The experience of watching Hard Times at Douglass High is akin to that of walking into a very dark room that has a few slivers of sunlight peaking in. The documentary, filmed by Susan and Alan Raymond over the course of one school year in Baltimore and airing this month on HBO, doesn’t really tell you anything you don’t already know about inner city schools or the pressures of No Child Left Behind—it just manages to bring it into sharper focus. So we see students falling asleep in classes or not going to class at all (oddly, they come to school, but loiter in the hallway), being rude to teachers and administrators, fighting with each other in the hall (in one horrific scene, a muscle-bound boy starts beating on five girls who were flirtingly teasing him), and struggling with the most basic of assignments. We see teachers, mostly hard-working and committed, who don’t have text books, who beg their students to show up “just two days in a row,” who bemoan the fact that, on parent/teacher night, so few parents actually arrive. We see administrators forced to make grueling choices—pass kids who really don’t deserve to graduate or risk government sanctions. We find out that 9th grade is the tipping point—the year most kids flunk or drop out. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Mr. McDermott, a talented English teacher who has been at Douglass for three years, quits at the end of the first semester. He’s like any teacher, he says. He needs that “little fix”—the student who shows a “spark,” some interest—and this year, he didn’t have such a kid. It broke him down. So he carries a box out of his classroom and leaves for good. Naturally, there are no qualified candidates waiting in the wings, so his students will endure a series of stop-gaps for the rest of the year. Again, there are fleeting moments of grace. The first is embodied by principal Isabelle Grant, whose optimism in the face of such hardship might seem pollyanna-ish, were it not for the fact that she puts real sweat behind her efforts. When children are failing, she pays private visits to homes, in some seriously sketchy neighborhoods. What’s more, she seems to genuinely love these students—she feels for their plight, she wants them to beat the odds and succeed. (Ironically, Grant and the rest of administration were fired two years after the film was shot—part of a “No Child Left Behind”-mandated takeover.) Other bits of light: A loquacious student from Douglass who expertly wins the city debate tournament and then celebrates like he just won the Heisman. (Later, in an interview, he matter-of-factly mentions that he hasn’t seen his father in 15 years.) There’s the school marching band and chorus, both excellent, and a young man, once a gangbanger, who praises his mother’s devotion in a graduation speech—he’s going on to university. The film offers no answers, no judgment, just observes silently. It’s sad, but compelling, and, for Baltimoreans, must-see TV.