Armen Bacon: Coppola and the Lone Star kids

April 4, 2014 

Throughout my career in education, I constantly bragged I had one of the best jobs on the planet — showcasing student excellence. From Academic Decathlon to Science Fair, Mock Trial to Young Authors Faire, student success thrived in all corners of Fresno County.

Often privy to stories never making headlines, I watched incarcerated kids turn their lives around, migrant students earn admission to Ivy League schools, and special needs children overcome physical and mental challenges that would bring tears to my eyes.

But through the years, there were nights I would lie awake wondering if all that raising the bar stuff, creating new standards, tightening regulations and protocols, might somehow be squelching and suffocating a teacher's passion for what I considered the real magic of education. With five grandchildren of my own now, I guess I want assurances, a money-back guarantee, that each will be empowered and encouraged to dream, believe and achieve.

I've always loved the Walt Disney quote, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." His words remind us to aim high and shoot for the moon.

Recently I stumbled upon a story illustrating exactly that. It also captures the "magic" that transforms student lives forever. I discovered the story in the weekend edition of Le Monde, a Parisian newspaper, but it actually took place right here in our own backyard — in a small Sanger school library some 30 years ago. Despite my rusty French, here is the English translation. In either language, it's Oscar-worthy.

Movies rarely get made at the insistence of seventh- and eighth-graders. But back in 1980, a group of determined upper-graders from Lone Star Elementary School did exactly that. According to Jo Ellen Misakian, librarian at the time, "The Outsiders" had been recommended to a few boys to boost their reading. It was about a group of unwanted, long-haired kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Word spread quickly of the book's popularity — teen-age angst, coming of age, a perfect adolescent nail-biter kind of novel.

Students and teachers agreed wholeheartedly that the storyline would make for a great movie. Capitalizing on the brewing enthusiasm, Misakian suggested a signed student petition. Quite by happenstance, she had read in Newsweek magazine that director Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola) had turned another popular book, "The Black Stallion," into a movie. I'm guessing her creative wheels began turning, momentum propelling, motivating, calling her to take a chance on the possibility her students' pleas might inspire another movie from the director.

What happened next is astonishing. The students sent Coppola a letter, the petition, and a copy of the book. Coppola received the packet but as most busy directors might do, he handed it off to one of his producers to check out. The producer, Fred Roos, later confessed the jacket cover looked "tacky;" he had little intention of doing anything with it, stuck it in his briefcase, and to be perfectly honest, forgot about it.

As fate often intervenes, a few weeks later Roos found himself on a cross-country flight with nothing to read. Perusing his briefcase, he discovered the book and began reading. "I said to myself I'd give it 10 pages. I ended up reading it cover to cover and I agreed with the kids."

Much to everyone's surprise, the students not only heard back but were informed a movie would be in the making.

The story only gets better. The initial script was sent as a courtesy to the students for input and reaction. Bold and daring, mostly just honest, they replied they did not like it and felt it deviated too far from the original book they so loved. Respectful of their feedback, Coppola himself rewrote the script.

Cast members Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Tommy Howell, Darren Dalton and Leif Garrett visited Lone Star School (a K-8 school at the time) before the movie's release. By the way, other notable cast members included Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez and Diane Lane. Can you imagine these (now) mega-stars, in the tiny school library, amusing themselves by catching chocolate-covered raisins in their mouth (as reported by the New York Times)? A media frenzy swarmed the school, including a news crew from "The Today Show."

This dream-come-true story continues garnering headlines as the film celebrates its 30-year mark of magic-making, especially for the 75 former Lone Star students who signed the original petition. It reminds us all that anything is possible when you dream big, work hard, and live by the mantra, "Yes, we can."

It's the stuff movies — and great teaching and learning — are made of.

Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches." Email: Twitter @ArmenBacon.

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