One of the best documentary series I’ve ever seen, A Walk in Your Shoes, was produced for and aired on a children’s television cable channel, Noggin, a few years ago.
It was simply a show in which preteen (or teenage) children exchanged their places, families and lifestyle for a few days, and kept a journal of their experiences and observations. The children who participated were all articulate, outgoing, and curious. What made it so awesome was that, unlike the authoritative narrators in documentaries for adult audiences, the children didn’t feel a need to prove their preconceptions.
One of my favorite episodes was one in which a boy from a commune exchanged places with a boy in military school. Their experiences were an eye-opener for me as well as for the boys.
The boy from the commune had a great time in military school: the obstacle courses and military drills were like sports and fun. He had to buckle down and study hard for the science test though: who knew (I certainly didn’t) that 7th graders in military school are expected to spell, discuss, and define mitochondria at the science teachers whim!
The boy from military school wasn’t quite as happy in the commune. He was uncomfortable with starting the school day holding hands and singing a song in the outdoor classroom, which was, well, just the outdoors. He was also unhappy with the organic, vegetarian food served for every meal. It’s not that he hated it: it’s just that living a commune entailed more than being laid back.
What could you conclude from the documentary? A lot of things, including the fact that military school isn’t a jail for delinquents, and is impressively academic. You could also conclude that children who grow up in a commune are more open-minded about new experiences.
The series was also interesting in what it didn’t show. For instance, after 9/11, the show had an episode in which a Protestant girl exchanged places with a Muslim girl. Actually, they didn’t. The Muslim girl came to visit the Protestant family and yakked about Islam and all the things that had to be done to accomodate her religious beliefs. The Protestant girl, on the other hand, never got to even see, much less live with, the Muslim girl’s family. The show never said why that was, but if you thought about it, the lack of exchange was an interesting commentary in itself.
The series went off the air a few years ago, when Noggin revamped its format. It had started out as a TV channel with exclusively educational shoes and no commercials. Its early years included re-runs of Bill Nye the Science Guy, Play with Me Sesame (a shorter Sesame Street), and Blue’s Clues. A Walk in Your Shoes was part of that experiment. These days, Noggin shows itself as the Nickelodeon subsidiary that it is, and shows Nickelodeon shows for preschoolers, like Dora the Explorer, for the first half of the day, and teen shoes, like Degrassi, for the second half of the day.
I miss A Walk in Your Shoes, and I wish we had more documentaries that were confident in being able to show without having to tell as well.