'Front of the Class' brings Tourette's to forefront
December 4, 2008 5:00 AM
Jimmy Wolk, left, and Dominic Scott Kay, right, both portray Brad Cohen, center, in "Front of the Class."
By Jim Heinrich Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a child in St. Louis, Brad Cohen barked like a dog and made sudden, staccato jerking movements and twitches all day long. He would kick the inside of the car door nonstop while his father was driving.
Brad claimed that he couldn't help his annoying behavior -- and yet he didn't make these tics in his sleep, and he seemed to do them more when he was nervous. His parents and teachers, thinking he just wanted attention, urged him to show more self-control.
His classmates ridiculed, bullied and shunned him, and his teachers punished him. An acquaintance asked his mother, "Have you considered an exorcist?"
His only friend was his brother, Jeff, and both of them were hyperactive with attention deficit disorder.
When Brad was 12, his mother did the research to identify Brad's affliction -- Tourette syndrome, an incurable but treatable neurological disorder. After he was able to "put a name to it," Brad's life changed.
'Front of the Class'
When: When: 9 p.m. Sun., CBS
For many of us, Tourette syndrome may once have been synonymous with coprolalia -- the involuntary shouting of obscenities -- but "Front of the Class" makes clear that as few as 5 percent of those with Tourette's have this symptom. To that extent, the movie is as educational as it is moving.
Two events in Brad's childhood changed his life. His mother dragged him to a Tourette's support group, at which the troubled members seemed resigned to a life of defeat. But the meeting inspired Brad to decide to triumph over the disorder.
Then, at a school orchestra concert, the principal asked the students whether they had heard strange noises amid the music, and he called a terrified Brad onto the stage.
But instead of humiliating Brad, the principal provided compassionate support and asked Brad to educate the school about Tourette's. Brad proclaimed, "I just want to be treated like everybody else." His classmates applauded him with a standing ovation.
This Hallmark Hall of Fame production is based on the 2005 book "Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had," which Cohen wrote with Lisa Wysocky. The book, well worth reading, gives insight into what it is like to live with Tourette's -- such as when Brad's noises disturbed other people at restaurants, sports bars, golf courses and movie theaters, and when Brad could get a first date with a woman but never a second.
From the beginning, the book spells out some of the achievements that the movie saves for the tear-jerking climax -- or more accurately, a triple whammy of climaxes.
The main thrust of the movie is that Cohen feels compelled to be a teacher -- the encouraging, sympathetic teacher that he never had. After 24 frustrating job interviews in his new home, Atlanta, the 25th interview at a progressive elementary school lands him a job.
His young students -- and his peers -- grow to love Cohen despite his disorder, and he teaches his class that "It's OK to color outside the lines."
In his first film for television, the mostly unknown Jimmy Wolk -- whose biggest previous credits are the soaps "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns" -- gives a charismatic performance as Brad Cohen, making even his tics endearing.
Providing outstanding support are Patricia Heaton and Treat Williams as his divorced parents and 12-year-old Dominic Scott Kay as young Brad.
Since this is a Hallmark Hall of Fame production -- one of the best in recent years -- expect a funeral (an especially moving one) and an inspirational finale. Since it's impossible not to be moved, don't bother to fight it.