Autism, Down syndrome, Tourette’s and ADHD are just some of the intellectual disabilities that special ed teachers Mike Kersjes and Robynn McKinney deal with in their classroom of students at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But where others may define the students by what they lack, Kersjes believes in their potential to push beyond their boundaries and accomplish great things: specifically, to take part in NASA’s rigorous and demanding “Space Camp” program for gifted young people.
Kersjes originally shared this story in his 2002 book, “A Smile as Big as the Moon.” Now, a television movie with the same title has been adapted by Hallmark Hall of Fame for airing on Sunday January 29 at 9:00 Eastern/8:00 Central. Starring John Corbett (Northern Exposure, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Kersjes, and Jessy Schram (Once Upon a Time, Falling Skies) as McKinney, the film conveys the teachers’ dedication to bringing out the best in their students—and the life-changing vision of themselves that the students earn when they surpass what anyone ever expected of them.
The film does a good job of showing the challenges that special ed students have to deal with—from basic classroom learning, to being insulted and treated like outcasts by the popular kids. It also shows the students as smart in specialized areas like math or constructing a complicated model of the Space Shuttle. I’ve heard the term “differently-abled” (as opposed to “disabled”) applied to students in this situation. That description certainly holds true here.
Kersjes and McKinney face their own challenges. The school principal isn’t keen on letting the special needs students go anywhere because they tend to get disruptive on class trips; the cost of taking everyone to Space Camp is $50,000 which the school can’t afford; and the Space Camp itself has never had special needs students take part in their program so its leadership is resistant at first.
Overall, this Hallmark Hall of Fame production tells its story well and engagingly. The actors playing the students give solid performances, my favorite of which is Peter ten Brink, a teen with Down syndrome. In her role as Robynn McKinney, Jessy Schram (right) displays grit, compassion and, at times, quite a resemblance to Reese Witherspoon. Finally, there’s John Corbett’s performance as Mike Kersjes. He’s completely believable as a world-weary teacher struggling to stay connected with the ideals and passion that led him to a career in education.
Corbett’s most memorable scene is his plea to the Colonel who runs the Space Camp, asking permission for the special needs students to take part in the program. Since his words – written by screenwriter, Tom Rickman – sum up the message of the film, I’ll close with them:
“I’ve worked with special needs kids for far too long to romanticize their accomplishments. There are no simple solutions for any of them. These are basically good kids who’ve been dealt a bad hand. They live their lives on the margins. Their classroom is a metaphor for their existence. It’s out of the way at the far end of the basement. It’s like a cell block with bad air, bad light, no windows to the outside world. And outside the classroom, not much is asked of them nor is much expected. Can they try your patience? Yes, they can. And do they sometimes break your heart? Yes sir, they certainly do. But there are times – remarkable moments…when more is asked of them and more is expected of them. And they rise to the occasion, gratefully, gladly, just to remind you of the remarkable power of the human spirit.”