Don’t worry about textbooks, the new teacher is told. “This is babysitting kids on their way to juvi.”
Stacey Bess ignored the advice from the substitute she was replacing, and “Beyond the Blackboard” is a powerful story of her determination and courage — and successes.
The Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, to be broadcast Sunday on CBS, is the sponsor’s 243rd production in the long-running series. It is an excellent addition to the popular drama specials, joining “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” “What the Deaf Man Heard” and “The Christmas Box,” that have been awarded a record-breaking 80 Emmy awards. (In one night more people watched Hallmark’s “Hamlet” than in all the live performances since it had been written.)
What could have been a maudlin “difficult class with inspirational teacher” after-school special, “Beyond the Blackboard” has a fine screenplay by Camille Thomasson, who also wrote Hallmark’s “Magic of Ordinary Days,” and is skillfully overseen by the veteran Tony-nominated and Emmy-winning director Jeff Bleckner (“Castle” and “Private Practice”).
An effective Emily VanCamp has the lead role as Bess, a Salt Lake resident and LDS Church member. The teacher is profiled as a single-minded education enthusiast who slowly receives the support she needs to overcome the challenges teaching struggling students in a homeless family shelter.
While local viewers will miss the sustaining faith that this movie scrubs clean, there are a series of touching vignettes showing the support and advice the fresh-from-college teacher receives. These individuals include the initially reluctant superintendent (a folksy Treat Williams), her enduring husband (Steve Talley), the shelter’s administrator (Julio Oscar Mechoso) and even the district’s nurse (Fran Martone).
While Bess’ personal beliefs would have added a deeper layer to the depiction of her fortitude, there are additional elements missing from the movie, which primarily focuses on her classroom time with brief scenes showing the couple raising their two children. Bess received treatment for two bouts with thyroid cancer during the stressful year, a fact that is not mentioned here.
The heart-wrenchingly exhausted students also had to be taught to be children once again.
The school district’s personnel director (Timothy Busfield), who remains unreachable when Bess repeatedly tries to solicit resources, is portrayed as the movie’s sole villain. While he could have shown more concern, it should be pointed out that the manager filled his responsibility to hire a resourceful teacher.
But “Beyond the Blackboard” fills its primary objective, and it is the reason Bess agreed to relive this painful experience.
“My purpose is to teach people to serve,” she has said. “Even the smallest gesture can make the biggest difference in another person’s life.”
In conjunction with the movie, Hallmark is creating a “Blackboard Wall of Fame,” where people can share stories about “the extraordinary teachers that made a difference in your life.” For more information, see www.blackboardwalloffame.com.
Blair Howell is a freelance editor and writer.