And they want more students to have the opportunity she did.
That is why I am asked incessantly: When are you going to franchise? When are you going to start a high school? How are you going to communicate to other educators the principles that inspire these results?
I struggled with the question of expansion for many years. But now, my serene, considered answer is: I’m not. I decided long ago that I personally want to run just this one school, for many reasons. The most important among them are: 1) I want to be able to focus on continuous refinement, making this school the very best it can possibly be, 2) My happiness depends on having the opportunity to personally inspire students with a passion for great literature, and 3) I always say I will never give up my “hugs in the hall,” by which I mean the close relationship I share with students and parents alike.
But I have always felt a tug of guilt, or of responsibility, or maybe just of desire, to communicate what is happening within the walls of VanDamme Academy and to inspire others to do the same.
When I explained all this to an astute and highly successful entrepreneur who had been asking me the “incessant questions,” he said, “Ok.You need to just keep doing what you are doing, and have three cameras follow you around while you are doing it.” Shortly after that, when I described a writing project I was considering to another sharp-minded friend and fan of VanDamme Academy, he echoed the same sentiment, saying, “I think the precursor to that would be someone doing a documentary about the school. The problem with just writing is that people will have no concretized concept of what you’ve accomplished. Motivation comes before real learning.”
I felt about this idea much the same as I did 20 years ago, when I came home to an answering machine message from someone looking for a homeschool teacher for his children. In both cases, at first I didn’t know what to make of it. Within 24 hours, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. But if I was going to do this, it would have to be done right. I would need to find someone who had real training, experience, and success as a filmmaker, AND who appreciated the essence of the school. Then it dawned on me.
Among the people who “get it” is a woman who regularly wants to sit within our walls, just to infuse her own soul with inspiration. Several times a year, she steps away from her day job and volunteers as a substitute teacher. Her day job? Independent film producer.
Her name is Jessie Creel. She has an MFA in producing from Chapman University. Her first film, “Stones,” was an official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival shorts program, and she is currently working on a feature film that is being developed with support from the Sundance labs and the Creative Producing Summit Fellowship. Jessie says her life goal is to produce films and documentaries based on true stories from around the world that illuminate human potential. I proposed my idea to her, and she was on board immediately, because she believes VanDamme Academy is one of those stories. In her words, “I’m always bragging about VDA. Let me show people and not tell them.” As we talked, her suggestions about what to focus on in the documentary exactly matched what I had been thinking…and I knew I had found capable hands.
Jessie’s partner in this project would be Richard Yau, who has a Masters of Fine Arts in Cinematography from Chapman University. His work on “Stones” garnered him a nomination for cinematography at the 2009 Cecil Awards and an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. He has worked on projects for Fox Searchlight, YouTube, Wisecrack, Soulpancake, Buzzfeed, and other independent production companies, and he now works as a Director of Photography in Los Angeles shooting music videos, commercials, short films, web series and recently a feature film.
Jessie and Richie have created a “proof of concept” – a glimpse into what the full feature will be, and it is beautiful. You can see it here.
The feature would be a short documentary, between 22 and 30 minutes. Upon completion, it would be marketed to film festivals to try to garner attention and to television to get it played on stations like PBS. The ultimate goal, though, would be to get it in the hands of administrators, educators, homeschoolers, education policy makers, etc., to inspire them with VanDamme Academy’s vision.
At this stage, what we need most to make this project a reality is funding. To fully fund all aspects of this project, we need to raise $100,000, and fairly quickly if we want to produce it this year.
If you are interested in supporting this project financially please just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what amount you would be interested in contributing. Any contribution helps.
In the weary world of education, VanDamme Academy is a little candle that – with the help of this documentary – could throw its beams far and wide.