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Suggested Answers to Discussion Questions for
Learning Guide to THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS


Discussion Questions:

1.  See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

MEDIA LITERACY

2.  There is something not quite realistic about what's shown in the movie. What is it? Suggested Response: Only a superman could:
    study for a difficult brokers' exam and

    work in the Dean Witter office making hundreds of cold calls a day and

    do better than all the other interns and

    care for his son and

    get food for them both and

    search for a different place to sleep every night and

    look fresh and well rested every morning like any other businessman and

    sell a few bone density scanners on the week-ends,

    when

    he wasn't getting paid and knew that only one intern would be offered a job.
In fact, what the real Chris Gardner did was very difficult. However, it becomes a superhuman task when you add the pressure of preparing for a very difficult examination with no quiet place to study, having to sell bone density scanners on the week-ends, and working for no money, all the while knowing that there was little chance that he'd get the job.


3.  Mr. Gardner deserves praise for his decision to keep his son with him. However, the story told by the movie sidesteps the questionable ethical decision made by Mr. Gardner to try to become wealthy as fast as he could even though it meant subjecting himself and his son to the very real risks involved in being homeless. Little Chris was definitely a stakeholder in his father's decision. What does his father's decision to become homeless look like from Little Chris' point of view? Suggested Response: What does a two-year-old child need? He needs at least one parent, food, dry diapers, safety, and stability. Rich or poor doesn't mean anything to a toddler if he has these basics. Being homeless is a risky proposition. Homeless people are more likely to be assaulted and killed than people sleeping at home in their beds. Homeless people are exposed to the elements and can become ill. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Little Chris was for his father to have been seriously injured in an assault or killed. Being a parent means putting your child's interests before your own, especially when issues of safety are concerned. In deciding to be homeless rather than pursuing the slower track to success that would have provided him with enough money to put a roof over his son's head, Chris Gardner violated a basic principle of good parenting.

The fact that Mr. Gardner's gamble paid off and that neither he nor his child were assaulted while they were homeless doesn't mean that Mr. Gardner made the right decision. It means that he and his son were lucky.


4.  Why did the screenwriters change the story? Suggested Response: The story told by the movie is more dramatic than the true story. Mr. Gardner's inappropriate ethical choice to put his own interest in getting rich quickly ahead of the safety interests of his son is glossed over in the movie. It's much harder to get an audience to sympathize with a character who puts his own financial interests ahead of his son's safety.

5.  One critic of this movie said that "The Pursuit of Happyness" and films like it, ". . . assuage the guilt of the privileged . . . and send the message that we who have 'made it' into the middle and upper classes are there simply because of our superior virtue and intelligence. It is far more flattering to attribute our wealth to superior character and abilities, . . . than to factor in inequitable tax codes, unequal access to health care, discriminatory education, slave-wages, international trade agreements and inheritance laws that protect privileged races and classes." The Stories We Tell: films like 'Pursuit of Happyness' assuage the guilt of the privileged by Jeremy V. Cruz, America, April 30, 2007. Do you agree or disagree? Suggested Response: This is clearly a valid criticism. The vast majority of the poor work hard and show up for menial jobs day after day. Mr. Cruz, who is a former youth minister, said, "In fact, the poor are among the hardest-working, strongest, most selfless people I know, often holding two or three jobs to keep their families together for one more day." It isn't easy to get advanced education and training when there is no money to pay for it and while you are responsible for raising children or making a living. On the other hand, virtue and effort are important. Without them no one would advance. A good exercise when discussing this question is to take an example of a person who is successful and analyze their career in terms of the advantages that they received because of their birth.

For other questions relating to media literacy, see Homelessness, Question #s 1 & 2.

HOMELESSNESS

1.   Is it true that most people who live in poverty don't work hard and don't apply themselves? Suggested Response: We don't think so. Look around at people who are working menial jobs. Most work pretty hard and many work two jobs. They have to in order to make ends meet. Why do they work in these low paying jobs and why can't they get a better job? There are many possible reasons: lack of educational opportunity, lack of training, the fact that they are immigrants and can't speak English well, lack of ability to do other jobs. Laziness and lack of effort aren't among them. These are respectable jobs and need to be done. The one thing we know is that the fact that people are working these jobs means that they are willing to do what it takes to keep their families together.

2.   How is the version of homelessness in the movie different than what the homeless really experience? Suggested Response: The homeless are at greater risk for being assaulted or robbed than the general population. They are at risk of becoming ill from exposure. This is not shown in the movie.

3.   There are some developed countries in which there are fewer homeless people than in the U.S. Why are there so many homeless people in the U.S.? Suggested Response: It's a matter of priorities. In the U.S., voters would rather have lower taxes than take care of the homeless. Other developed countries have made different choices and have fewer extremely wealthy people and fewer people in extreme poverty or who are homeless.

4.   Is there any excuse for a society to fail to provide enough shelters for homeless children or for veterans? Is there any excuse for a country to fail to provide enough shelters for all of its homeless citizens? Suggested Response: The simple answer is, no.

5.  Has this movie changed your view of the homeless? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response.

Short Quiz on Homelessness:

1.  In 2005 approximately how many people were homeless in the U.S., both sheltered and unsheltered? Suggested Response: 754,000 people.

2.  On an average night in 2005, what percent of the homeless were not able to find a place to sleep in a shelter? Suggested Response: 45% or 339,000.

3.  What percent and approximate number of homeless people in the U.S. were children under the age of 18 in 2005? Of that number, how many are under the age of five? Suggested Response: Approximately 39%, or 290,000 were children younger than 18; 42% or 122,000 were under the age of five.

4.  What are the main risks of being homeless? Suggested Response: Becoming the victim of a robbery or assault and getting ill from exposure to the elements.

5.  What is the role played by the high cost of health care and lack of adequate health insurance in forcing people into homelessness? Suggested Response: People whose finances are wiped out by the costs of an illness are at great risk for losing their homes.

6.  How much should a family spend on housing if they are to have enough money left over for food, clothing, education, and other necessities? Suggested Response: 30%.

The answer to the following question counts for four points.

7.  List the five different types of people who are at risk for becoming homeless. Suggested Response: (1) the poor; (2) the mentally ill; (3) the alcoholic and drug addicted; (4) victims of domestic violence; and (5) veterans.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:

1.  One critic has said that "Often, as I watched the movie and the Chris Gardner character was frustrated time and time again, like when he got the parking ticket for his supervisor's car, or when he couldn't sell a bone density scanner, or when the man at the football game said that Chris was too inexperienced to get his pension fund business, I thought the character would explode. (I would have had trouble keeping my cool in those situations.) The actor allowed you to see the character mastering his frustration and anger to respond to the disappointment in a smiling and gracious manner. He kept his cool and didn't burn his bridges." But there were times when the character of Mr. Gardner, as shown in the movie, did lose his cool and got aggressive with people. What do you think about the ability of this character to keep his cool and be gracious in the face of extreme disappointment and frustration? When did he express his frustration and become angry with people? Does this tell you anything about people in general? Suggested Response: There are a couple of good responses. Taking frustration graciously and not burning your bridges is a necessary ability in being a salesperson and in life in general. It tells us that people who are often disappointed, poor people in particular, have to exercise a lot of self-control throughout their lives. It also shows that the character of Mr. Gardner expressed anger and became aggressive at those who were equal to him or lower in the power structure. He generally allowed himself to lose his cool and become aggressive with poor and non-white people. This probably has nothing to do with the real Mr. Gardner and how he acts but it does ring true as something that people do.

2.  Now that you have read about Mr. Gardner's life, what do you think is the most remarkable thing that he accomplished? Do you think it was caring for his son and succeeding at being a stockbroker while he was homeless? Or was it something else? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer. Possible responses include: (1) caring for his son and succeeding at being a stockbroker while he was homeless; (2) consciously deciding to go "the other way", i.e., not to be a child abuser like his stepfather; not to be a drunk like his stepfather; not to be a wife beater like his stepfather; and not to abandon his child, like his biological father; (3) surviving the rape with apparently very few scars; (4) keeping J.R., the racist, as a client; or (5) trying to excel in any job that he held.

3.  What did you learn from reading about Mr. Gardner? Suggested Response: There is no one answer. See the response to the preceding question.

4.  Why is Chris Gardner glad that he didn't kill Freddie Triplett, his abusive step-father? Suggested Response: There are two reasons. First, he probably would have been caught and sent to jail. (Remember, as a teenager when Chris did something illegal, he would usually get caught.) Second, killing another person, even with justification, does terrible things to the killer.

FATHER/SON -- PARENTING

See Media Literacy Question #3.

5.   What did Chris Gardner's mother contribute to his character? Suggested Response: The most important thing was that he felt loved by her. In addition, there was the encouragement that he could do anything he set his mind to and be anything he wanted to be. She gave him practical advice, like looking confident even when he was terrified and she told him about the value of libraries. She encouraged his reading and schoolwork which, as it turned out, was very important to his success. He could never have passed the brokers' exam if he hadn't been a good reader.

SURVIVING

See Media Literacy Question #3.

6.  What are some of the risks of homelessness? Suggested Response: Homeless people often sleep in areas that are not secure and that are not protected from the weather. They are at increased risk of being assaulted or robbed and of becoming ill due to exposure to the elements.

WORK/CAREER

See Media Literacy Question #2 and Media Literacy Question #5.

7.  What was Chris Gardner's attitude toward work? Suggested Response: Whenever he had a job he would do his best and ask question after question. He would find the person who was the best at that job and learn what made that person a success.

8.   Does Mr. Gardner's story mean that anybody can become wealthy and that if you don't, you're a failure? Should everyone become rich? Suggested Response: The truth is that only a very small percentage of people in society can become wealthy. The fact is that what most people want is not to become rich but to have a happy life. Mr. Gardner's view of this is contained in the last quote in the handout Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie).

ALCOHOL & DRUG ABUSE

9.  What was the role of alcohol abuse in Freddie Triplett's life? Suggested Response: According to his stepson, Mr. Triplett was an alcoholic and when he was drunk he would terrorize and beat his wife and children.

10.  Doctors and psychologists tell us that alcoholism is a family disease. Apply that to Mr. Triplett's family. Suggested Response: Everyone in Mr. Triplett's family suffered from his lack of control when he got drunk. Often, we can see members of a family developing neurotic behaviors to deal with the alcoholic and his or her illness. We don't know enough about Mr. Triplett's family to talk about that. We do know that they lived lives in fear and they were beaten. There had to be some residual effects from this. Mr. Gardner, due to his own strong character and his mother's love and influence, was able to escape most of it.

BREAKING OUT

11.  An admirable thing about Mr. Gardner was that he consciously decided that he would not continue the cycle of neglect, alcohol abuse and violence that he was subjected to as a child. He calls this "going the other way" from the paths taken by his father and his step-father. Do you know anyone who has done something similar? Can you tell us his or her story? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response.

12.  Another admirable thing about Mr. Gardner's life story is that he did something positive in his life that no one expected him to do. Do you know anyone who has done this? Can you tell us their story? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response.



SPOUSAL ABUSE/CHILD ABUSE

13.  Describe the usual cycle of a wife beater and how Triplett's treatment of young Chris was different. Suggested Response: The normal cycle for a wife beater has three parts. There is a period in which tension mounts, then the attack, and then remorse. The wife beater will promise that it won't happen again and he will be on good behavior for a while. But during the period of good behavior the tension mounts again and then the pattern repeats itself. With Chris, Freddie Triplett was verbally abusive all the time, taunting Chris with "I'm not your daddy. You ain't got no daddy!"

14.  Why do you think Chris' mother stayed with Triplett? Suggested Response: Most battered women stay in abusive relationships due to a mixture of fear, lack of self-esteem, and a feeling of complete helplessness. In addition, Chris thought that Triplett was responsible for his mother going to jail both times. The first time was when she tried to leave Triplett and the second was when she tried to kill him. If this is true, Chris' mother knew that when she tried to get away from Freddie Triplett or strike back at him, he would find a way to send her to jail. Also, she could not support her children on a maid's salary. She needed Triplett's paycheck to feed the kids. (Compare her self-sacrifice to Mr. Gardner's refusal to sacrifice his own desire to get rich quick to keep his son from homelessness. There are differences. He had a real possibility of finding a way out, while his mother didn't.)

EDUCATION

15.  What is the role of education in this story? Suggested Response: If Mr. Gardner had not gotten a good education and had not been encouraged by his mother and teachers to read, he would not have been able to pass the broker's exam.

AMBITION/MALE ROLE MODEL

16.  Do you consider Mr. Gardner to be a male role model? Tell us your reasons, pro and con. Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer but a good answer will mention: 1) his decision to "go the other way" from the path of neglecting children, violence and alcohol abuse taken by his father and his step-father; 2) the ethical problems with his decision to subject his son to homelessness so that he could become rich faster (see Media Literacy Question #3); and 3) that he chose to excel in any job that he held.

17.  Mr. Gardner was ambitious, but was he too ambitious? Suggested Response: This is another way to raise the ethical issue involved in Mr. Gardner's decision that his son would be homeless for many months so that Mr. Gardner could become rich faster. See Media Literacy Question #3.



Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing.



RESPONSIBILITY

(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


See Media Literacy Question #3.

CARING

(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


1.  What was Mr. Gardner's greatest gift to his son? Suggested Response: His constant and consistent love and caring.

See SEL Question #5.


Last updated September 26, 2008.




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