Finding Superman in Ourselves

By Mpaza S. Kapembwa

In the 2009 film Waiting for Superman, dejected students in a public school stumble through classes in a failing school, which contributes to a failing neighborhood and an overall sense of impending disaster. Everybody is waiting for Superman to appear, although everybody knows he never will. Thousands of high schools across the country today are called “dropout factories.” The Superman narrator points out that, “We’ve tried money, passing laws, and the latest reforms….” but nothing works. The documentary concludes that our public school system is broken and needs fixing.

Enter the reformers. First, the Radical: Michelle Rhee, until recently the D.C schools chancellor, argues that teachers have failed to produce “results for kids.” In her first year on the job, Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals, and cut some 121 office jobs. She cited under-enrollment and incompetence of officials as reasons for the moves.

Then the Visionary: “We won’t let your kids fail,” declares Geoffrey Canada. “We will get your kids into college.” Since 1990, Canada has been president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York.

I am on board with such Reformers, but teachers can neither “get results” for student nor “get them into college.” They can put us on the path to attain good results and get into college, but it’s all up to us. We have the MOST responsibility when it comes to our education. I want to challenge Reformers to look my peers and me in the eye and tell us that we need to work harder. I challenge parents to tell their kids to work harder before they turn to blame the teachers. I am not convinced that we students are doing the best we can, while our teachers are not doing their part.

Some teachers are incompetent, sure, but more students do not take their education seriously. We expect to be spoon-fed. We go to school, fill up with knowledge, go home and not study — and expect to get educated!

We are more products of our expectations than we are products of our environment. If we expect to succeed, nothing will stop us. My teachers never motivated me. They didn’t have to. I was motivated by the fact that paying bills in the house was a constant struggle. I was motivated by the fact that students like me were supposed to end up in jail and not at an elite college. I was motivated because the closest my mother will ever get to a college education is reading newsletters from my college. Every time I try to tell my fellow students that WE are the Superman and WE can pilot our own education, they counter with endless “what ifs” and “buts.” Nothing can ever be accomplished with that mentality.

While PTAs and School Boards can be great instruments in advocating for students, they often focus on the school administration, faculty, budgets, and long-winded policies. They overlook — or at least under-emphasize — the responsibilities of the student. Students cannot dodge their responsibilities and point fingers at their teachers. Parents cannot dodge their responsibilities and think the public school system alone will educate their children. Education starts in the home — everything else is just a supplement.

So I say to my fellow students, stand up! Get in that phone booth and pull on your Superman suit! Take off into the future — your future.
Mpaza S. Kapembwa is a freshman at Williams College, studying on a Gates Millennium Scholarship, among others. He can be reached at

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Hosting a dialogue among parents, educators and community members focused on improving our schools and providing a quality, equitable education for each of our nearly 100,000 students. ~ "ipsa scientia potestas est" ~ "Knowledge itself is power"
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6 Responses to Finding Superman in Ourselves

  1. Just Watch says:

    Bravo Mzapa. You are a great writer and your message is terrific.

    Education is a three legged stool, in my opinion, — Parents, students and school/system. Some students can succeed in spite of the absences of one or two of the legs, many more cannot. Your determination and drive are admirable and will carry you far in life.

  2. September says:

    Many years ago, my sister qualified to attend a highly rated university. At church, a family friend asked my father, “So, how did you do it? How did you get your daughter into such a good school?” My father’s answer was that he really didn’t have to do anything. He was there to support and encourage her, but my sister had done all the real work herself.

    A good school can help a student to succeed. Unfortunately, students don’t always take advantage of what their schools have to offer. College recruiters will tell high school students that grades and test scores are important, but they also look at the classes that were offered that you didn’t take. If AP Calculous was offered at your high school and you didn’t take the class, it may count against you in the admissions process. If you were only able to take Trig & Analytic Geometry and you got a good grade, then you are fine.

    Teachers have a responsibility to teach, but students must take personal responsibility for their learning. That means taking the difficult classes, doing homework, showing up on time, and working with the teacher. I’ve known a lot of teachers over the years and most of them will make time to help a student who really wants to learn. Mzapa is correct. It is possible to succeed in a difficult school situation. Motivation is everything.

  3. momfromhe11 says:


    Your writing is far superior what I expect of any college freshman. It is concise and cohesive, and your subject matter (once again) is relevant. I suspect your professors are enjoying reading your papers as well.

    I feel sure I will be seeing your name for many years to come, because no matter what you choose to do, you will do a stellar job of it.

  4. dekalbschoolwatch says:

    We agree that Mpaza’s writing is very good, but there is a quality about him that is intangible – he ‘gets’ it. Mpaza is wise beyond his years and he is reaching out to young students currently in high school, asking them to ‘look beyond’ what is set in front of them and ‘own’ their futures. Do not take the obvious path — follow your heart and your dreams. Do not allow yourself to be hindered. Follow Mpaza and he will light the way for you to claim your own education, your own future and your own life. Thank you to Kim Gokce, long time friend of this blog and rabid supporter of Cross Keys HS for sending us the blessing known to us as Mpaza. I pray that students will hear his cry and follow the path that he lights. Never, ever, ever let you circumstances wilt your dreams — keep your eyes on your very own prize and follow the path that you know is for you! See beyond!

  5. Kim, thanks so much for introducing us to Mpaza. I am requiring my 7th grader to read this and I am also saving it for them when they head into High School. Incredible writing!

  6. Public School Teacher says:

    Mr Kapembwa,
    Very disappointed in one aspect of your otherwise excellent article.
    You say you are “on board” with the likes of Michelle Rhee and other “reformers”.
    Have you really looked into their claims? Done any fact checking? Looked past the BIG MONEY and media hype supporting her and other reformers to get more objective data?
    I have a few points for you to consider:
    On the following points Rhee has been documented to have either lied or shown reckless disregard for the truth:
    1. Her students’ achievement as a TFA intern;
    2. The alleged media attention she claimed on her resume;
    3. The DCPS budget during her tenure;
    4. The reason(s) teachers were fired without due process under her watch;
    5. Any and all educational research;
    6. Test scores under her watch (they went DOWN during her 3rd year after shrinking during her 2nd, after nearly two decades of steady increases. The more she “reformed” the worse the student’s performance, IF you accept test results as a measure. Look at the trends.);
    7. Cheating on these tests.
    8. Her ability to select and hire successful principals.

    Now remember… SHE PERSONALLY BENEFITED from each of these misstatements, in fact, HER VERY IDENTITY as an “education expert” is her SACRED STORY based ENTIRELY on these falsehoods, you have to question credulity of anyone who even listens to her excuses.

    Rhee is a self promoting huckster … Not the savior of public education, nor the savior of underserved populations.
    Please reconsider getting on board with the likes of her!

    Public School Teacher

    For support of all of these please see the following:

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