Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern by Richard Yates

Festival 1934 by Daniel R Celentano

“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern is a short story by Richard Yates, the first in his 1962 collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The story of the new kid in school is very popular in children’s literature, which is of course written for children. But what might a New Kid In School story for adults look like? This is it.

Richard Yates himself was often the new kid in school. His parents divorced when he was three years old. Much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences.

I was also often the new kid in school, because my father worked for the New Zealand post office, and throughout the 1980s small toll exchanges kept being shut down and centralised. So our family had to move from smaller towns to increasingly bigger ones. I went to six primary schools in all. I identify with Vincent in this story because on my first day at the first of my new schools (I was almost six) I decided to put my hand up for news. I was of course selected, and I remember standing there in front of everyone and having no idea what to say. I didn’t even understand the concept of news, a new tradition for me at this new school.

So I made something up. None of the lies I told struck me as wrong, and I enjoyed it very much because the kids all laughed at my stories. Even the teacher laughed.

One day I reported that our neighbour’s chimney had caught fire. The firemen had come to put it out. This was all true, and my classmates listened in awe. But then I said the fireman’s hat fell down the chimney. I felt a little bad when my classmates all seemed to believe this too. Unlike Vincent, my teacher never told me to stop lying. He just laughed along, and I was often picked for news. Every single time, I had no idea what I was going to say until I got up there. Little of it was true. But the following year something must have happened to me developmentally because in my new classroom with a new teacher I would never volunteer for news. This new reticence continued until I was in senior high school when I again found my voice — this time, not lying.

A New Kid In School story written for adults can be more realistic than one written for a child audience. Everything about Richard Yates’ “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” rings emotionally true, including the climactic act, which would not pass the gatekeepers in a story written for kids, but which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in schools. We often say that the girl code is impossibly complex and full of pitfalls, but in this story Richard Yates shows us that the unspoken rules of boys are equally complex and exclusionary.

Another reason why this adult version rings true is because Yates’s omniscient, insightful narrator allows the reader understanding of the teacher’s actions. Miss Price is as rounded as the child main character, Vincent, nicknamed Dr. Jack-o’-Lantern. In contrast, most children’s stories make use of teacher archetypes, with rare examples in young adult literature bringing a teacher in as a rounded main character.

SETTING OF DOCTOR “JACK-O’-LANTERN”

I’m guessing this story is set in 1932, which is when the Dr Jekyll a Mr Hyde movie came out. In this adaptation more than in the 1941 release, the teeth as described by the children in this story are a prominent feature of the main character’s monstrous alter ego.

Richard Yates was born in 1926, which would make this a story set in the time of his own early school days. If Miss Price had been married, she may have been forced out of a teaching job, opening the way for someone ‘who needs it’ ie. a man. Miss Price is quite a forward-looking teacher for the era, probably because of her age. By inviting the students to the front of the class to share their own news she is engaging in what was then known as a Progressive education style, which is less chalk-and-talk teacher-centric. (Also for this reason, the story could be set later. But I don’t think it could be set any earlier.)

The school of “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is somewhere in commuting distance of New York, in the outer boroughs.

If I’m right about the timing of this story, what else was going on in America in the early 1930s? These were the dark days of the Great Depression, which hit America badly. Fourteen million people were unemployed. The world was preparing for another world war, though the children are busy with their own small factions to understand any of what’s happening in the wider world. It is likely that a kid like Vincent has had to move because his adult caregivers have been forced out of work, and have possibly found new work (hence some of his clothing items are new, some are old).

absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest

Vincent Sabella reminds me of Wanda Petronski of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Sabella is a Sicilian last name, and the new kid is speaking in an accent unfamiliar to his classmates, perhaps because he is a recent immigrant, perhaps because he has grown up around recent immigrants, speaking English as a second language. Vincent’s new classmates probably don’t know the scary connection between Italians and the mafia, but they seem to have absorbed some of the xenophobia of their dominant culture.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DOCTOR JACK-O’-LANTERN”

SHORTCOMING

Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952
Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952

Vincent Sabella’s strength is also his shortcoming, and this is partly what makes this short story masterful. He is desperately lonely. We know from the omniscient narration that he comes dangerously close to burying his head in his teacher’s lap. But this is not how the other boys see him at all. His isolation is what makes him a mysterious figure. Vincent will face a dilemma. We can’t call this a moral dilemma, because he is too young to really understand what he is doing and why he is doing it. But the adult reader can see that Vincent can either remain an outcast among his peers by following the code of conduct set down by their teacher, or he can have a shot at being included by his peers by following the code of the playground.

In both Eleanor Estes’s story for children and in Richard Yates’ story for adults, an immigrant child is ostracised by white, middle class children for being a liar (or perceived as one, in the case of Wanda Petrowski). Certain demographics are more likely to be seen as liars. The playground code in this white microcosm of society is complex for the uninitiated: Writing rude words on a wall in chalk: Admirable. Lying to peers: shun-worthy.

We can guess that the rules of Vincent’s New York world are quite different. There, bigging yourself up is probably an expected part of masculinity. It seems to me that Vincent is indulging in a particularly masculine form of storytelling — the tall story — when he tells his ‘lies’ to his peers. The tall story is more popular in some cultures than in others. Here in Australia it is an historically masculine tradition, told to mates in the bush, and the understood code around the tall story is that your narratees know you’re spinning a story. The rule is: believe nothing, lest you open yourself up as gullible. The more ridiculous the story, the more obvious the lie.

Vincent has told a ridiculously improbable story, but has made a huge social faux pas by assuming the kids in his new school would understand he is telling a tall story. He has already seen Nancy ‘lie’ by saying “Well” when she knows she’s not supposed to open that way. The minor untruth in that case is that Nancy never reveals to Miss Price that she knew all along not to say it. But Vincent will take that cue and run with it.

DESIRE

Vincent wants some friends. This connects to his underlying need: To avoid loneliness. Many stories have this exact desire — this part of a story doesn’t need to be sophisticated at all. All New Kid At School stories start from a place of loneliness.

OPPONENT

The children in the class are presented to us via the omniscient narrator as both highly recognisable and not especially empathetic.

The opponent of Miss Price is interesting because this story is an excellent example of a story in which the opponent genuinely wants the best for the main character. Again, the omniscient narration is an excellent choice for this particular story because the reader sees exactly why Miss Price behaves as she does. As adults, we probably put ourselves in her shoes. But because we’ve all been children, we can equally put ourselves in the shoes of the children.

PLAN

Importantly, Yates doesn’t let us inside Vincent’s head in the way we’re allowed inside Miss Price’s head. The story plays out before us, and we are as surprised as anyone else when Vincent’s plans take shape. ‘Plan’ is a loose term to use here because I imagine Vincent doesn’t ‘plan’ things out so much as follows his childlike, desperate instincts. Although we aren’t afforded a glimpse into Vincent’s motivations, Yates has given us enough to work with: We understand exactly why he does what he does.

This illustration was for Life Magazine , January,16, 1919 by William Gratz. Writing on a wall has long been the only avenue of discontent for the powerless, perhaps since caveman times.

BIG STRUGGLE

Vincent has two main opponents, the kids and the teacher, so we see two big struggle scenes, the first with Miss Price, which is ironic because it’s the exact opposite of what Vincent wants. The second big struggle takes place in the conversation with the other boys, in which Vincent lies he’s had the ruler on his knuckles. When Miss Price walks past and is very nice to Vincent, she unwittingly reveals him to be lying yet again. By being so nice, she has ruined Vincent’s shot at social capital.

ANAGNORISIS

Miss Price remains oblivious to what she has just done. We have earlier been told that children are a mystery to her, though I suspect boys are a mystery to her — she probably understands girl culture quite well. This is why Yates has chosen a young female teacher instead of an older, more experienced one. A male teacher may or may not have understood the rules of boyhood better and almost certainly would not have treated Vincent with so much motherly care. The complicated proto-sexual feelings these boys have for their pretty teacher is also important to the ending. Vincent epitomises the adolescent confusion of boys: Their teacher is both motherly and sexually appealing. These feelings together are supremely uncomfortable for them, and Yates shows this beautifully throughout the story by making use of juxtapositions. Finally we face the biggest juxtaposition of all: The loving care with which Vincent draws a lewd image of Miss Price.

NEW SITUATION

Yates can end his story as Vincent draws the image of Miss Price because he has given us enough information to extrapolate that Miss Price will be completely baffled by this act. She has already considered the fact that Vincent is a trouble child and she is out of her depth and will need to bring in outside help. That was for a lesser crime. So we extrapolate that this is now going to happen, and Vincent has unsuccessfully tried to fit in at his new school. The story probably won’t end well for Vincent.

This is where a similar story but written for children must end differently. Any child starting at a new school eventually finds friends and does reasonably well. At the very least, they find the inner strength to get through continuing tough times at school.

But Vincent Sabella has now branded himself as a sexual deviant, and in conservative 1950s America, he is doomed. This is a tragic story because as readers we’ve had our hands held by the narrator, and we know that Vincent does not deserve what’s coming to him.

This is especially true when we consider the longer historical view. Yates wrote this story decades after it is (probably) set, and the situation for Italian immigrants trying to settle in allied power countries was very grim throughout World War 2. After first being ostracised by his white classmates at school, Vincent may well have found himself ostracised later in life as an ‘enemy alien’. To avoid that, he may have gone to fight on behalf of America as a young man. Many Italian Americans fought on America’s behalf. This can’t have been easy, fighting for your country and also against your ancestral land. Vincent will have always felt like an outsider.

Header painting is “Festival” 1934 by Daniel R Celentano, set in East Harlem’s Little Italy, New York — “a lively scene, evoking the scents of tasty Italian food, is overshadowed by the immense natural-gas tanks at the right that once blighted Manhattan’s immigrant slums,” according to the Smithsonian website.

Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Junie B Jones Stupid Smelly School Bus

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.

Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.

Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because:

  • Junie B is considered a bad role model for children. She is self-centred, doesn’t do as she’s told and rather than learn to be a better person at the end of this particular story, she learns to join in with the exclusionary behaviour if she’s to get on in life, or first of all, on the bus.
  • The language used is deliberately incorrect, to mimic the voice of an almost six-year-old. Instead of using the proper word for something, Junie B will describe it in her own language. She also uses grammar in an original way. (I find Junie B. very fun to read aloud, even so.)

Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.

NYT

I have noticed a very similar discussion going on with the contemporary, super popular Dogman series by Dav Pilkey. A lot of adults don’t like the bad grammar, because they feel children learn literacy from these books, and if they read incorrectly spelt words, they’re going to subconsciously mimic the spelling.

I can’t cite linguistic research around this, but the conclusion feels intuitively wrong. If children were really that impressionable, puns would also be banned, for promoting the ‘incorrect’ reading of a word. Yet children’s literature is full of wordplay, and I’m yet to hear a gatekeeper complain about that.

As a character, Junie B. Jones is the daughter of Ramona Quimby, along with Judy Moody, Clementine (by Sara Pennypacker) and other highly spirited girls.

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO JUNIE B.

The Junie B. series are early readers, but have found an unlikely audience with older kids, as have the Dogman and Wimpy Kid books appeal across the spectrum of middle grade readers (helping to turn them into best sellers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is especially resonant with my ten year old daughter because on her very first day of kindergarten, she decided to get on a different bus to visit a boy’s house for a playdate, and the teacher didn’t realise she’d switched lines. It was a 39 degree (>102F) day here in Australia, and my five year old was lost in a dangerously hot world for over an hour. Though we got her back safe and sound (an hour and a half later!), that afternoon remains one of the most stressful parenting experiences I’ve had to date. I’ve since realised our daughter is the real world personification of Junie B. She even LOOKS a lot like Junie B., especially now she’s growing out her fringe and wears a headband. She even got glasses since.

Though the gatekeepers of children’s literature don’t like these highly imperfect fictional girls, Junie B. is a realistic child. Imperfect children do exist. Junie’s emotions are real emotions — her motivations are based on real anxieties and desires. If we keep books about imperfect kids out of real kids’ hands, we are diminishing the emotional scope for children. And the ‘bad’ emotions are the ones we need to see shared by others, to help us feel less alone. Not only that — uncomfortable emotions are the most interesting emotions. They make for great storytelling.

Seeing Junie B in my own child does affect my reading of Junie’s personality — she strikes me as ADHD phenotype, as all the most interesting fictional girls seem to be. All of these girls are descended from a much earlier ADHD phenotype girl — Anne Shirley. Put Anne Shirley in a 1992 American kindergarten and I’m pretty sure you get Junie B. Jones.

A further note on ADHD: These fictional girls would be hyperactive type. The inattentive type is more common in girls, but not as interesting on the page. ADHD is not a good name for what the condition really is. We focus on the ‘hyperactivity’ but there’s far more to being ADHD than most people know, including myself, before I realised I had given birth to one such creature. ADHD kids are inquisitive, notice small details, hyper focus on their interests for hours at a time (but fail to focus on things they find boring), and they have more trouble than most people controlling their emotions.

An emotion that many ‘neurotypical’ people (I’m not sure there’s any such thing as neurotypical) have trouble understanding — rejection sensitive dysphoria. That is, the feeling that you don’t measure up and that everybody hates you deep down. When I say that Junie B. and her fictional ilk seem to be the ADHD phenotype, authors use the most fun parts of ADHD in their middle grade fiction. The less fun parts are not well-explored in children’s literature, and I believe there is room for that still.

Then again, Barbara Park does understand this phenotype really well. Partly because I read Junie B. through the ADHD lens, I code Junie B. as a hugely unreliable narrator. In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. feels she is rejected as soon as she sits down. She is indeed rejected by the girl with the white handbag, but then she extends that out and spots kids as ‘meanies’, but for all we know, they’re doing nothing to give her that impression. She simply imagines they’ll be mean to her. Her irrepressible curiosity and unhelpful imagination leads her to explore another boy’s school bag, but when he shifts seats, she sees that as a rejection of her. He is therefore set up as her long term opponent. This personality trait is set up for laughs as part of the long-running character humour, but a more accurate reading of Junie’s personality does require a reader old enough to code Junie B. as an unreliable narrator. Younger readers — readers who are themselves in kindergarten — are likely to understand Junie’s experiences as the ‘truth’ of the situation.

POLITICAL PROBLEMS WITH JUNIE B.

I have my own political issues with the Junie B. Jones series, completely unrelated to the ‘poor role mode’ and ‘bad language’ arguments.

It all started with Anne of Green Gables (and probably even earlier), but I have grown tired of the opponent web in these middle grade books about highly spirited girls. Almost always, without fail, the opponent is a ‘girly-girl’. I’ve written much more extensively about that phenomenon here, and argue that there are real world consequences for such stories. I stop short at saying such books should be banned however; I would simply like to see a wider variety of character webs in middle grade fiction.

Barbara Park was a white woman, and most people who work in publishing are also white. Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten is notorious among Native American peoples for its poor portrayal of Native American culture. (I haven’t read it myself.) The #OwnVoices movement is going some way toward making this situation better. Let’s hope stories such as that would fail to get through all the checks and balances in 2018.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JUNIE B. JONES

While I’m here, I’ll take a good look at the structure of this book. (This is mainly for writers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is 6570 words and can be read by a proficient reader in about an hour. For a ten year old, it’s a bedtime read.

SHORTCOMING

I consider Junie B.’s rejection sensitive dysphoria her biggest shortcoming, but I don’t believe this is the child reader’s interpretation.

Junie B., like all the other little kids out there, have one overarching shortcoming: They have to do what adults tell them to do, even if that thing is big and scary and terrible. An adult might choose not to get on the bus. Indeed, many adults get also hate buses, but they get to drive their own cars. But kids are basically prisoners. All kids can identify with that.

DESIRE

Junie is driven by the desire not to do something (ride the school bus) which, in narrative terms, works equally well as a strong desire to do something. Her morning bus experience wasn’t great, but when a girl in her class mentions that you get milk poured over your head on the afternoon school buses, Junie understands that to mean ‘everyone, all the time’, and now she is highly motivated to avoid the bus home.

OPPONENT

Junie sees everyone as her opponent, even though she lives in a very cosy world and is completely looked after.

Her mother is her first opponent, for making her do something she doesn’t want to do.

Next, every single one of the kids at school are potential opponents. She initially thinks maybe she can be friends with the girl on the bus, but when that doesn’t pan out, she expands her generally negative feeling out and by the end of the day, everyone is an opponent.

Although Junie B. pits everyone against her, Barbara Park includes in every book a ‘cutaway shot’ to a smiling, benevolent adult, to show that the adults are really on Junie’s side, that they find her funny and adorable. I find this cloying when I read a lot of Junie B. books back-to-back — it’s a consistent feature of this series. But at the same time, it’s necessary, because without the adults on her side, Junie B. really has no one. (Mostly of her own doing.)

PLAN

We don’t see Junie’s plan until she does it, which is pretty much how Junie herself works. I’m sure she didn’t plan to hide at home time, but she thought of it, saw an opportunity and did it.

Now the story enters carnivalesque mode, in which Junie enjoys the fun of being at school all alone. She gets into the teacher’s desk, pretends to be the teacher, sniffs out some clay, gets into band-aids in the nurse’s office, and wears her jumper in a form of dress-up play.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene begins in the nurse’s room, where Junie B. is surrounded by the accoutrements of injury and death, in the most cosy way possible.

The big big struggle scene itself (the climax) is on the childhood equivalent of a Thelma and Louise film, with emergency services all turning up for Junie’s ’emergency’.

We don’t see her parents’ side, because that would not be fun at all. I’m sure they were worried out of their minds. (We don’t hear about the AMBER alert that went out.)

ANAGNORISIS

Although Junie B. is irreverent and although this series is not exactly famous for its didacticism, the lecture she gets first from the police officer, next from her mother in the car is the part where Junie (and the reader) learn that running off as she likes is not okay.

But Junie has her own anagnorisis, which almost cancels out the ‘good message’ dished out by the parents. She realises she can cope with riding the school bus if she behaves how the other kids behave. She will find herself her own bus buddy, and use her own purse to reserve their seat.

Of course, adults like to think that the kid world is far more inclusive than that. We like to think that children can sit where they like on the bus, that there is no meaningful pecking order, that our child would be receptive to another child expressing interest in an adjacent seat. But there is always a huge disconnect between The Rules and The Reality of childhood. A great number of middle grade authors fail to get a handle on the reality of childhood tribalism, and instead stick to a kind of utopia, or more likely, they go some way towards addressing bullying culture, but present a black and white dichotomy of ‘goodies’ and ‘bullies’, without depicting the huge in-between that is most of us — joining in with the system as best we can.

NEW SITUATION

Junie B. is now happy to ride the bus to and from school. We know her adventures at school will continue.

Teachers In Children’s Literature

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes - School is Out

Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.

Why is it that English, drama and music teachers are most often recalled as our mentors and inspirations? Maybe because artists are rarely members of the popular crowd.

Roger Ebert

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.

TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS

Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.

In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.

In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.

TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.

Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.

Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.

Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.

MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES

Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’.  Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.

In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.

The Entertainer Teacher

a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.

The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher

Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Liminal Servant Teacher

The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)

OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES

The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Ramona's teacher

Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.

‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.

The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona's young teacher
Miss Binney from Ramona The Pest

Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.

For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.

Bad Ass Teachers
  • Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
  • Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
  • As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes four Stunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
  • Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
  • Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
  • Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
  • Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher

Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.

(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie subverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)

In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.

She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

Downright Nasty Teachers

The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).

‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’

Dave Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, from interview at ABC

Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.

Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.

It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.

Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.

Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.

Sexual Interest Teacher

Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.

Terabithia Teacher

Zooey Deschenel also plays the Hippie Teacher.

From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)

In Pretty Little Liars, a hot young teacher dates one of his students before he realises she’s one of his students. Somehow they continue this romance, meeting alone in his classroom, without anyone noticing.

TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS

The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.

When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.

GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.

Beyond a Good Bad Binary

Mostly, teachers are adults who get in the way of adventure and independence, so the author uses teachers as background furniture then disappears them.

If you meet a bunch of teachers on your first day in the new school, only pay attention to the one who puts you in a group project with a handsome stranger. You’ll never see the rest again.

@broodingYAhero

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY

  • Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
  • The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
  • Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
  • The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
  • The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.

The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?

MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY

The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.

  • Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
  • No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.

AMERICAN TV TEACHERS

Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.

There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.

There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.

Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.

Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.

Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.

Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Bell and lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.

DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.

In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.

Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.

The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.

Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.

FURTHER READING

Header painting: Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes – School is Out

Freaks and Geeks Storytelling Tips

Freaks and Geeks is a coming-of-age drama made in the late 1990s, set in 1980. Though it was cancelled after one season, that’s not because it wasn’t good. Perhaps the audience assumed  this was yet another high school drama done badly. This show did a lot of stuff you’ll have seen before, but did it extraordinarily well.

Genre Blend Of Freaks And Geeks

Freaks and Geeks is a:

  • coming-of-age
  • comedy
  • drama

This category of story is about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one.

How This Show Is Different From Other High School Dramas

It doesn’t fall into the category of ‘cringe comedy’ even though teenagehood inevitably includes embarrassing scenes.

Lindsay's sceptical look
Lindsay’s teenage sceptical look

The creators were determined not to end each show with a typical “happy ending”. One notable exception is the pilot episode, which the creators purposely wrote as a self-contained story, in case the show was never picked up for production. This is also why you see a fully fleshed story in the pilot episode and why I’ve chosen to break it down as a story unto itself.

There is plenty of crossover between quite vastly different social arenas, with a main character weaving between all of them. (Though all the families are white.) Most high school dramas have set-in-stone cliques before the audience meets the characters, and the main character is usually an underdog, or a newcomer trying to work out which group to fit into (e.g. Mean Girls). Lindsay is more interesting than that, because although she’s not new to the school but she’s trying to actively switch groups.

Setting of Freaks and Geeks

Detroit
  • Fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980–1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit
  • A middle-class suburban home near the school
  • The surrounding neighbourhood, including some rougher parts of town
  • The bleachers are a good place to hide under, to do things teachers can’t see.
  • The corridors can be either a walk of shame or a place to parade down. Lockers lining corridors also provide opportunity for characters who hate each other to get together, since lockers are assigned from above.
  • The guidance counsellor’s room is a place for moral questions to be posed and discussed.
  • Upper middle class (Neal) middle class (Lindsay and Sam) meets working class (Bill) meets military class (Nick) meets houseos (Kim).
  • The high school is a miniature big struggle field, where the mottos are about conquer or lose and men must be men. The school cafeteria is a good venue for enemies to be thrown together by force, as everyone has to eat lunch. Classrooms are good venues for characters to be bullied and victimised in front of a small audience.
  • The suburbs are cosy at first glance, with their manicured lawns and a 1980s apparent utopia, but dangers lurk around the corner, where you could meet your high school adversary at any time.
dining room table
This cosy scene feels stifling to Lindsay.
Freaks and geeks sam cafeteria
Cafeterias and corridors are particularly hazardous.
a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet
a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet
Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.
Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Season Synopsis of Freaks and Geeks

After her grandmother’s death, a high school mathlete starts hanging out with a group of burnouts while her younger brother navigates his freshman year.

ACTION LINE: After her grandmother’s death…

CHARACTER LINE: …a high school mathlete starts hanging out with a group of burnouts while her younger brother navigates his freshman year (We can tell there are dual heroes, brother and sister.)

SENSE OF OUTCOME: (Is missing in the IMDb log line) 

Main Characters

Whose Story Is This?

It was always Lindsay’s story. It might have seemed at various times like the other characters, particularly Sam, were sharing the stage with her, and the show did a good job of spreading storylines around to all of the principles, even giving Harold and Jean a few moments in the spotlight. Freaks and Geeks is the story of a girl who found the answers she’d built her life around previously wanting and then listened to a different side of her personality for a while.

Lindsay is changed by everything that happens to her in this season, whether good or bad.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot: 22 Steps

See copy of script here

The script is quite a bit different from the final product.

They got rid of the character Art, who hung around with Sam, Neil and Bill. This is an interesting decision — it’s always harder to write a group of four than a group of three. They bring a fourth guy in when they need him (see the final big struggle).

They shortened some dialogue and lengthened others. They took out quite a bit of Eli, probably because it felt too mean.

Anagnorisis, need, desire

1. Lindsay will learn that being ‘good’ isn’t necessarily going to work for her. Sticking up for Eli falls flat. She is embarrassed by her childhood friend Millie. This is the beginning of her trying to work out a new way to be.

2. She knows that being a mathlete and friends with Millie are doing her no good socially, and that she is no longer enjoying this persona she has ended up with.

3. Her tendency to help others can end up harming them. Her need to find a new identity for herself necessarily harms those who have been most loyal. Lindsay is not very loyal.

Despite her academic achievements, Lindsay has never set out any personal goals for herself. She has simply adhered to the belief that her studies would someday reward her in life. She had the motive to succeed in life, but not the passion. And now, even her motive has been severed

Ghost (backstory)

grandma ghost

Lindsay’s grandmother has recently died. Lindsay was very close to her grandmother, a fact touched upon when she stares at a picture of the two of them (with Lindsay as a baby) she keeps in her room. Obviously, she felt she had a sense of confidence in Grandma, and was always looking to her for advice. When Grandma died, a part of Lindsay died with her, and she sees no way of reacquiring that sense of love. What affected her most, however, were the final moments the two of them shared together. In a quavering voice, Lindsay asked her bedridden grandmother if she glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel. Grandma, with her final breath, replied, “No.”

Lindsay took this brief exchange to heart, as is beautifully portrayed in the moving scene she has with Sam in her room. Lindsay makes her bitterness clear – “She was a good person all her life… and this is what she got.” This one line nails Lindsay’s crisis – she’s now convinced herself that all her studies will ultimately lead nowhere. Why bother achieving academically if you’re eventually going to end up in the ground? Lindsay is walking a thin line here, and it will only grow thinner as she draws herself away from her old friends and becomes one of the freaks.

(It’s interesting to note that Millie, who still supports Lindsay despite her obviously changing ways, will (temporarily) follow a path similar to hers in “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14], following the death of someone close to her. I take this as a sign that these girls, despite their intelligence, have spent their lives trying to avoid personal moral confrontations, and it takes something tangibly painful (like death) to make them question where they stand.)

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Psychological Shortcoming: Lindsay is obviously having some sort of existential crisis after the death of her beloved grandmother. She’s trying to find the meaning-of-life somehow. The decisions she will make around figuring things out are going to ruin her life as she knows it.

Moral Shortcoming: Lindsay’s hanging out with burnouts means she’s going to absorb/mimic some of their values, dissing earnest, loyal types and disrespecting people who are genuinely trying to help, such as the guidance counsellor and her maths teacher and her parents.

In order to have a better life, Lindsay will have to learn to make independent decisions using her awesome intellect rather than pleasing other people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Lindsay’s crisis: She hates high school. She needs to find a way to survive socially and psychologically in this prison. “Careful… I might go all psycho on you.” – it’s obvious she has taken a page from the freaks’ book. (Another moment of arc setup.)

Inciting Incident

Inciting incident for the bullies plot line:

Alan is about to beat up her brother so Lindsay steps in and saves him. This connects her shortcoming (helping others when it would perhaps be better if she didn’t) and her desire (to get along in high school, which includes protecting her brother.) Lindsay has just got her brother into the worst trouble of his life, because Alan threatens to beat Sam and his buddies up after school instead.

The other inciting incident (for the dance plot line) is that Lindsay and Sam’s father is making them attend, but Lindsay will feel really out of place. She needs to do something to make the night less painful.

Desire

Lindsay wants to be friends with the freaks whilst not alienating her childhood pals too much. She wants to find a life that is completely different from that of her mother — she is afraid of becoming predictable and boring. For now, all Lindsay wants to do is talk to the freaks and not be turned away, and perhaps to go to the school dance together so they can laugh at people together.

freaks on the bleachers

Ally/Allies

Lindsay and Sam are allies by virtue of being siblings who come from a nurturing home. That doesn’t mean they’re always best buds.

brother sister stand off
In the background notice the flyer for the homecoming — a foreshadowing of the final scene.

Nick and Daniel Desario are Lindsay’s biggest ally in the freaks group, because he finds her attractive. Ken is much less so, and his sarcasm makes him more of an opponent.

It is Nick, of all people, with whom Lindsay eventually identifies. He cares little for schoolwork, instead choosing to focus on his drums. It’s exactly what Lindsay is looking for – a passion. Nick inspires her to find something she can latch onto and keep for herself. Of course, the only thing Nick wants Lindsay to “latch onto” is him, but at this early stage, she only sees him as a nice guy with a dream.

sam and mates

Opponent

(Lindsay’s Storyline)

The mother is caring but has no idea about Lindsay’s world because she is an archetypal housewife who grew up in the 1950s.

well meaning mum

Kim Kelly is the only girl in the Freaks group, and is very resistant to Lindsay joining her crowd, as she feels intimidated by Lindsay and assumes she’s judgemental.

kim kelly empties purse
Kim and the gum

Millie is Lindsay’s ally by intention, though she will unwittingly stand in Lindsay’s way of trying to become less of a perceived swot with no social capital.

Millie lingers nearby
Millie confronts Lindsay

Mr Rosso wants Lindsay to stay in the mathletes. His team can’t win without her.

(Sam’s Storyline)

sam's nemeses

Alan and his two buddies, which makes it three on three. Alan is basically a nerd who is mean, and hasn’t got any passions. So he picks on the boys he perceives to be even nerdier than himself. It’s interesting to note that Alan is portrayed as very one-dimensional in this episode, and that really works. His constant threats toward Sam and his fellow geeks are never followed up upon, and he’s still making them by the episode’s end. Neal and Bill may view their fight with him as a victory over evil, but he just sees it as another in a never-ending line of opportunities to cast off threats and come off as tough. Underneath that mean-spirited exterior, he’s no tougher than any of the geeks. Even when it comes to minor characters, Freaks and Geeks never misses a chance to make an ironically truthful comment about high school.

Their parents oppose them not going to the dance, and in this episode form a partnership of opponents.

The jock P.E. teacher is the boys’ opponent simply by virtue of being a jock who subscribes to a vision of manhood that rests on pure brawn.

pe teacher

This guy manages to pit an entire P.E. class against the geeks. P.E. class is a microcosm of a social hierarchy in which the entire rest of the boys seem to be against them.

sports adversaries

Even the motto on the gym wall highlights the loser/winner dichotomy.

failing to prepare preparing to fail

The adults in this story are all opponents, not because they have ill intentions at all, but because they so badly fail to understand the complex social hierarchy enforced by the students.

bill's letter from mum

Mystery

The opponents in this story are clearcut, in fact typical for school stories, so there is no mystery required.

Fake-ally opponent

Millie. She wants Lindsay to stay in mathletes because she’s at risk of losing both her best friend and a valuable member of their winning team. Millie values doing as she’s told and doing what she knows to be ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ without considering her own popularity. This makes her the inverse of Lindsay. As is typical, Millie is introduced after Lindsay (the hero) has been introduced.

Mr Rosso is the other fake ally opponent, as teachers often must be. (The teachers themselves wish to be allies — this point is part of the comedy around Mr Rosso and his wish for Lindsay to call him Jeff, which he is forced to retract when Lindsay fails to play ball.) “If the worst thing in your life is somebody makes you go to a dance, then I’d say you have a pretty good life.”

Changed desire and motive

Lindsay intends to skip out on the dance. Next, she is made to go, so she intends to go ‘to make fun of people’, preferably with the freaks for company. 

Sam intends to avoid Alan and his friends, but it becomes apparent that this won’t be possible. “We can’t avoid Alan for the rest of our lives!” “You only need to avoid him for four years.” So they intend to turn up. But Sam’s plan changes again when he is delayed by his love interest, Cindy Sanders. It takes him a while to build up to asking her to the dance, and he ends up missing the fight. Meanwhile, the ‘fight’ is more like a comical pantomime.

First revelation and decision

It is revealed to the audience (as Lindsay seems to have already worked it out recently) that she can’t fit in with any of the accepted social groups because she doesn’t share their values. She decides she hates school and might actually have more in common with the freaks.

lindsay approaches the geeks

Sam’s revelation is that he’ll have to confront his nemesis, Alan. It becomes clear in gym class dodgeball that Alan is going to be a relentless opponent until he’s put in his place. The whole dodgeball scene is shot like a big strugglefield, with a terrifically claustrophobic feel. (This scene is an homage to Saving Private Ryan. In several ways, Freaks and Geeks provides its own unique spin on the “high school is hell” metaphor.)

Sam also has a revelation that Cindy likes him. While he never considered her as a prospect for the dance before, now he thinks he should pursue it.

Freaks and Geeks Cindy as the stakes

Plan

Lindsay plans to approach the freaks and avoid Millie like the plague. Unlike in previous years she’ll resist joining the Mathletes just because she happens to be great at math. She plans not to go to the dance, which is symbolic of everything she hates about high school.

Sam and crew plan to avoid Alan and his crew. “Forever?” “For the next four years.” They also get advice from their mystic senior who seems to have the world sorted, albeit in his own way. Sam plans to go to the dance with Cindy, the prettiest most popular girl in their year.

the mystic dishes out advice

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

Lindsay’s plan to avoid the Mathletes is opposed by the guidance counsellor who needs her on the team to win. She is opposed by Millie, who has the same goal as the counsellor but is better able than him to sabotage Lindsay’s plan to align herself with the freaks. She is opposed in her plan to avoid the dance by her father’s ultimatum — she can either attend or work in his store serving hunters that night.

Sam’s plan to avoid Alan is opposed by Alan himself, who seems to follow them around. (We later find it’s because he’d secretly like to join their little gang.) Sam’s plan to go to the dance with Cindy is foiled by the jock who’s already going with her.

Drive

Lindsay’s drive to distance herself from people she doesn’t like, while becoming one of the ‘disliked’ continues to get stronger and stronger as we see her stick up for herself and for other people in a variety of circumstances.

Sam and co are losing big time to Alan for almost the entire show. It’s only at the end that Alan is defeated, for now.

Attack by ally

Millie’s speech about mathletes comes near the beginning, and later we have Mr Rosso (fake ally opponent) who attacks Lindsay’s burn-out wishes after he catches her wagging.

Neal is Sam’s voice of reason throughout this season — he is dubious about their ability to defeat Alan and his team. He’s also dubious about Sam’s ending up with Cindy. Neal assesses the situation with one of the episode’s best lines: “She’s a cheerleader. You’ve seen Star Wars 27 times. You do the math.”

Apparent defeat

Lindsay: She hates the school so decides to try and make the place better. She does this by sticking up for the downtrodden. First her brother — it backfires — and then with Eli — it backfires even more. The Eli subplot is clever because it is a microstory of what happens between Lindsay and Millie. Millie was shown stepping into Lindsay’s social situation and sabotaging it, and with the same good intent.

Eli
i don't want to go to the dance with you
eli screams

Lindsay is doomed to attending the dance. Moreover, she’s attending with the least cool person in school, and even he hates her. What could be worse for Lindsay?

(Sam’s storyline)

He just can’t seem to get away from Alan. He’s everywhere, from the most public (school grounds) to private of places (the gym locker room)

gym locker

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Lindsay realises she can stand up to Mr Rosso and that high school needn’t be the prison she feels it to be if she could only find some burnout allies. She intends to have a good time at the dance.

Sam and co realise that they can beat Alan if they stick together, and they’re not as downtrodden as they feared. Sam intends to win Cindy over at the dance despite her going with someone else because at least she has promised to have a dance with him. Sam’s new desire is to win Cindy.

Sam’s other trouble of the episode, equally realistic, is the bully Alan. Apart from the aforementioned teaser scene, Alan picks on Sam in the lunchroom. Sam does what he believes is right – he calls an adult. Unfortunately, Mr. Kowchevski looks down on Sam’s decision, telling him to “be a man”. The comment stings because it touches on Sam’s problem – in high school, you’re expected to grow up, but there’s no clear guide on how to do so. If anything, growing up is a personal action. From this point on, Sam sets himself on a path to “be a man” – although the results of this decision, as we see in many future episodes, are anything but perfect.

Second revelation and decision

Lindsay: Her attempt to make the school a nicer place falls flat so she thinks to hell with it, and skips school for the first time in her life.

Sam: Despite everything he somehow wins at dodgeball, which means he thinks he might have a fighting chance against the bully and his crew.

Sam wins dodgeball

Audience revelation

Although foreshadowed through the episode, “I’m just glad your grandmother isn’t here to know about this,” (Lindsay’s smoking), it’s not until the scene in Lindsay’s bedroom and the conversation between her and Sam that we learn why Lindsay is acting out.

The audience realises in the drum kit scene how different Lindsay is from Nick, who mansplains to her all about how to find one’s path. We realise this before Lindsay does, although we may not have picked it yet, because we haven’t actually heard him play. (He’s terrible. With Nick it’s all about the image, not about the practice.)

drum kit

Third revelation and decision

Lindsay: Whatever she does, she’s screwed. She realises this when ‘Jeff’ catches her skipping out on school. She’ll grin and bear her punishment of serving drinks at the dance but she’s not going to dress up, and she’s not going to enjoy it.

Sam: The fight is set up. He’ll do it.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

The boys realise that especially without their third teammate they are dead meat against Alan and his buddies. Here they contemplate their impending deaths.

prefight worrying

Sam has already had a visit to death in the big struggle — albeit slightly more controlled — in P.E.

Sam on the big struggle field

His visit to death comes when he’s held up by the love interest. He feels he can’t not talk to her now that she’s approached him. This scene represents Sam’s two conflicting goals right now: He wants to defeat Alan but he also wants to ask Cindy to the dance. The ticking clock technique is used in this sequence to up the stakes and excitement for the audience. Characters keep looking at their watch.

Sam and Cindy full body long shot
Notice the full-body long shot in which we see boy and girl. Romantic comedy posters use the same full body shots, highlight their vulnerability.

Battle

Lindsay: The first shouting of the show happens at the dinner table. The counsellor has called home to inform her parents she skipped class. The audience has already seen how irritating the father is, always giving his kids doomsday messages which are obviously made up. Lindsay feels infantalised and storms out. Lindsay’s main opponents are all the adults in her life, but she can only safely shout at her parents.

after Lindsay's big struggle

Sam: The ‘big’ fight (which he misses — though there is comically a very reluctant stand-in who gets his just desserts).

ridiculous fight

Anagnorisis

Bill and Neal realise they’re not so hopeless after all.

after the big struggle
three amigos after the big struggle

Fortified by the strength of his buddies who fought on his behalf, Sam finds it within himself to go up to Cindy at the dance and (albeit awkwardly) claim his promise of a dance.

Lindsay seems to have a anagnorisis when she sees her little brother plucking up the courage to ask Cindy to dance.

Moral decision

Even though it’s scary, Sam marches into the dance and asks Cindy to dance.

Sam does the most frightening thing
Sam claims his dance

Lindsay decides to dance with Eli. Despite having every reason to ‘hate high school’, she is able to cast aside all of her social issues for a few minutes and really let go.

lindsay asks eli to dance
Lindsay and Eli dance

New situation

Sam has taken his first step on the way to manhood — asking a girl he likes to dance (kind of).

At the end of the episode, Lindsay has found a way to ‘let go’. This will be echoed in a more rebellious fashion in the final episode as she takes off in the hippie van.

OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES

Juxtapositions

  • The title itself is a juxtaposition: freaks are at the opposite spectrum from geeks.
  • These “freaks” are grungy and acerbic, with an instantly recognizable carefree attitude. There is no struggling to find the right words, as the jock and cheerleader did – they just speak whatever’s on their minds. This stark, abrupt contrast makes the freaks appear lowly and repellant, but there is something uniquely charming about their nature.
  • The different soundtracks that accompany the kids on the bleachers vs below.
above bleachers
under bleachers
  • Daniel talks about wearing a t-shirt with an executioner on it to church
  • They fear change, and are confined to the sensibilities they grew up with during their younger years. Yet high school is all about change
  • Right after the boys’ PE lesson, which is a veritable big strugglefield, there are a couple of very brief shots of the girls outside on the green, under the sunshine, working together. This show says a lot about the gender divide. The scenes of the girls playing nicely together emphasise the horror of the PE class set up by the jock teacher.
girls sports
This girl even has time to bend down and tie her shoelace without getting ‘killed’ by a ball.
girls play hockey
A picture of reciprocal sporting practice
  • Lyndsay’s face against the Boy Scouts Of America certificate in the counsellor’s office
boy scouts of america
  • At the start of the show the three most boyish kids in the school stand under a toilet block sign that reads ‘men’.
men

Ironies

  • Lindsay cuts class in middle of a “professional career” video
  • Harold’s earnest sermonising backfires because he goes too far with the ridiculous stories. Mr. Weir’s ideas of “bad role models” included two star musicians (Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) and a president (JFK)
  • Lindsay’s sticking up for Eli ends up with him hating her
  • Sam misses the big fight and sacrifices his buddies for the chance to ask Cindy to the dance, only to find she’s already going with Dan Lewis
  • Sam tells his friends he’s definitely going to have a ‘slow dance’ with Cindy but as soon as they actually reach the floor the music changes and they end up dancing manically
Sam and Cindy Dance
  • Bill’s stomach no longer hurts after the fight (but everywhere else does) and now that other guy’s stomach hurts instead, when he only meant to watch
  • Lindsay is forced to go to the dance, but this is the happiest we’ve seen her all episode
  • Even though Mr Rosso appears to be the inverse of the jock P.E. teacher, even a motto on his desk shows that actually he’s cut from the same cloth. (Mr Rosso is to Lindsay as the P.E. teacher is to Sam.)
Mr Rosso's desk
  • Double irony with the lunch bag: Bill is one of the tallest in his year, and the well-meaning note is the worst thing his mother could do in her attempt to build up his self-esteem.
i love you little man

THE FREAKS AND GEEKS GEEK TRIO

When there is a group of geek boy outcasts we very often have the following character breakdown:

  1. The Aspergers type — A nice guy but not written to be relatable to the audience. Off doing his own thing.
  2. The skeevy, misogynist whose main desire line is getitng laid — not getting a girlfriend — getting laid. He generally exaggerates his own sexual experience.
  3. The nice guy who for whatever reason relevant to the story has found himself with these guys. This is the character the audience will relate to.

In real life it’s unlikely that this trio would like each other. They are forced to hang out together because they share in common the status of being outcasts. This provides lots of scope for conflict within the group, on top of the more serious conflict they get from outsiders.

Too often a lot of the humour derives from the skeevy misogynist making disgusting jokes which is supposed to demonstrate his complete lack of prowess with girls. He does this by objectifying them, and this doesn’t necessarily change over the course of the story. His hyper sexuality contrasts with the other boys’ asexuality, or burgeoning sexuality. However this plays out, the fact is, girls have their bodies objectified.

In Freaks and Geeks it breaks down to:

  1. Bill Haverchuck
  2.  Neal Schweiber
  3. Sam Weir

In the indie film The Birder’s Guide To Everythigng (2013) we have:

  1. Peter Nessbaum
  2. Timmy Barsky
  3. David Portnoy, who is an outcast not through any character defect of his own but because he’s into birding.

Added to this trio we have the girl, brought in as a classic female maturity formula, to provide the girlfriend for our nice guy and to school the skeevy guy up on the extent of his skeeviness, and also to point out a home truth — that the girl whose homework he’s doing calls him the homework hobbit.

One of the first two geeks is likely to have a serious medical condition, like peanut allergy in Bill Haverchuck’s case, or asthma in Peter Nessbaum’s case. (Asthma is a common one.)

The IT Crowd gives us two out of the three as males:

  1. Moss is the Aspergers guy
  2. Roy Trenneman is the skeevy geek
  3. Jen is more real to the audience, who relates to the less techy among us. Her femaleness makes the boys nervous. (It is also part of what makes her clueless when it comes to computers.)

When considering this from a ‘head, heart, guy’ triad, the Aspergers guy is Head, the skeevy misogynist is ‘gut’ (as proxy for genitals) and the relatable average guy is Heart.

Writing Activity: Describe A Classroom

Winslow Homer - The Country School

Describe a classroom is the perfect writing activity for schools. Maybe you’re in a classroom right now. If so, you can write about that. If not, you can imagine any sort of classroom you like. It may be one classroom in particular, or it may be an amalgamation of several, or of all the classrooms you’ve ever set foot in. Or you might make it up completely.

Jonathan Pobre
This is an engraving which appeared in the November 17, 1888 weekly of the Harper’s Young People Illustrated book. It was called “Kept In.” and engraved by Ch. Baude after the painting by Trupheme. The original painting was “In Detention”, 1888 (oil on canvas), Trupheme, Auguste Joseph, Musee de la Ville de Paris.

Write what you see and imagine, not what you know.

Blackboards are really quite green, aren’t they? I wonder who scribbled on the board in the photo above. Do you think it was the teacher? What happened? This is a creative writing about setting, but I want you to imagine what happened in that classroom just before you wrote about it. This will affect the atmosphere in the room.

pic by monkeyc.net

First, imagine the outside of the building. Is it a modern building or old? What’s it made of? Is it well-maintained, or in a state of disrepair? Whatever you imagine, exaggerate a little. If there’s a flight of steps leading up to the classroom, you might instead write of a long, winding staircase. Because that’s how it sometimes feels, if you don’t want to go to class.

Now we’re inside the classroom. In your mind, is it full of people, or are you alone? If you’re alone, why? Maybe you’ve been kept back after class. Perhaps you just imagine a teacher in there, preparing a lesson, or a magic potion to cast over his students tomorrow.

What’s on the walls? If you’re writing a fantasy scene, it’s sometimes better to ground the fantasy in reality by describing what might well be on the walls of a real classroom.

What’s the mood? This classroom looks like a cheerful place with a fun teacher.

pic by Night Owl City

This looks like a dreaded exam room.

pic by Dystopos

So does this one. Sometimes it’s more fun to write about an unpleasant place than a happy one. Look at the details. What do you notice after a few minutes that you did not immediately see?

The windows cast squares of white upon the wall.

The linoleum tiles are lifting in places, perhaps where the cleaner spilled a bucket of water. (You can imagine whatever you like. The more you imagine the more interesting this will read to others, who will never imagine exactly the same thing as you do.)

Ask why. Why are all these chairs pushed to the back, and why are the red ones clustered together? Who sits in the red chairs, do you think?

What happened to the children who used to study here?

Notice the smallest detail. If you’re in a classroom right now, this will be easy. Perhaps there’s a lump of chewing gum stuck to the underside of your desk. (No, don’t check.) Or perhaps there are stains on the carpet.

pic by Aaron Knox

See how this teacher doesn’t wipe previous sums from the board before starting on another. It looks a little as if he can’t remember his equations, so he tapes them above the board as reference. Notice the way the light bounces off his head. What is the most distinguishing thing about the teacher in your classroom? (Tip: don’t choose the teacher who’s going to be grading this particular paper.)

Now, your eyes are only of so much use.

How does your classroom smell? I can smell wet wool, because it’s been raining and every student wears a green, woollen jersey. The girls wear oatmeal woollen tights.

I smell orange peels and peanut butter, because it’s after lunch and 28 students just ate their lunches in here. No doubt some of them stuffed their waste between the bar heaters and the wall.

What can you hear? Even a quiet classroom is seldom without noise. If it is, you might hear the sound of biro on paper. I hear the rain outside, and students from an adjacent classroom about to visit the library. I hear someone at the back of the room tapping a ruler on the desk, absentmindedly but annoying.

Now write.

Start with the largest detail, and zoom like a camera down to the most minuscule. Make stuff up. Let your mind make diversions. Imagine what has happened, what will happen, what maybe happened and what probably didn’t happen but is interesting anyway.

Write for ten minutes. Then see where you are. You may be surprised.

classroom
An archetypal elementary school classroom from 1960s suburban America
An archetypal elementary school classroom from 1960s suburban America, “Vacation Plan” by Ben Prins (1902-1980) for The Saturday Evening Post cover April 9, 1960.
George Washington Brownslow - A Straw-Plaiting School in Essex
George Washington Brownslow – A Straw-Plaiting School in Essex
Thomas Webster - A Dame's School 1845
Thomas Webster – A Dame’s School 1845
Norman Rockwell NORMAN ROCKWELL VISITS A COUNTRY SCHOOL, 1946
Norman Rockwell NORMAN ROCKWELL VISITS A COUNTRY SCHOOL, 1946
Babar's story the little elephant, Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
Babar’s story the little elephant, Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
Fritz Baumgartner. Enchanted Forest
Fritz Baumgartner. Enchanted Forest
Mari Kanstad Johnsen. Vivaldi. Text by Helge Torvund
Mari Kanstad Johnsen. Vivaldi. Text by Helge Torvund
Vintage Mermaid Illustration FATHER TUCK'S ANNUAL for 1902 classroom mermaid
Vintage Mermaid Illustration FATHER TUCK’S ANNUAL for 1902

FURTHER READING

  • A short story set entirely within the boundary of a classroom is “Carnation” by Katherine Mansfield.
  • In many scenes set in classrooms, windows are highly symbolic. A character will often feel trapped within a classroom, and uses the scene outside the window to allow their mind to wander. Windows are highly symbolic.

Header painting: Winslow Homer – The Country School

How Teaching School Is Different From The Movies

An English teacher I had at school couldn’t stand that Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet’s Society. The ideal of the enthusiastic teacher jumping about on all the desks, monologuing center stage gave him the shits, I was surprised to learn.

Then, when I was at teachers’ college myself, I remember the tutor saying a few times, “Now you may have seen [X] happen on the movies, but don’t ever do that.” If you overthink it, it’s bizarre that teachers’ college students need to be told this, because we’d all spent 13 years in the school system ourselves, so you’d think we’d have known the difference between movies and real life. But no, a few things still needed saying. Especially since university lectures are different again, and in just four years you tend to forget.

Then there are simple details which you see all the time in school stories without really thinking (perhaps until the fridge moment), that doesn’t really happen in schools.

Take for example The History Boys (film or play), written by Alan Bennett.

COMPULSORY PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Bennett went to school a long time before the 1980s, which is when this play is set. He writes in his 2004 diaries of some issues faced when depicting a modern(ish) school.

First he had to take out a gymnasium scene, because by the 1980s sixth formers wouldn’t have been enrolled in physical education.

LOCKERS

As part of his research, Bennett visited the London Nautical School to avoid outdated clangers.

My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk.

This is true in my experience too (both as student and teacher). Students (at least outside America? don’t tend to have allocated lockers anymore. This was to do with theft and vandalism, and no doubt also to do with the tendency for students to leave uneaten food in their lockers, to rot the wood and attract rodents.

The students at our local high school can rent a locker, which costs ten bucks per term. I wondered who paid that (parents, I guess) and according to the local high school girl I know, they’re popular for storing jackets in. It is terribly uncool to wear a jacket around here, but some parents make kids take them anyway. Once at school, the jackets/coats are shoved into the lockers and that’s where they stay.

If you’re wondering how the local youth keep warm, short answer they don’t, but the slightly longer answer is that they wear two jumpers instead.

I wonder how many schools still have lockers, compared to how many fictional students still have lockers. In American school dramas we always see scenes involving lockers. The lockers themselves are often used as a plot device, with plantings of drugs and offensive graffiti emblazoned across them, and love notes pushed through the cracks, and timid boys being locked inside… In fact, everything I know about lockers comes from fiction:

Now, it is possible to slip a note into a locked locker through the vents. Even, with some pushing, a pencil. Once, Tiny Cooper slipped a Happy Bunny book into my locker. But I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Jane, who, after all, is not the world’s strongest individual, managed to stuff an entire winter coat through the tiny slits in my locker.

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

But I have no idea how many North American schools still provide lockers for their students. (Perhaps one of you will enlighten me.) In New Zealand, as in England (like Bennett observed), most students lump around a bag full of textbooks all day. This can’t be good for the back. I think at some schools parents are starting to complain about this, and lockers may be making a comeback.

SARCASM

Bennett writes:

Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors.

Each of these observations is very true, and it does frustrate me when I see sarcastic dialogue from teachers in modern fictional schools. We were taught firmly at teachers’ college that sarcasm is a no-no — and the objection doesn’t just come from above; today’s students detect sarcasm in a second, and will pull you up on it. I remember filling in for another teacher, turning up to anarchy and saying, ‘Some quiet would be nice.’

One of the students was listening, at least. She turned to me and said, ‘Watch the sarcasm, Miss.’

And if I hadn’t been so busy with the humdrum, time-consuming and dreary job of calling a class of unknown students to attention, I might have delivered a lesson on what ‘sarcasm’ actually means, and how it compares to ‘understatement’ but this was a maths lesson. (I also remember later in the hour being asked how to do quadratic equations, and I was of no help whatsoever with that.)

Yet authors of fictional teachers are still making heavy use of sarcasm in lessons, and this lacks authenticity to me… Which is problematic if authenticity is what they are going for.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Regarding the touchy issue of touching, in every school you’ll probably find at one point in staff history:

  • a teacher who gets away with quite a bit of physical contact because they have a wonderful rapport with all of their students, and it never gets them into trouble
  • at least one teacher who crosses the line, and who seems to get a certain titillation out of mildly through wildly inappropriate touching of students. This is my own experience of schools.

But most teachers never, ever touch students, not even in kindness. So when I see a teacher in a fictional drama touching a student, even on the shoulder, even to gain attention, I notice.

I also notice when a teacher keeps a student behind after class for a talking to. Even if this is innocent — like ‘Where’s your homework?’ — I always think how unlikely it is, that a teacher would keep a student behind after class. Teachers know to keep their classroom doors open, and when speaking to an individual student, keep their friends along too, or just outside the door, within earshot. Isn’t every modern teacher ever-aware of fictional claims of sexual abuse and harassment? Even fictional characters? I get the impression that authors of fictional teachers underestimate this unfortunate and lingering anxiety.

BEFORE THE BELL

So often in American dramas the bell rings; students snap their books shut, stand up, walk out.

I have never seen this scenario (except with one teacher who, it was widely acknowledged, had major problems controlling her classes).

What usually happens is this:

1. The teacher is keeping an eye on the clock about every five minutes. (You don’t see this much in dramatised classrooms either.) The teacher is often more cognizant of the end of class than the students, and it is the teacher who orchestrates the wind-up of a lesson.

2. About ten minutes before the end, a good teacher will ask the class to contribute to a recap of the day’s learning material. There’s usually some boring admin stuff, like homework, but I can forgive a scriptwriter for leaving that stuff out.

3. A tidy teacher will ask students to pick up any litter on the floor, and if it’s the last lesson of the day, the chairs will go up onto the desks. (Can you think of a single time you’ve seen this on the screen?)

4. If students start packing up before they are requested, any teacher with middling management skills still knows to put the kybosh on that, or else students soon learn that they can pack up a good 20 mins before the end of each class and big struggle for position near the exit, ready to burst out the door with the first tinkle of the bell. Any teacher who lets this happen is not on top of things.

So why, in fiction, do students pack up and leave taking their cue from the bell, not their teachers, with ‘good’ teachers shouting over top of the ruckus in order to finish their sentence?

STUDENT CENTERED LESSONS

In modern classrooms, students have far more to say than in the classrooms of yesteryear. The teacher is no longer a lecturer; rather a facilitator. Students are frequently divided into groups, set to work on a task (often on a computer), then present to their peers.

What I see in fictional classrooms: The teacher yaks. Students listen. This is a particularly vexing scenario when the class is supposed to be ‘difficult’.

I can tell you for a fact, modern students have little tolerance for lengthy lectures. There are still lessons during which teachers do a goodly proportion of the talking, but they are not met with the bright and alert faces which are seen so often on TV and movies. What you definitely get during a high school lecture lesson is a teacher who is telling Amy to stop talking, Corey to refrain from tapping the desk with his pencil, Riley to quit rustling with whatever is in that plastic bag yadda yadda yadda.

The most realistic depiction of a fictional classroom that I have seen is Summer Heights High (Australia), closely followed by Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby (New Zealand). Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovvered’ are also scarily accurate. That, of course, is exactly why they’re funny. These are all parodies, yet they achieve a realism that serious drama can’t seem to match.

These depictions get a bit closer to what really happens in a modern high school lesson, at least in Australia, NZ and England. The Catherine Tate sketch is scarily accurate… A VERY similar thing happened when I went to teach English to the English with a New Zealand accent. I almost think Catherine Tate was a fly on the wall that day, especially since my main sparring partner was called Lauren.

Related Links

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

The Most Realistic TV Shows About High School, like, ever, from Flavorwire.

The American School System: A guide for those from Down Under

Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.

The following terms refer to Americans in  high school AND in university.

year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior

We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.

In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).

Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).

PAYING FOR UNIVERSITY IN AMERICA

  • Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
  • An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
  • There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
  • Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
  • All American students can fill out the FAFSA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAFSA which helps the govt decide how much money kids can get for college.
  • Low income Americans can get  the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
  • There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
  • You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
  • You can actually sit for your SATs in many places around the world — they’re held six times per year.
  • SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
  • It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
  • Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
  • What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
  • But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.

OTHER AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY

BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.

pic by Garrett Coyte

JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.

GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.

CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)

If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.

‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.

Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)

CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.

pic by arbron

HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.

MIDDLE SCHOOL

 

PROM –  Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious. For a fictional, horror example of a prom, see Carrie by Stephen King.

In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.

pic by Capt Piper

DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.

YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.

 

School And Children’s Literature

Albert Ludovici - Kept In 1887

School itself must be so different these days than it was when you were in school. Certainly, having kids helps, but is that ever an issue for you when you’re writing?

I was reading about this phenomenon in television and film writing, which is that the references to school are always at least 20 to 30 years old, because writers are really writing about their own experiences, so these movies are hopelessly outdated. What I’ve been surprised with is that school seems a lot safer and more benign than it was when I was in junior high. You know, for me, junior high was like the Wild West. There must have been one teacher for 35 kids, and we were completely unprotected from the bullies, so the experiences I’m writing about in my book are actually very watered-down from real life experiences.

Jeff Kinney at Mental Floss

My high school English teacher hated Dead Poet’s Society. He never said why, and we never asked. Then I became an English teacher myself. Then the #metoo movement happened, and I really hated it then.

Stories set in schools haven’t been the same for me since my teachers’ college year. Dead Poet’s Society ceased to be a story about an inspirational, enthusiastic English teacher and more a demonstration of an egotistical lover of attention who would have served his students better if he had tried a bit of group work. (Jumping around on desks is also considered uncouth in a country where even sitting on desks is a no-no. This was New Zealand.)

As and aside, Dead Poet’s Society hasn’t aged well, either. There is a sexual assault scene which is not treated as such. For more on that I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast rather than watching the entire movie again.

Dead Poet’s Society is just one example of an unrealistic, annoying but romantically idealised teacher. While teaching high school myself, I had zero patience for stories in which fictional teachers keep individual students behind after class to speak to them about various misdemeanours — mostly, these teachers were young men in fake horn-rims who, had they been of truly innocent intent, as we were meant to believe as the audience, would have made sure never, ever to be in a room alone with any student. Don’t keep students behind after class. If you do, keep them back in a small group. Keep the door open. Teaching 101.

Dead Poet’s Society is a more contemporary teenage take on the Roman Carpe Diem body of narrative, united by the common theme that we must live in the moment and make the most of whatever comes our way. Older examples largely come form poetry: “To His Coy Mistress,” (Marvell), “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (Herrick).

It was the large classes of eerily silent student, in which the actor posing as teacher makes zero use of body language, has no slightly embarrassing strategies for gaining everyone’s attention.

In fictional classrooms, the teacher walks around the classroom and everyone watches in rapt attention, even though the students at the front of the classroom can no longer see, nor hear. The teacher with magical magnetism approaches a single student’s desk to engage more closely with them when, in reality, as soon as the teacher moves from the front of the room, the class is likely to break out into little groups chattering. “Don’t do what actors always do on TV,” our teachers’ college lecturer warned us. “Stay at the front of the classroom until you’ve finished talking to the entire class.” The ‘rules’ of body language, standing position and classroom management are not something that has been picked up by film-makers, who are in love with the ‘camera moves around the classroom’ technique.

Also: “Don’t confiscate passed notes and read them aloud to the class. Crumple them up and throw them into the bin without looking at them” Anything else is a shaming technique, which went out of vogue decades back.

In sum, teachers’ college is a year in which naiive student-teachers’ hopes and dreams about what the Role of Teacher might be like are moulded into something more closely aligned to reality. Still, it amazes me how, even though all of us have known a lot of teachers over our 13-odd years of schooling, we nevertheless accept quite a chasm between the reality of teaching and the fictional portrayals. We accept these fictional teachers partly because narrative has its own rules; likewise, police officers are not usually damaged alcoholics who can’t maintain a healthy family life and eat nothing but donuts, but we see this character all the time in the crime genre.

On movies, the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave. No fictional teacher says, ever, what I said weekly: “The bell is a signal for me, not for you.”

IDEOLOGY OF SCHOOL STORIES FOR BOYS AND GIRLS

Beverly Lyon Clark defines a specific subset of adolescent literature, the traditional school story, as a story set at a school, that is addressed to children from the point of view of a child. The text is usually middle-class in its perspective. If the canonical boys’ version of these books can be said to have a formula, it is this: they cover a broad range of years, from an ordinary boy’s arrival at the school, through his years of service to older boys until he is himself one of the older boys at the school. Two types of adventures occur: competition at physical activities, such as sports, and some sort of social conflict that allows the text to explore morality. The tale may conclude with an affirmation of the school’s purpose in training young people to take their place in the status quo of the social order. Certainly girls’ school stories serve the same ideological purpose, which is the most important purpose of School Stories; their agenda to indoctrinate children into the social order is thinly veiled.

[…]

Since American YA novels are usually Entwicklungsroman, they are far more likely to focus on one set of problems than they are to show a character developing over a period of time as School Stories generally do. But although the time line of the plot may be telescoped, the function of the narrative remains the same: school serves as an institutional setting in which the protagonist can learn to accept her or his role as a member of other institutions.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

ON BOARDING SCHOOL STORIES IN PARTICULAR

Below, Spufford doesn’t mention the critic who said it, but this is the strongest argument I’ve seen for School Stories as antidote to indoctrination into the social order:

Children’s books can find a town in a boarding school if the author doesn’t play school life entirely for laughs, as in Billy Bunter, or Molesworth, or the Jennings stories. From Angela Brazil and the Chalet School books, through to the unexpected rebirth of the genre at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series — where a new atmosphere, both magical and democratic, still does not displace such key features as a the sneering rich boy, and the contest for the house cup — school stories explore what are essentially autonomous towns of children. As a perceptive critic of Harry Potter pointed out, what makes the school setting liberating is that school rules are always arbitrary rules, externally imposed. You can break them, when you get into scrapes, without feeling any guilt, or without it affecting the loyalty to the institution that even unruly characters feel, right down from Angela Brazil to Joanne Rowling, Harry loves Hogwarts. The rules of conduct that really count are worked out by the children themselves, and exist inside the school rules like a live body inside a suit of armour. School stories are about children judging each other, deciding about each other, getting along with each other. The adults whose decisions would be emotionally decisive — parents — are deliberately absent.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

According to John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children, ‘the school story sprang into prominence with the publication in 1857 and 1858 of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays and F.W. Farrar‘s Eric, or Little By Little.’ Before that, there were a few scattered books with schools in them, but these weren’t ‘school stories’ per se.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

Tom Brown’s School Days is an episodic story with no tightly-knit plot. We see Tom first at home then as he starts life at Rugby, initiated into football, bullied, bearing it bravely, getting into scrapes and eventually looks after a timid new boy called Arthur. Tom grows a sense of responsibility and becomes a man.

Tom Brown's Schooldays

Eric: Or, Little By Little concerns the fate of an individual with school in the background. Team spirit is of no great importance. The author became a headmaster and was a very popular preacher and writer. This was written while he was still in his 20s. It’s all about how Eric is constantly fighting temptation and evil. ‘Little by little’ describes the progress of his decline.

Eric or Little By Little

School stories were very popular in England in the Victorian era, though not so much elsewhere.

See: 11 Famous British Schools In Fiction

Enid Blyton was an instigator in the 1960s wave of boarding school stories. This one was first published 1946
Enid Blyton was an instigator in the 1960s wave of boarding school stories. This one was first published 1946.

School stories seemed to make a bit of a comeback in the mid-1960s with the choir-school stories by William Mayne and novels by Antonia Forest and Mary K. Harris but the revival didn’t continue. (Mayne’s books were largely deliberately removed from shelves from 2004 onwards following his conviction and prison sentence for indecent assault on children.)

The originality of Mayne’s writing and his talents for telling original stories, often based on the search for something hidden or elusive, were obvious from A Swarm in May (1955), the first and most outstanding of his quartet of choir-school stories evocatively illustrated by C Walter Hodges. Swiftly followed by Choristers’ Cake (1956), it weaves the revival of an old tradition into a contemporary school story, showing how the past can influence and give strength in the present.

The Guardian Obituary

There are of course some very popular modern children’s books set in boarding school (e.g. Hogwarts) but the nature of them has changed. There was an aura of privilege based on class and money in the classical, high-Victorian and post-Victorian boarding school story and this hasn’t continued to the same extent.

Worst Witch
first published 1974

Most modern books for children are set in a day school rather than in a boarding school. Going to school is now a part of everyday life and school stories do not form their own genre.

boarding school books
boarding school teen books

THE OLDER TYPE OF BOARDING SCHOOL STORIES

A boarding school is a self-contained world in which children are full citizens.

The advantage of a boarding school setting is that the children are no longer subordinate members of the family. In some more recent stories, the students are absurdly powerful, and the teachers hardly get a mention at all, even though we’re to believe they’re there.

jenning1
  • At boarding school, personal politics are always in full swing.
  • In school there is a natural opposition between what the children are supposed to do and what they will do if they get the chance.
  • Familiar problems include: bullying, sneaking, initiation rituals, rule-breaking, and general conflict that comes about with shifting loyalties within the group.
  • Participation in team sports is the ultimate character builder.
  • A lot of these stories had heavily Christian/didactic messages.
Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier's Magazine. January 1904 school
Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Collier’s Magazine. January 1904 school

FURTHER READING

The boarding school stories I grew up with starred white kids from well-off families who had been sent there by the families. Many children from native families have been required to attend boarding schools. See this article about boarding schools for native American children.

Header painting: Albert Ludovici – Kept In 1887