The passing of Robin Williams was momentous to multiple generations around the world. I had the unique opportunity to be in the great city of Boston at the time of his death, and took my one-year old daughter to the Boston Public Gardens to sit on the iconic bench featured prominently in Good Will Hunting. I was not alone – people gathered around making it a shrine to the great comedian, they wrote quotes from his films along the ground. People laughed through tears as they read long forgotten, but easily recalled quotes from films reaching back 40 years – perfectly reflecting the actor’s career.
Williams’ impact on pop culture has no measure, and his influence on education is the same. Ask an English teacher under the age 45 what made them become a teacher and they will reply either a book, or Dead Poet’s Society.
Dead Poet’s Society is the epitome of the teacher movie – an open-minded and truly revolutionary teacher enters a stuffy private school for boys and teaches his students to stand up for themselves and suck the marrow out of life – his character embodied the spirits of the Transcendentalists whose mantra he repeated and paraphrased through the film. It embodies that opportunistic, idealistic first year teacher – it’s the perfect military recruitment booth for education.
But I don’t want to turn this opportunity into a lament or eulogy for Robin Williams – nor do I want to spew poetic over the greatest gift to a substitute teacher, Dead Poet’s Society.
Instead I’m going to seize the day and write about Hollywood’s portrayal of the education field.
First off, there is no film that personifies education, as a matter of fact, I believe that film itself is responsible for many of the troubles and tribulations that education experiences. So many Hollywood films depict teachers to be more magicians than educators that it skews the reality of education almost directly into fantasy to a near Columbine level – you’ve seen the films where the lost students who have given up on life and themselves until that magical teacher shows them the way to truly live their life (ala Dead Poet’s Society), that it has become the cultural expectations for teacher to be magicians in the classroom.
The worst offender is Mr. Holland’s Opus – Richard Dreyfus’ Forrest Gump-ian ode to a man who yearns to compose his symphonic masterpiece, but instead wastes decades teaching scales to tone-deaf high schoolers. Through the film, he pushes students to reach their personal bests and, in one of the most awkward moments in cinematic history, almost runs off and bones a student as she’s leaving for Broadway (seriously, Richard… what the fuck?).
And the student he influences the most becomes the governor, who personally cites him as the catalyst for her political career, who then sits in as his life’s work, his opus, plays his song, his opus.
She became the fucking governor.
Fuck Mr Holland’s Opus and fuck everything about Mr. Holland’s Opus. The film depicts teachers in such a hyperbolic manner that it adds to the public’s utopian view of the role educators play. Any first year teacher will quickly realize that his or her “symphonic student opus” will not gather as they were lead to believe – instead, you will spend your days mind-numbingly gather data used for teacher-performance evaluations, while writing permission slip after permission slip for students to be able to take a shit.
Have you non-teachers ever thought of that? Children need to publicly ask another human being for permission to take a shit. Why isn’t that in Mr. Holland’s Opus?
And let’s not get into some of these Great White Hope films where the white teacher enters the lives of tough-minded, economically-challenged youths of color who only need a little cream in their coffee to emerge as the warm-hearted, gifted students their own surroundings never allowed them to become.
I’m not naming any actors in particular of the cinematic equivalent of Joseph Conrad, but I’ll tell you one actress who is guilty of this has a last name that starts with “P” and rhymes with “Fiefer”.
So what’s the opposite? Where are the films that honestly depict education for what it truly is?
The first one that comes to mind is the Spinal Tap-esque mockumentary called Chalk. Chalk is genius. Chalk is so genius that I didn’t catch on that it was a mockumentary until the film went into a dream sequence. Had that dream sequence not been in the film, I would have been fooled.
Chalk follows four teachers through a typical school year and each character perfectly personifies teacher personalities found in every school building: the first-year, fumbling teacher trying to find his place and rhythm with minimum success, the five-year veteran whose ego pushes him to maniacal heights as he strives for the coveted Teacher of the Year Award (guilty), the easy going and natural gym teacher who gets every kid to dance-a-fool simply by being herself, and the first year teacher-turned-administrator who struggles with her newfound responsibilities as they contradict her friendships with her staff.
Chalk is so dead-on-the-mark it's scary. You know these people. You work with these people. You are these people.
The other is Teachers. Nick Nolte plays a burned out teacher who rallies himself to fight a pending lawsuit from a former student who sues the district. The brilliance of Teachers is not the major plotline, but a smaller one. Comedian Richard Mulligan shines in the film as a long-term substitute social studies teacher whose classroom comes to life. He dresses as historical figures, he becomes the people he is lecturing about, and urges the students to join him. The hilarious five-second shot of Mulligan dressed as George Washington with his desks and students piled into the shape of a boat crossing the Delaware is one of my favorite out-of-context moments in film history.
But the joke's on the teachers in the school, and the audience. As the school desperately attempts to validate what they do, they constantly turn to Mulligan as the embodiment of education and educators – and as Nolte delivers a passionate speech about their crisis, two wardens from the looney bin enter and pick up Mulligan – the escaped patient from the psychiatric ward.
Those two films use the formula that Hollywood should use when creating accurate depictions of who we are, and what we do: we burn out, we bounce back, we burn bridges, we fail, we succeed, we work our asses off, we don’t know what we do, we don’t know how we do it, we don’t know why we do it, we get promoted, we get demoted, to be burned out again, and to bounce back again.
And we do it because we’re all a bit crazy like Richard Mulligan, and a bit like Robin Williams.