Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
—Socrates

I used to get bored at school. A lot. I had problems sitting still and not talking to my classmates when I should have been listening. An antsy kid with a hyperactive mind, I would finish my work quickly and daydream my way to recess. Although I’d been curious at heart and anxious to learn from a very young age, elementary school was never much fun for me; it was slow,repetitive, and not nearly stimulating enough. Sitting through six-hour days at a small wooden desk mostly felt like a chore.

To their eternal credit, my parents tried to address this in various ways. They urged a series of different elementary schools—we moved around a lot—to allow me to work faster or move ahead in the books at my own pace. They pushed my first grade teacher to let me skip into second grade halfway through the school year. They searched, mostly in vain, for a school or program that would challenge me enough to keep my interest, to provide some of the stimulation and fun of learning that I so easily found outside of the classroom, but rarely within it. Still, because I attended tiny Christian schools in various small towns, the options were usually limited.

Then, in fifth grade, something magical happened. My mother found a “gifted program” at a local public school, I took some kind of test, and everything changed. For the first time, school was fun. Mr. Mickelson—the first in a series of teachers over the next decade who believed in, pushed, and inspired me—opened my eyes to all that school could be. We did grand, hands-on science experiments with things like dry ice that he would bring into the classroom, figured out the Fibonacci Sequence from old college textbooks, and put together quarterly student magazines filled with art and poetry. He wasn’t exactly jumping up on desks and shouting Walt Whitman, but he was constantly inspiring us, instilling a vast curiosity about the world, and offering up a love of learning that was enormously contagious. Which is, of course, what the very best teachers do.

We all need our Mr. Keatings.

Which brings us into bittersweet territory. Since we select a theme for each new issue a few months in advance, we obviously had no way of knowing that this school-themed issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room would wind up coinciding with the terrible passing of Robin Williams, a man forever identified with one of the great onscreen teachers. Williams inspired not only impressionable and melancholic teenagers with his portrayal of Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society, butscores of future teachers as well (much like his portrayal of a therapist in Good Will Hunting would do for aspiring therapists years later, myself included). While Keating was based on a real teacher, and his words came from an Oscar-winning screenplay, a good deal of the character’s magic and grace came from Williams himself. It was a role he was seemingly born to play, and one that he often remarked was closest to his own heart. Losing Williams a few weeks ago was a gut punch, and we’re all still reeling. There’s no essay on Dead Poets Society in this issue, as we covered it way back in our inaugural issue, but the spirit of the film is nonetheless present throughout—particularly in Sophia Nguyen’s piece on The Emperor’s Club, Tarra Martin’s take on The History Boys, and Fran Hoepfner’s look at School of Rock.

But inspirational teachers and elite prep schools aren’t the only things on our mind in this issue. We also have something on the glory years of late 90s high school comedies (She’s All That), a couple of essays on two very different animated films (Monsters University and Whisper of the Heart), an achingly honest reflection on Notes on a Scandal, a look at teaching and being taught (Il Postino), learning what's worth loving (An Education), and a poem on Heathers, carved out entirely from the film’s own dialogue.

Growing up, I wanted to be a great many things: an astronaut, a basketball player, a lawyer, a college professor, a psychologist, a rock star, a writer. What I most wanted to be, though—at least once school started to feel more invigorating than tedious—was a perpetual student. To always be learning seemed to me like the greatest possible thing one could ever hope to do, the most fun anybody could ever hope to have. And so now every year, without fail, as the summer starts to fade and September rolls around, I find myself thinking about school, and the passage of time, all over again.

This year, though, it feels especially intense. This morning I walked my son to his very first full day of kindergarten. He’s insanely excited to “finally” be at school with the big kids, right down the hall from his big sister, who just started second grade. Watching all this with a parent’s eye, a thousand miles removed from the kindergartner I was back in the mid-1980s, offers up an entirely different view of things. I see all the unformed potential in both my kids, as well as a fervent, tangible desire to learn new things, to be taught more and more about the world every single day. I see that excitement and pray to the universe that it’s a light that never goes out in them, that these early years of school inspire rather than bore them. That they, too, find their own Mr. Keatings someday.

But I also envy them, because their only real job for the next several years is to go to class—to live, learn, and be taught. Even though it’s been nearly a decade since I last set foot in a classroom, school is still something I miss immensely. The backpacks and the textbooks, the school supplies and bright yellow buses, the lively debates and eagerly raised hands.

It’s September again, and I want to go back to school.
 

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Heirs Apparent

by Sophia Nguyen

illustration by Liliana Vera

illustration by Liliana Vera

After Mr. Chips has said his final goodbye, after Crocker-Harris packs away his Browning and Mr. Holland, arm quivering, allows his baton to fall to his side, after Forrester finds his introduction and Jaime Escalante his confirming test results, after the last student clambers down from his desk in Keating’s classroom, Mr. William Hundert tells us: “This is a story without surprises.”

The Emperor’s Club might be the last and least of a line—genus: inspirational teacher movie; species: prep school melodrama—its palest, scrawniest scion. Googling its title is just as likely to summon old Eliot Spitzer headlines as cast and crew information, or the lukewarm reviews it received back in 2002. If anything, the movie will be remembered for starring a young Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, and Jesse Eisenberg — a footnote to their long careers.

Still, The Emperor’s Club was my Dead Poets Society. I know that this doesn’t make a lot of sense: Dead Poets Society was designed to be loved, is a movie about love. Keating makes the work of teaching look like joyful contagion. No yawping for Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline); his favorite nouns begin with hard c’s: conviction, civic virtue, character. But it’s not just for lack of Robin Williams that The Emperor’s Club faded from memory. Its uplift doesn’t go so high. Its tragedy feels pettier. It’s a story of winners and losers, and rigged games. It’s an afterschool special that can’t decide what it wants us to learn.

When I first saw The Emperor’s Club, I was in the fifth grade. St. Benedict’s seemed like an impossible place, a world away from the familiar public school churn of hall passes, recess, multiple choice testing. I was too young to name this feeling, but the secret sauce to this kind of movie is aspirational nostalgia. It evokes fondness for an elite experience that, in real life, most of the audience is actively excluded from. At St. Benedict’s, the quads are greener than green and the bricks rest eternally in their place. There is wood paneling, a Latin motto. The teachers wear tweed and go rowing in the mornings. The boys wear red blazers and read important books in hardcover. I would’ve never belonged there, not least because I’m a girl. But while The Emperor’s Club showed a brief glimpse of the girls’ school across the river, the prospect appealed to me less. I related more readily to the boys’ awkwardness than to their female counterparts’ smooth, intimidating flirtatiousness. Middle school baffled and bruised. In the absence of close friendships, I longed for their simple camaraderie.

Mr. Hundert serves as classical history teacher, assistant headmaster, and self-appointed steward of St. Benedict’s moral and intellectual tradition. He has no wife, no hobbies—his personal life is so reduced that you can only think of him as his classroom self, “Mr. Hundert.” Every year, Mr. Hundert presides over the school’s most prestigious contest. His top three students, swathed in togas, participate in a history bee. Everyone gathers to watch them take turns answering questions about the Greeks and Romans. The winner gets crowned “Mr. Julius Caesar.”

The contenders include Martin Blythe, a shy boy struggling to live up to a father who had been the “Mr. Julius Caesar” of his graduating class; smart aleck Louis Masoudi; and Deepak Mehta, often seen reading well beyond the class syllabus, for pleasure. Then comes Sedgewick Bell, reluctant learner, mischief-maker. He arrives at St. Benedict’s with a shit-eating grin, a trunk full of porn, and little interest in his studies. Mr. Hundert judges him “a bit of a Visigoth,” but after meeting the boy’s loathsome father, a U.S. senator, he encourages the boy’s potential. Sedgewick slowly climbs the ranks while Mr. Hundert looks on approvingly, but he doesn’t pass muster: after the last exam, he ranks fourth in the class. It’s then that Mr. Hundert takes Sedgewick’s place as the rule-breaker: a quick tick of his pen turns an A-minus into an A-plus, and Sedgewick pulls ahead of round-faced, bespectacled Martin to qualify for the contest.

*

I’ve seen this movie too many times to decide: Are we surprised, or aren’t we, at how the contest plays out? When Mr. Hundert sees Sedgewick cheating off of a crib sheet, he seems to age ten years. He recovers swiftly, asking a question based on outside reading to ensure that Deepak wins the contest. Afterward, he confronts Sedgewick—it’s high time for a lecture—but their roles reverse. Mr. Hundert gets put on the stand. Hundert gets put on the stand. “Why didn’t you stand up and call me out?” Sedgewick challenges him, “Was it because of my father?” Mr. Hundert’s denial falls flat.

In the following decades, Mr. Hundert is passed over for promotion to headmaster. He watches the job go to the callow young Latin teacher with big fundraising plans. He retires from teaching. He struggles to take up the mantle of his father, a famous Renaissance scholar, by getting to that book project he’d been kicking around for years. He marries, at last, the dark-haired, clever woman he’d admired from afar in the faculty lounge. He spends most of the time in his study looking out the window, and sighing. She brings him tea. The empire slides into decline.

Sedgewick, now a CEO of a major corporation, throws a class reunion and Julius Caesar rematch at the resort he owns. Now lawyers, doctors, and lords of finance, the St. Benedict’s men gather in black tie to watch Louis, Deepack, and Sedgewick face off in front of a replica Roman villa. There’s a brief, sickening tilt of déjà vu when Mr. Hundert sees the grad student at the back of the room, feeding Sedgewick the answers through an earpiece. Again, he throws the contest to Deepak, with no one else the wiser. That’s when Sedgewick announces his run for office.

Can anyone really be surprised that he uses this re-match to circle the wagons for his campaign, under the pretense of reclaiming his honor? This is the honor among thieves: Sedgewick simply exposes the St. Benedict’s men as the old boys’ club they always have been. Every gathering of old friends doubles as an opportunity to trade favors, make deals, consolidate power. Hundert, though, feels as if he has been lured under false pretenses, used as a prop. Humiliated and enraged, he confronts Sedgewick not in the honey-lit dorm but in the resort bathroom. They strip away the varnish to their conversation; it’s nastier in all ways. One day, the old man tells Sedgewick, you’ll have to confront having lived without virtue, and I pity you. And one day, the young man retorts, you’ll realize that no one gives a shit. In the stalls behind them, a toilet flushes and the door opens to reveal Sedgewick’s kid. The boy stumbles out of the room, wordless. Another lousy father; another disappointed son.

Like many members of its genre, The Emperor’s Club feels deeply for father-haunted boys. Their shoulders must broaden to bear the weight of familial legacy: All that blood and treasure; all those bad habits. Maybe his inability to avert Sedgewick’s path spurs Hundert to find Martin at the hotel bar and confess that he’d sabotaged the test results. Martin’s assurances of forgiveness sound strained.

It’s stupid that this petty adolescent loss should bother him so much. But The Emperor’s Club solemnly believes that he was deprived of his birthright: the chance to claim his share of Blythe family glory. “Man hands on misery to man,” the Larkin poem goes, “It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Those who can dig themselves out from under that crushing inheritance, who can provide a future free and clear for their offspring, are heroes.

*

This is a story without surprises, and this is also a story about failure. Most obviously, Mr. Hundert fails Sedgewick, the prodigal son. The flipside of that, the movie suggests, is that he failed Martin, a boy less charismatic but more deserving. As a middle-schooler I was perfectly satisfied by this narrative. The Sedgewick/Martin dualism had a kind of sense-making symmetry. The Emperor’s Club confirmed some of my core beliefs: that nerds were virtuous, that favoritism was wrong, that grown-ups face up to their mistakes.

Once I reached high school, I moved onto other movies. My mind didn’t return to The Emperor’s Club, at least not consciously, for years. And yet I strongly suspect that it installed the chip on my shoulder. It cooled me to the golden boys in my own class, and to the teachers that indulged them. It also convinced me of the pointlessness of wondering what made the Sedgewicks of the world so winning. Authority figures behave arbitrarily, I shrugged, and they move in mysterious ways.

But really, the patterns were obvious. Teachers who told high-achieving white boys that they could be president one day, or rocket scientists, if that’s what they wanted, habitually mixed up their Asian-American students. When I wasn’t being handed back someone else’s exam, or mistakenly accused of note-passing, my gender and model minority status made me oddly flattened in the eyes of the adults I was desperate to please. Whatever work I did was seen as standard-issue overachievement, as innate as a shark’s inability to breathe if it doesn’t swim.

Making a lot of Sedgewick and Martin, The Emperor’s Club does not notice—and thus shares—Mr. Hundert’s third failure: his neglect of Deepak Mehta. From the beginning, Deepak loves history most deeply. Unlike his mercenary peers, he alone follows in Mr. Hundert’s footsteps, becoming a college professor and devoting his life to scholarship. Deepak should be the man’s pride and joy. But he’s forgotten as soon as he exits the shot.

The movie doesn’t think his arc is worth screen-time, reflecting the racism of Hollywood at large. (We see his mother, and later his wife. No father in sight.) It makes nothing of the fact that Deepak’s is the only brown face in a sea of white. Ethnic and racial difference must have inflected his relationship to St. Benedict’s—to say nothing of the imperial Western history he sought to master. But even if this movie were capable of imagining such a narrative, Mr. Hundert certainly isn’t. Deepak’s precocity is steady state, immutable. His talent inspires none of his teacher’s interventionist fantasies. And Mr. Hundert’s short-changing him inspires no guilt. When I re-watch the movie now—especially a scene, towards the end, of Deepak presenting Mr. Hundert with a plaque to thank him for his guidance—it doesn’t comfort me at all.

*

After the reunion, Mr. Hundert returns to teaching. Waiting for him is a new generation of co-ed, racially diverse St. Benedict’s students. One of them is Martin Blythe, Jr., and the teacher catches a glimpse of the elder Martin out the window. They exchange a smile. He returns to his lecture. In his classroom, not a thing has changed—every painting hanging straight, every marble bust secure on its pedestal.

At seventeen, I applied to and attended Yale, because the dream wouldn’t stay dead. It seemed like a promised land of neo-Gothic architecture. I couldn’t help but be drawn to an institution that insists that every English major memorize the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales—as if tradition itself, tried and true, would have an incantatory power to make me fitter, wittier, more certain. There, I’d learn to live among the Sedgewicks and Martins and Deepaks and Louises. I’d gain access to what remained good in their world.

There’s been barely a summer between me and my graduation. So far, no one memory dares to announce itself as pivotal. Then again, maybe every education’s just a long string of turning points, and a crisp diploma belies a messy soup of impressions. But I can say this: College surrounded me with ruthless ladder-climbers and dazzling dreamers. It taught me how some people saw the world as a series of rooms getting smaller and smaller, and that they’d never feel safe until they could shut others out. But it also gave me books as ballast, generous professors as guides, close friends as refuge.

Over time, I learned that no institution, or its traditions, is innocent; you can’t separate places from the people who built them. Yale has some of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It also houses its students in buildings named after slave-owners. In the new millennium and, we believe, more progressive times, it’s easy to be fooled into a toxic fantasy: there’s a pure meritocracy, and may the best man win. Maybe The Emperor’s Clubhad tried to warn me years ago that there’s no such thing. Being chosen makes you a beneficiary of luck, and often conspiracy, not justice. I learned smaller lessons too, little strategies for living. How to armor myself by being arch; how to shake hands. How to get the measure of—if not always the better of—my fear. Eventually, it stopped bothering me when my parents would visit, wondering aloud how anyone could be unhappy in a place like this.

*

For my money, The Emperor’s Club stumbles upon its smartest image early in its runtime. Mr. Hundert gazes down at a cheap snow globe of the Parthenon, small enough to fit into his hand. “It’s smaller than I remember,” he jokes. Ultimately, this movie can’t help but rebuild the old myth. It restores Mr. Hundert to his classroom, that sun-dappled sanctuary he built for moral and intellectual thought. But this is the closest the movie comes to deconstructing its genre and questioning its ideals. Your most closely held ideals become commodities, kitsch objects; your temple becomes a tourist trap. Hundert begins, in that moment, to shrink.

That’s what makes those middle scenes so hard to watch: those shapeless years where Hundert’s good faith doesn’t pay off, when he loses his students and then St. Benedict’s entirely. He’s a true believer. But he’s surrounded by, and raises up, such hollow men: swaggering suits who memorize the Ancients’ aphorisms and wear them lightly, using them as calling cards at the watering holes of the wealthy. Let’s be kind to Mr. Hundert: by the end of The Emperor’s Club, none of his students seem the worse for wear. That he carries on, damned by that faint praise, is one of the sorrows this movie can’t shake.

The prep school drama has died out in Hollywood. Another Jesse Eisenberg movie about elite alienation, The Social Network, marks its grave. Yet Donna Tartt’s novels, full of dark erudition, tell horror stories of star students gone crazy, committing murder. And on the nonfiction side, William Deresiewicz hawks his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. Now, in any outlet that’ll have him, he warns parents and kids away from the Ivy League. He used to teach at Yale—a real-life, more embittered, Mr. Hundert figure. Meanwhile, the opinion pages’ favorite feuds are the death of the liberal arts, the worth of the humanities, the decline of American higher education.

Hardly anyone remembers The Emperor’s Club, but this was the moment it was born for. Its noncommittal morality tale suits our fretful mood. It’d be a great Rorshach’s blot for the talking heads who war over our halls of learning. The Sedgewick Bells aren’t the ones most in need of our attention, or the most deserving—kids who are brighter, or more giving, or who fall through the cracks, are dealt a rotten hand. And yet we keep an eye on this battle for their souls, suspended between vindication or disappointment, waiting, still, to be surprised.


Sophia Nguyen lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


I'm Just a Teenage Dreamkid, Baby.

by Michelle King

illustratio by Brianna Ashby

illustratio by Brianna Ashby

When I was a kid, my favorite games to play were the ones I referred to simply as “imagination games.” Prone to asthma and allergies, I was forced to use my brain, not my body, to entertain myself. I did not play softball. I did not play kickball. I did not pass Go and accept orange slices and tiny Dixie cups of water. Instead, my friends and I—though, admittedly, sometimes just me—played games with titles such as “Mermaids,” or “Fairies,” or, my personal favorite, “High School Kids.”

“High School Kids” was my own creation. It was also the one I played alone most often; my friends did not quite understand the appeal. While they seemed content in their ten-year-old world of handstand contests and tree climbing, I was infatuated with the idea of being in high school. Nowadays, this is hilarious to me. High school? A point of obsession? Ha! That’s not to say that my own high school experience was particularly terrible, it’s just that nothing could have ever lived up to my impossibly high expectations for it. In my childhood view of things, high school meant colossal house parties and a caste system ruled by cheerleaders and football players (I imagined myself as a cheerleader, a dream terminated by my double-jointed arms and overall lack of rhythm). But in reality, parties were normally broken up before anybody could scream “fist fight”—and they never once included a dance sequence. As far as social order goes, my theater friends and I were not forced to sit at the designated “nerd table,” simply because there was no designated nerd table. There was, yes, some sort of vague social class, but the popular kids mostly minded their own business and were usually more likely to be smoking in their cars than they were to be playing football. I was also convinced, at ten, that everyone in high school looked about 25 years old.

Clearly, my past delusions regarding the realities of high school have one obvious culprit: 1990s teen movies.

Movies centered around and targeted at teenagers certainly did not begin in the 1990s. The teen films of the 80s—Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and just about every John Hughes movie—remain modern classics for good reason, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that teen movies started being churned out by Hollywood with an heretofore unparalleled frequency. That is not to say that thebest teen movies came out between 1997 and 1999, but it is to say that the most teen movies came out during those three years. Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, Varsity Blues, Jawbreaker, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, Dick, Teaching Mrs. Tingle—the list unfurls like the Magna Carta. As far as I was concerned, though, there was one movie that outshone the rest, emerging as the ne plus ultra of 90s teen cinema: She’s All That.

She’s All That stars Freddie Prinze Jr. as Zach Siler, the guy you would have hated in high school, if only guys like him actually existed in high school. Zach is the captain of the soccer team, has the third best grade point average in his entire class, and is dating the most popular girl in school, Taylor Vaughan (Jodi O’Keefe). But—to borrow from the vernacular of far too many theatrical trailer voice-overs—Zach’s luck is about to change.

It takes less than ten minutes for us to learn that Taylor is leaving Zach for Brock Hudson, a star from The Real World who she met at MTV’s Spring Break Beach House. “Don’t worry,” she tells Zach. “I’ll still totally go to prom with you." But Taylor’s promise of prom isn’t enough to appease Zach. Self-esteem sufficiently bruised, but ego still firmly intact, Zach tells his friends that Taylor Vaughan is merely a “C minus GPA with a Wonderbra.” In short, she’s replaceable, and to prove just how easily Taylor Vaughan can be replaced, Zach agrees to a bet with his friend Dean (Paul Walker). The terms of their bet are simple: Zach has six weeks to turn The Geekiest Girl in School into The Prom Queen. The "geek" in question is bespectacled art student Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook), who, after some convincing from her brother (Kieran Culkin), agrees to trust Zach and go along with his sudden interest in her.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a makeover sequence; it’s a scene that still excites me, albeit in the most simplistic of ways. It’s not that the makeover Laney undergoes is particularly remarkable. In fact, the whole thing is not really even so much a “makeover” as it is “Laney got contacts and a haircut.” But there is something special there, something ineffable. The saccharine sweet magic of the makeover scene actually begins before we even see Laney, with the first few simply strummed chords of She’s All That’s defacto theme song,“This Kiss”. Even now, fifteen years after I saw the film for the first time (in the theater, with my mom covering my ears during the infamous “Am I a fucking bet?” line), I find myself having an almost Pavlovian response to the song. I’ll hear it at the grocery store, or at the drugstore, or while being put on hold by an operator, and I’m instantly ten-years-old again, anxious for the model high school life I’ve imagined.

If the plot of She’s All That sounds familiar, it’s likely because the film closely follows the formula of My Fair Lady, and, well before that, Pygmalion. Still, for all its derivative traits, there remains something distinctive about She’s All That, even among the storm of films released around the same time featuring similar costumes, sets, and equally attractive casts. For starters, She’s All That is genuinely funny and self-aware. It’s also rather dark. Not in its entirety, perhaps, but with enough darkness sprinkled throughout to lend a rather strange, dismal tone to its sunny Southern California setting. Between all this and its ultra-famous cast (Cook was essentially a no-name at the time, but the film also featured Usher, Lil Kim, Paul Walker, and Anna Paquin), it’s no wonder that the film shot to No. 1 at the box office and earned a grand total of $103 million worldwide, about 17 times its budget.

Still, I do not know if any of this makes She’s All That a “good movie.” I honestly don’t. I become so flush with nostalgia anytime I see the film that it’s become difficult for me to discern whether or not this is actually a good 90s teen film (see: 10 Things I Hate About Youand Clueless) or if it is just simply a fun 90s teen film (see: Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous). What I can tell you, though, is that as I’ve grown up, I no longer think of She’s All That as simply being an entertaining film. Yes, it’s fun and frothy. Yes, it’s ballasted in deeply sexist ideology (The nerd can get the prom king...but only when she becomes beautiful!). And, yes, there is a three-minute long dance sequence for reasons that remain inexplicable. But in recent viewings, I’ve become more aware of how emblematic She’s All That was of being a teenager in the late 1990s—not thereality of being a teenager per se, but the idea of what a teenager was at that particular cultural moment in time.

When the film was first released in 1999, teenagers were spending more cash than ever before (about $99 per week, according to Teenage Research Unlimited). Suddenly, kids had cash to blow, well beyond a basic allowance. Not surprisingly, companies soon began to target teenagers much more aggressively. MTV’s Total Request Live launched in 1998, the same year the first Now That’s What I Call Music! album was released. Mailboxes filled with catalogs for Alloys and Delia’s. You couldn’t swing your Sony Discman without knocking down five Motorola Beepers.

She’s All That satirizes this kind of consumer culture (“I have major Diet Coke breath. Does anybody have any gum?” is one of Taylor’s first lines), but it also embraces it. The film seems to suggest that you, too, can be beautiful and loved, just so long as you have a red velvet mini-dress and matching platforms.

There’s an argument to be made for why teenagers, with their malleable brains and virtually nonexistent savings accounts, should not be the top target of capitalism. I’m skeptical, though, to paint the producers of She’s All That as nothing more than acquisitive, manipulative adults, just cogs in a machine created to get teenagers to buy, buy, buy. What seems closer to the truth is this: the ideas depicted in She’s All That were simply demonstrative of what it meant to be a teenager living within the burgeoning economy of the 1990s.

You can argue that the changing landscape of cinema was the main reason that the mini-genre into which She’s All That fell ended when the twentieth century did, but that’s not quite correct. After all, movies that depicted a frothy, unrealistic version of high school were still being churned out well into the aughts. They might not have been part of that same magical, cult-classic-worthy era of the late 90s, but they certainly emerged from a similar ethos (Bring it On, Sugar & Spice, EuroTrip, A Cinderella Story, John Tucker Must Die, andShe’s the Man, to name but a few).

It wasn’t until 2007—when the most recent recession began and teenagers no longer had $99 a week to shell out—that films with insanely unrealistic depictions of high school stopped being mass produced, slowly replaced by high school movies that didn’t focus their lens nearly as much on the popular, wealthy kids. Films such as Juno, Superbad, Pitch Perfect, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now and, most recently, The Fault in Our Stars provide for a much wider range of teen-centered cinema than She’s All That and its Equal-sweet counterparts ever strove for. This shifting tide in what it means to be a teenager today isn’t just reflected in cinema, of course. It’s Rookie overSeventeen. It’s Lorde over Britney Spears. It’s in their clothes. It’s in their dialect. It’s in their goals, and their aspirations, and the things they talk about and the things they think about.

I have long outgrown my own “imagination games.” I no longer fantasize about what it would be like to walk down the stairs to “Kiss Me.” It’s been over five years since I turned my graduation tassel from left to right, and a lot of my day-to-day concerns are more of the “paying rent” and “buying groceries” variety. Movies like She’s All That—clever teen comedies that make no real effort to show what it’s actually like to be a teenager—seem mostly like a relic of the past. It’s a Walkman. It’s a flip-phone. It’s an AOL email account. Quite simply: it’s 90’s nostalgia.

I watch She’s All That about once a year. It’s a sick day movie or the movie I watch while folding my laundry. At this point, I’m so familiar with the plot that I need to devote only about 25 percent of my attention to the screen at any given moment. Whereas I used to watch it obsessively and think, “Oh wow. I hope high school is like that!”, whenever it’s on now I’m actually quite thankful that high school is essentially nothing like that, and that the films targeted at teens nowadays are a bit more discerning. But then that scene starts up, the one that begins with the soft strums of “This Kiss” and ends with the camera panning all the way up a young Rachel Leigh Cook’s body, to her freshly made-over face, and I can hardly breathe. It’s such a jejune response: oh, let’s all stop to stare at the beautiful, skinny girl as she walks down a set of stairs to a pretty song. But I can’t help myself. That’s what these kind of teen movies do. They don’t beget empathy; instead, when they work, they turn us back into those gawking teenagers that we never even really were to begin with.


Michelle King lives in Brooklyn. She spends her days working at Black Balloon Publishing and her nights writing and reading Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl to her cat, who seems to be enjoying it.


There's No Crying in Marching Band

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Morgan is missing. The other students are looking around, as if to pretend they didn’t notice that she left. Her vibraphone stands empty amidst a sea of keyboard percussion and timpani and tambourines.

“Where’s Morgan?” the other instructor barks. He’s in his mid-thirties, muscular, intimidating. The students don’t like him, and I don’t blame them. I worked with him several years ago, and still find myself a little terrified of his demeanor.

A small freshman boy finally goes, “She went to the bathroom like ten minutes ago.”

The instructor sighs and looks at me. I shrug. I don’t know what Morgan’s deal is. This is my second day on the job. And then I realize he’s looking at me because he’s not allowed to be in a high school girls’ bathroom.

“I’ll go grab her,” I tell him.

Morgan is sitting on the floor of the bathroom outside the cafeteria. She is sixteen with big and beautiful red hair and a face full of freckles. Her face is wet with tears. She tries to apologize to me but she’s crying too hard. I don’t know what to say, so we sit on the floor together.

School of Rock is a film about a man named Dewey Finn (Jack Black) who, both unemployed and kicked out of his rock band, poses as a substitute teacher at a private elementary school. Instead of teaching the kids math and English and science, he teaches them how to form a rock band. School of Rock is a comedy, of course, but it also takes music very, very seriously. Dewey spends entire school days breaking down The Ramones and Blondie on a chalkboard before switching over to music theory before switching over to a brief lesson on songwriting. It is an all-encompassing music education; it just so happens to be taught by a fraudulent man-child.

Dewey Finn loves the students he teaches. Part of the issue with him as an educator (beyond the fact that he isn’t actually a teacher) is that he treats 10-year-olds like they’re adults. He respects them. He listens to them. He stands in a corner with Tomika, one of the students in his class. “They’re gonna laugh at me,” she tells him. When Dewey presses her on why, she answers, “I don’t know, because I’m fat.” Musicians come from anywhere, look like anyone, can be anything. Aretha Franklin was big, he tells her. Music is an equalizer. If you have talent, nothing else matters.

It is almost impossible to remember just how important marching band—and to a slightly lesser extent, music—was to me in high school, but it was basically my entire life. On Monday nights, I had marching band rehearsal. On Tuesdays, I had jazz band. On Wednesdays, I had orchestra. On Thursdays, I had marching band again. On Fridays, I played football games, and we spent every weekend of the fall in some kind of competition. It was my everything. I ate lunch in the practice rooms. My senior year of high school, I took more music electives than I did academic courses.

It was tough but I was good. I would bandage my bleeding, calloused fingers during class. I would stay until all hours of the night, learning and relearning the pieces I would need to know. We rehearsed for seven hours a day all summer. I would go home and fall asleep immediately and wake up and do it again, day in and day out.

I play percussion, which is a fancy way of saying I’m not a drummer. My high school instrument of choice was the vibraphone, which is like a xylophone, except the keys are metallic and there’s a reverberation pedal so that the notes can ring longer. Like chimes, but horizontal. Being a percussionist requires a lot of different skills. Vibraphone was my specialty but I could also play timpani, tambourine, bass drum, triangle, wood blocks, you name it.

In a section of 32 percussionists, I was one of four girls. The instructors were all male. There was enormous pressure to be tough and stone-faced. Music was the equalizer for us, too. If I stayed above the curve, I got less flack from instructors and percussionists. I didn’t want to just be a percussionist, I needed to be thebest percussionist there was. If I wasn’t, I was just like anyone else. I was just a girl playing with sticks.

But unlike Dewey, my instructors didn’t love me. They didn’t even love most of the pieces we played. They loved the competition and the medals. They loved being able to say they coached the best marching band in the state. Whether I was involved or not, we were the best marching band. We were all just pieces.

That kind of attitude burns someone out. Around the latter half of my senior year, I started to plateau. I was working on a piece that I hated and my instructor was furious with me for not playing it well.

“I just don’t like it,” I told him. “I can’t make myself work on it.”

“And what?” he asked. “You’re only going to do things you like for the rest of your life?”

“I don’t know,” I said, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I cried, and it was the only time I ever cried in front of a music instructor. He didn’t say anything about it. My lesson was supposed to go for another ten minutes but he let me out early. We were done.

Throughout my time in high school, we won the state competition every year. We placed second at super regionals. The same year that I cried during a private lesson, our percussion section scored a perfect score at a competition. “The vibraphones are magical,” the judge said into the tape. I rolled my eyes. There are no perfect scores in music.

School of Rock is beautiful in many ways because it plays out like a fantasy film. Of course it’s not realistic. Of course that’s not how educators should behave. It’s not real, but you want it to be real. I watched School of Rock in my early teens and wanted to be part of it. I wanted music to be as magical for me as it was to the kids in the film. I wanted it to save my life, but instead it became my life. I became a percussion score on a piece of paper.

That’s the thing about rock ‘n roll, Dewey explains. You don’t win at it. You can do a thing called Battle of the Bands and you can win a big check, but you’re never really winning at music. It’s not a competition. It’s about how it makes you feel. For the kids in School of Rock, music is liberating. It opens up a snooty, private school education into something bigger and better that allows the students to express themselves. You learn how to create and build something that is both yours and not yours. Music is about sharing. It’s about giving something away to someone else.

I think about that judge’s comment a lot: “The vibraphones are magical.” I feel guilty, in retrospect, for being annoyed. For rolling my eyes. When music is good, it is magical. Goosebumps prickle along your arms and you let the whole thing wash over you. I don’t remember what it was like to play that competition, but I know that judge felt something. I wish I remembered which part of the song it was. Which was the part the judge had loved? It all felt like another rehearsal to me.

Two years out of high school, one of my old instructors reached out to ask what I was doing for the summer and if I wanted to teach. On my first day, I attended a staff meeting with six other men in their thirties. They went over the basics and then they turned to me.

“Don’t give the kids too many breaks,” they told me. I agreed. “You’re not their mom,” they told me. I agreed. “You’re not their friend,” they told me. I agreed. The way they spoke to me felt like they didn’t even want me around. I didn't know why I was there.

When I finally got in front of the kids who looked, to me, so young and so scared, I figured it out. Nine girls. There were nine girls in percussion that year. They had never dealt with more than four and they had no idea what to do with them.

On the day Morgan cries in the bathroom, I sit on the floor with her because I never cried in the bathroom despite wanting to on so many different days. Morgan is crying in the bathroom because she’s trying to figure out the balance. The piece is difficult and that’s frustrating. The instructors don’t care about her and that’s frustrating. She knows she likes making music and she likes creating something and how can she do that? That’s frustrating.

“I’m gonna figure it out,” Morgan tells me finally. It’s a promise.

“I know you are,” I say. “You’re playing really well. You’ve almost got it. You’re really close.”

“I just got stressed,” she says.

“I know, but Morgan,” and I know I shouldn’t say it but I say it anyway, “it also doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. You’ll learn it because you have to learn it but please don’t let it make you cry,” I explain.

Morgan stands up and we go back to rehearsal together.

At Horace Green, the parents worry that Dewey Finn hasn’t taught their kids anything during those past few months. But really, they’d learned something important: collaboration, creativity, and all of those soft skills that become valuable as you get older. They have learned how to feel when a song comes on. They have learned how to lose themselves in a really good guitar lick.

I don’t play music anymore, but I love music so much. I make people quiet down when I hear something. Hold on a second, I’ll say, this part is magical.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


Cast Yourself Down

by Gray Hendryx

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I wanted to laugh out loud the first time I met Lucas. I walked into my office on the first day of my new job, and there he was, his back to me. He turned. His eyes were the color of a clear dawn sky. His jaw and cheekbones belonged on a billboard advertising men's cologne. A pearl-snap shirt was tucked into the slender waist of his Wranglers. The tan skin on his ropy arms glowed. He offered his hand to shake; his calloused fingers were warm against mine. White and even was the smile he beamed at me. I dumbly gripped his hand as verse six from the Song of Solomon came unbidden to my mind:

Thy teeth are as a flock of sheep which go up from the washing, whereof every one beareth twins, and there is not one barren among them.

He doffed his straw Resistol and made a little bow. His hair, smashed into a Fred Munster fringe by the stained band of his hat, was the one flaw that drew me back from the brink of utter speechlessness. "So pleased to meet you, Miss Sara," he drawled. I stifled a giggle of the girlish kind. There I stood—a sophisticated feminist of thirty-four years of age, engaged to a kind and talented artist—shivering in the storm of a young stranger's beauty. He was the embodiment of every mythic cowboy I'd ever seen. He was James Dean. He was the Marlboro Man. He was John Wayne. He was Brokeback Mountain, and I suddenly wanted to climb his peak and throw myself off.

"Nice to meet you, too," I managed.

*

I feel a kinship with memoirist Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench). Notes on a Scandal are her notes, written in elegant longhand in countless leather-bound journals. Her wry, smoky voice frames each scene in the film. Though I don't always agree with her unkind judgments, I envy her barb-like wit. I wish I could notice as well as she does the particulars of class and how it determines the behavior of those around her. She sees right through the pretentions of Bathsheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the well-intentioned, hapless new art teacher at their London public school. A glance at Sheba's outfit is all it takes. "Artfully disheveled today. The tweedy tramp coat is an abhorrence," Barbara sneers. "It seems to say, 'I'm just like you.' But clearly she's not."

That much is true. Sheba, like her biblical namesake, possesses the kind of beauty for which kings sacrifice fiefdoms and sons. Her translucent skin emits a soft light that brightens even the dourest classroom. She's a fairy tale: hair of spun gold, limbs of willow, a voice "pure...as if her mouth were empty and clean." Next to her, pinched little Barbara and the other dumpy teachers barely come up to Sheba's shoulders. Wattled and waddling, they are all Muscovy ducks compared to swan-like Sheba. "She has certainly rippled the waters of our stagnant pond. They flock to her," Barbara observes as her fellow instructors use any excuse they can to sit next to Sheba at lunch. Solicitous, they touch her in passing. They compliment her on the filmy tops she likes to wear.

Barbara holds herself above what she sees as the rabble around her, but she, too, is not immune to beauty's insidious pull. She finds herself waxing poetic on Sheba's complexion, which she likens to "...a white peach. One can almost see her veins."

My own peach is a duskier one, though no less alluring. For years, I have prided myself on questioning culture's ideals about beauty—that it belongs wholly to those who are young, white, straight, and thin—only to become a cross-eyed idiot every time Lucas approaches my desk. This feels like a personal failing to me.

I resent how our culture has taught men to gaze at women's bodies with entitlement, dividing their wholeness into breasts, thighs, legs: lumps of pretty meat to use and eat. But now I know a little of how men feel, for I, too, have found myself objectifying my coworker with my gaze. I'm not proud of it. Lucas wears the top few buttons of his shirt open, and there, beneath the hollow of his throat, I can see a tuft of hair that hints at a thick swath covering his chest and belly. I have to consciously avert my eyes from that tuft, because if I don't, I will stare at it and yearn to touch it instead of listening to him ask for a travel application. "Eyes up," I chide myself, but moving my gaze directly up to his is just as dizzying. His eyes are so blue. When he looks back at me, words turn to marbles in my throat, and I have to swallow them down, hard. The only time I indulge myself is when he turns his back on me. In those stolen moments, I can take in the wondrous line of his thin hips. I toe the edge of a precipice with each furtive glance, and I imagine, as Björk does in "Hyperballad," "what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks."

I don't know why I long for Lucas when I'm so happy to be engaged to the man I love. I fret over this often. It's unfair. Why can't I have such lustful feelings for my fiancé? He's still the same handsome guy I fell for back in the first frantic months of our courtship. Our relationship has since deepened into an abiding, comfortable intimacy; we laugh at each other's farts and baby talk to the dog. I worry I take too much advantage of this intimacy when I tell him about Lucas. I fear I am being cruel, but I also fear that if I keep my lust to myself, it will fester and metastasize. He just holds me and tells me I'm being too hard on myself. "You're only human," he says, his hands gentle on my neck and back. "It's ok to want other people. Just let them alone, and keep telling me the truth."

Easier said than done, at least for Sheba Hart. Like me, she too teeters on the cliffs of desire, though she has it much worse than I do. Her obscure object is Steven (Andrew Simpson), a fifteen-year-old student with a Scottish burr and freckles. After scoring a goal in the schoolyard, he whips off his shirt and points at her. This one's for you, Miss. It's difficult to tell if he's referring to the goal or his sculptural half-nakedness, but the effect is the same on Sheba either way. I recognize the pain in her eyes: longing, shot through with resentment. As we age, we must sweat and diet and discipline ourselves into beauty, but the young miraculously are, like Venus emerging from the sea.

Long ago, she was Venus. We get a glimpse of a younger Sheba in an old picture she shows to Steven. That girl, red of lip, dark of eye, big of hair, stood out from a sea of other students in her professor's class. Richard (Bill Nighy), her senior by decades, sacrificed his kingdom—a marriage, two children, possibly tenure—for her. They married, and the intervening years have transformed that punk goddess into the mother of two. Richard has become an old man. Her dreams of artistic renown have shrunk into a condescending plan to bring art to poor students like Steven. Instead, she brings her body and her hopeless longing and a Siouxsie Sioux record. She brings her whole life. She lays it at Steven's feet, knowing full well everything she may lose. He, a child, a god, is cruel in his innocence. Of what worth is a life to immortal youth?

*

We all must walk that edge between what we have and what we want. There, on the lip of desire's canyon, we can cling to the rim, or we can cast ourselves down. But when? For what? If we hold on for too long, we risk becoming like Barbara. When she was young, admitting her attraction to women could have wrecked her life just as surely as Sheba's dalliance destroyed hers. Thus Barbara, ever shrewd, bound her desires tight within her journals. There, her barred love grew twisted and deformed like the stunted pines that live on unforgiving peaks. Longing turned to delusion. Fondness soured into obsession. She couldn't let go. In risking nothing, she lost everything.

Yet falling headlong into the abyss must not be done lightly. Poor, privileged Sheba, so accustomed to getting whatever she wants, never learns what truly matters to her. She flings herself at her professor, at her student, at ceramics, at teaching, even at her worst frenemy, Barbara, and all of it leaves her sobbing silently in her kitchen, all too conscious of the disappointment in her wake. When Richard discovers her affair with Steven, he of course asks why she did it. "I DON'T KNOW!!!" she howls, and she soon flings herself once more, this time to the camera-wielding wolves at the door. "HERE I AM! HERE I AM!" she shrieks at the paparazzi, a goddess transformed by hubris into a screaming gorgon. She failed to gauge the height of the cliffs. She dared to dance too close.

*

My boss invited us all to a party at his house. For a few hours, gallons of beer and piles of barbeque thinned the lines between employer and employee. We flirted and chatted under a soft summer sky. Someone brought a boombox, and instantly, the empty garage became a dance floor. I danced my first two-step.

I did not dance with Lucas, though I wanted to. Two-stepping is far from the bump-and-grind of da clubs I once frequented; even so, I was uncomfortable crossing that line. I watched as he partnered up with another woman my age. She was a practiced dancer, lithe and quick. So was he. They spun across the floor, twisting and fading into each other like flames in the night. White-hot envy seared my brain. I clutched my beer a little harder and took a long drink.

My jealousy cooled into wistfulness as I continued to watch them. She matched him step for step, their limbs entwining as he caught her in a graceful fall that made me ache. They were beautiful together, as were the smells of charred meat and mesquite, the colored lights bobbing in the evening breeze, and the laughter all around me. I couldn't tease one apart from the whole. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I'm a part of this, too. This whole. This beauty. Sometimes, I can see things for what they are. I can also drink one too many beers. It was time to go home.

I went to find my fiancé. He stood at the edge of the driveway with some friends of ours. They were admiring the mountains at the edge of town, burning rose and scarlet in the light of the setting sun. He smiled and drew me in for a kiss.

"Will you look at that?" he grinned and wrapped me in his arms. "Aren't they beautiful?"

"It's good to be alive," I replied. That's the only answer I have to that question.


Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist.


You Already Have Your Poetry

by Elisabeth Geier

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Ms. Dunstan was a great teacher. Every Halloween, she came to school dressed as a chicken, or maybe it was a bunny, I can’t remember anymore. Something big and round and yellow, a walking burst of color within the washed-out walls of our California high school. She loved books the way an English teacher must, but not in a cheesy inspirational movie sort of way. She loved them like a grown-up who knows books matter and has the patience to let reluctant teenagers figure it out for themselves. She sometimes seemed a little cold, reserved, but then she'd drop a perfectly-timed quip about the asshole drawing in Breakfast of Champions and let us know she was on our side. She gave us movie days when we needed them, and on those days, she brought snacks. She showed us Il Postino in Creative Writing/Public Speech senior year. I don't remember if it correlated with a book we were reading or a specific assignment we had. I think it was just a somewhat challenging break from the always-challenging work of being a high schooler.

Il Postino is about Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), an Italian fisherman's son who gets seasick every time he goes on a boat. He must find alternate employment, and so he goes to the post office, proves he can read, and is given a rickety bicycle and an important route: up the hill where The Poet is staying. The poet is Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), in exile from his native Chile because he's an outspoken communist. The postman becomes the poet's biggest fan, and the poet becomes the postman's greatest teacher. Their classroom is a kitchen table; a rocky beach; a political protest; life.

It's easy to romanticize the great teachers in our lives, particularly the ones we had in junior high or high school, because they reach us at a time when little else can. When we are young and/or disillusioned, it often feels like nobody understands, especially not adults, and nobody will ever feel as strongly as we do about that song, that poem, that girl, that boy, or anything else in this stupid, messed-up world. The day after I gave an impassioned informational speech about Jeff Buckley, Ms. Dunstan beckoned me to the back of the classroom during a writing exercise and slid a Tim Buckley CD across her desk. There was a Post-it note on the cover: “In case you want to experience the older generation.” Another time, she invited the entire Academic Decathlon team to her house to practice for the upcoming competition, and cooked the best chicken I have ever tasted. It was so good, I became a vegetarian to avoid ever eating sub-par chicken again. That's actually a lie: I kept eating meat for a few more years, and chicken was the last meat I gave up, but it sounds good just to say things sometimes. The things we say can carry meaning we never acknowledge until someone else points it out. After Neruda recites a poem about the ocean, Mario tells him, “I felt like a boat tossing about on those words.”

The poet smiles. “You've invented a metaphor.”

“But it doesn't count because I didn't mean to,” Mario says.

“Meaning to is not important,” the poet says.

Mario asks the Poet to help him win the heart of the beautiful girl who works in the town's single cafe. Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), described in stilted awe, her name a soft shh in the postman’s mouth. The poet says he cannot help, but Mario borrows his poems anyhow and recites them to Beatrice as if they are his own. Later, he blames the poet for all the trouble love can cause. It's your fault I fell in love, the postman says. But you had no right to use my words, the poet says. But poems don't belong to the person who writes them, Mario argues, they belong to the person who needs them most.

Il Postino is about love, lust, and politics, but most of all it's about discovering the power of language, the way the right string of images can elicit a feeling for which there are no words. Neruda defines “metaphor,” but of course Mario understands poetry long before he has the vocabulary to describe it. There's poetry in the way his cap falls over his eyes, in how he pockets a pinball that has been in his beloved's mouth, in how the name of the person he loves is a poem in and of itself. Beatrice RussoMario Ruoppolo. My open, teenage heart. I don't remember every detail of Il Postino, my twelfth grade creative writing class, or Ms. Dunstan, but I do remember the feeling of coming alive in that classroom, of falling in love with language in a way that I hadn't been able to name before, and of realizing that this thingI had always sort of liked was in fact the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

When I became a college instructor, I showed Il Postino to my Introduction to Poetry class. We were halfway through the term, they were stressed out about midterms in every other class, I wasn't big on tests, and movie day is a good way to fill required time with something tangentially related and enjoyable. So I played Il Postino, and felt that it was a smart choice, and felt very proud for figuring out the projector without asking anyone for help. I am the teacher. I operate the equipment. I hold the teacher's edition and always read two chapters ahead.

My students’ reaction to the film was mixed. Some of them had never watched a movie with subtitles before, and several of them were bored. Some of them were deeply engaged in the romance, others the politics, and a select few everything at once. All of them seemed to enjoy the movie version of Pablo Neruda, a sensual, meaty man who welcomes the postman into his home and explains poetry like breathing.

When I was first asked to teach Intro to Poetry, I e-mailed every poet I know: “Help! I don't know anything about poetry!” Once I got over being terrified and started to feel a little bit good at my job, I realized I knew more than I thought. Like every idealistic academic raised on movies, I started fantasizing about changing lives. I could see it so clearly: me in a sensible blouse and dark jeans, professional but cool, standing before the class as a slow clap builds from the back row, that one Michael Jackson song from Free Willy playing as we all start to cry. In real life, nobody cried. Once, the long-haired stoner who wrote essays about landscaping high-fived me and said, “Man, your poetry class is awesome” when I ran into him at the grocery store though.

Mario Ruoppolo sees his teacher as a giant, and of course Neruda carries the reputation of his name, but in the end, he is only a man. He teaches Mario about metaphors on the sunny terrazza of his Italian retreat, and Mario carries his own metaphors to a communist rally where he dies, leaving behind Beatrice Russo and their son, leaving behind the world of poetry that he only recently found. The disparity between what Neruda teaches Mario and what Mario gets in the end is deeply unfair, as life is unfair, and this upsets me every time I watch Il Postino, and it upset my students when they saw the film, too. Of course, unfairness is a common experience among students and teachers working hard in a flawed and frustrating system. I haven't taught a college class in three years and I miss it very much, but I don’t miss institutionalized education. What I miss is sharing my love for literature and letting my students figure it out for themselves, and honestly, who needs a classroom for that.

When he is first starting to love poetry, Mario tells Neruda, “I really liked it when you wrote 'I am tired of being a man.' That's happened to me, too, but I never knew how to say it.'”

Later, Neruda tells Mario, “When you explain it, poetry becomes banal.”

After reading Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room", one of my students said, “I've never heard anybody else say they feel this way, too.” I had never read Elizabeth Bishop before I taught her in that class, and I felt the same sense of awe. It's the biggest trope in movies about learning: the student becomes the teacher. Pablo Neruda learns of Mario's death at a communist rally and realizes the postman who he so often laughed at, whose ignorance charmed him every time they met, had given his life to the cause in a way the poet never would. We are all students all along.

I'm a good teacher. I wouldn't say great. I worry too much about what my students think of me, whether or not they think I'm cool, and great teachers are usually the ones who don’t care. Ms. Dunstan never cared if we liked her or not, which of course made me love her all the more. She was sensible and straightforward, and spoke passionately about books and film, and listened to me, and never coddled. She respected my privacy while encouraging me to write more, speak more, and be bolder than I had ever allowed myself to be. She made me care about writing enough to care about college, and wrote my recommendation letters when it was time to apply. She fed me roast chicken and thick hunks of bread. I bring my students cookies when essays are due. After Mario Ruoppolo and Pablo Neruda become friends, the poet pours the postman a glass of wine. Take, eat, drink. We learn by consuming. Everything between student and teacher is food.


Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California. She would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.


The True Measure of a Monster

by Christopher Fraser

© Walt Disney Pictures

© Walt Disney Pictures

When you start university, it can feel a bit like you’re entering the real world for the very first time. There’s this sudden surge in scale that’s hard to grasp. I went from a high school with over 1,500 students to a university with ten times that number – still comparatively small, but large enough that recognizing each individual face became an impossibility. Options unfurl in front of you in hundreds of different directions, and every choice you make feels like you’re deciding something incredibly important about your future.

Much like Monsters Inc., the real protagonist of Monsters University is Mike (Billy Crystal), a green monster who spends his life hovering around the margins. He approaches MU with his (one) eye on anything and everything to do with scaring; the film opens with Mike attending a school tour of the Monsters Inc. facility, and this experience fosters an ambition within the young cyclops. By the time he reaches college age, his heart is set on becoming the best scarer he can be. There are his classes within the scaring program, of course—memorizing positions, growls, and the seemingly immense variety of childhood phobias—but there are also a host of extracurricular opportunities. Only one catches Mike’s attention for more than a moment, though: the Scare Games, a team-based competitive gauntlet that aims to determine the most fearsome monsters on campus. So far, so straightforward.

It’s hard to talk about Monsters University concisely because it captures the feeling of university so well. For at least the first half of its running time, everything contributes to an overall feeling of sensory overload; the number of characters who get a line—even if it’s just a throwaway laugh—is staggering. There’s a moment in the first few minutes where Mike, feeling overcome, looks over the side of a bridge on campus, and sees another population of students going about their business underwater. The focus remains on Mike during this mind-bending first act because trying to capture an objective view of everything would be overwhelming. When you first arrive on campus, taking a step back and imagining what you’re missing is impossible. Every moment flies past you, and it’s up to you to grab them instinctively.

Things really take shape once Sulley (John Goodman) enters the picture. A turquoise alpha male with shaggy fur and an arrogant demeanor, Sulley is everything that Mike isn’t—born into greatness and blessed with natural talent, but also lazy and easily distracted. This natural opposition tightens the focus as they square up against each other as rivals, only to find themselves thrown into circumstances that demand cooperation. As these two characters receive more and more definition, the throwaway caricatures that surround them become less overwhelming, because they no longer present another avenue of opportunity. The evolving relationship between Mike and Sulley is an anchor.

There is something deliberate in the fact that Monsters University is a prequel, I think. At the end of Monsters Inc., Mike and Sulley discover that the laughter of children is a far more powerful source of energy than their screams. There is probably a sequel to be found that spins off from such a civilization-shattering discovery—the culture of scaring is found right at the root of Monstropolis itself—but the film was always really about the characters, not their environment. By creating a prequel, the creators are only underlining this.

Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is a gravely charismatic authority figure, but her authority comes from her legacy of scaring children, a useless skill once the events of Monsters Inc.are over. None of this seems to matter, though, because her capacity for cruelty works from a character standpoint. Likewise, scaring really just seems like a means to the end of the next emotional beat. Mike has moments of insecurity about his ability to scare well, but the scaring isn’t the point—it’s the fact that he has to be knocked down so he can get back up. Likewise, the Scare Games don’t really matter, fun as they are to watch. The purpose they serve is to bring Mike and Sulley together—to make them realize the power in using the strength of each other to become stronger themselves.

For most of us, the lessons we learn from being around other people tend to reveal themselves long after the fact. Life is messy, and chaotic, and when you’re thrown into a new environment—school, university, the wide open world—you’re often too busy reacting to reflect. It’s only later that things start to make a sort of sense.

It’s telling that the two key moments of reflection at the conclusion of Monsters Universitytake place away from college.

“I act scary, Mike – but most of the time, I’m terrified,” Sulley says by a moonlit lake at a human summer camp, and for the first time in the film, the wisecracking, arrogant monster is replaced by something altogether more vulnerable. It’s startling, learning that the most self-assured character inMonsters University is just making it up as he goes along, but it’s also a breath of fresh air—by admitting it so nakedly, Sulley gives himself an opportunity for growth. He takes a step back from the pretense and swagger of campus life, and starts to see things slide into place.

Later, after Mike and Sulley suffer permanent expulsion from MU, Mike boards a bus, his head hanging, not sure what his next move is going to be. Sulley confronts him at the last moment. There, he mirrors his previous confession. He gives Mike the confidence he needs, calling him fearless, and Mike breaks into a smile—for Mike, so much rides on the validation of the people around him, and in the closing moments he finally receives it. By reshaping Mike’s memories of MU for the better, Sulley gives him a better shot at whatever comes next.

Now that a couple of years have passed, I wonder what sort of person I might have become had I chosen a different path through university. The scene where dozens of societies are vying for Mike’s attention is painfully familiar to me. I ended up sticking with a couple of societies devoted to hollow student activism and edited a student fiction anthology, but as it happens I found my inspiration elsewhere. Had I been a little more gutsy, I might have gotten into improv. If I drank more, I could have tolerated the long-haired headbangers. If I hadn’t fallen in love with someone who had the audacity to live three thousand miles away, I might have been on some ludicrous gap year to Kenya.

I think, once you get to college, your opportunities for really screwing up are beginning to dry up. Even if you drop out, it’s never as damning a sentence as failing high school. These alternative, parallel-universe versions of me are interesting, certainly, but no more appealing than the life I ended up living. There is a version of me who is chained to the gates of an arms manufacturer and believes he is doing God’s work. There is, almost definitely, a parallel life where I’m backpacking around North Africa, intoxicated by a dozen new experiences every day. But instead, I spent my time at university solidifying a relationship, and then moved to the USA and got married once it was over. This version of me is just as happy as the rest.

I graduated university two years ago, and it can be hard to pull some coherent narrative out of it all. My formative years didn’t follow the simplicity of a Pixar movie. Watching Monsters University, though, is more about grasping a principle – that, more often than not, the way you approach your past is more flexible than you might think. There are always lessons, good and bad, buried in the chaos of your memories.

Sometimes, you just need someone else to cast them in a different light.



Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.


I'm Wild Again, Beguiled Again

by Tarra Martin

illustration by Liliana Vera

illustration by Liliana Vera

In 2009, I was in Scotland and it was dark outside. This is a thing that happens in the north in the autumn, more and more often until sundown swings back the other direction just as unreasonably. Or so I trust—I left in December, so this is based on conjecture and hearsay.

On this particular night, all the serious students I shared a flat with were studying, but I, being abroad for the semester, was taking only pass/fail first-year courses with names like Celtic Civilisations and Conceptualising Scotland (there were bins at customs where Americans could discard their z's in exchange for extra s's). So, alone with a free evening—and having just discovered the BBC's online streaming service—I decided to watch a film they were featuring called The History Boys. I was unaware that just across the street in the neighboring student flats, one of my new friends was also taking a chance on that night’s featured film. We discovered what we had done the following day, and talked about it over an entire pot of Earl Grey.

Like my soon-to-be cross-Atlantic friendship, The History Boys would exhibit remarkable staying power. Every once in a deep cobalt moon I’ll watch a film without any underlying motivations or prior preconceptions, but only one of those films has ever inspired me to take up the charge and urge other people to watch it, time and time (and time and time) again.

I start with a pitch. Something like: The History Boys began life as a play by Alan Bennett, racking up acclaim and selling out shows the world over, before finally being turned into a film with its original London cast. It’s set in Yorkshire in the mid-1980s, anchored around a group of bright British schoolboys who are being encouraged to stay on for an extra term in order to “try for Oxbridge.” To bolster their chances for admittance—and the esteem that would fall upon his school as a result—the squirrelly headmaster decides to bring in a new young teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) to coach the boys, alongside their long-time General Studies teacher (Richard Griffiths), and their wonderfully dry history teacher (Frances de la Tour), who gets most of the best lines.

Support team assembled, the boys get to work preparing for a really crunchy entrance exam, all while navigating questions of academic integrity, young love, old show tunes, the lasting resonance of poetry, and a whole squirmy range of inappropriate student-teacher relationships. It’s heartbreaking, but somehow, it’s also a comedy. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Remember, this film comes from a land that will try to serve you a dish called “bubble and squeak”—at some point, you just have to trust. In the case of bubble and squeak, you’ll get a delicious fried mess of left-over roasted vegetables. In the case of The History Boys, though, you’ll get a movie that just might take up permanent residence in your heart.

I am a good acolyte. I have seduced subsequent friends into this cult of academe at the rate of at least one-per-year for the past five years. I’ve collected the movies and songs and poems that weave through this film like beads on a string, counting off a rosary of Auden, Ella Fitzgerald, Brief Encounter. At one point I even drafted up ballots comparing The History Boys to a somewhat similar British play-to-film tale, Another Country—though as one convert remarked, “in the battle between Colin Firth’s hair and Russell Tovey’s ears, we all win.” Indeed.

I’ve championed this movie ever since that first night in Edinburgh, but my fondness for it is rooted even further back, twined deep into my past. You see, when I was the same age as the History Boys, my life was not so very different.

The truth of this rang bell-clear when I finally showed The History Boys to an old friend from high school. We were both living back home in Washington state, casting about for what we should do next, trying to fashion lives outside of the academic world we’d both lived in for so long. In a fit of inspired counter-productivity, we house-sat for our old high school English teacher and his wife, making white rose tea and huddling under piles of blankets in their log cabin, watching The History Boys.

It had been nearly six years since we were in AP English together, a class led by the teacher whose sofa we were now sitting on, the man who once invented for us, his favorite class, an absurd and exhilarating quote-memorization game we called Literary Dodgeball. Our class was already close, and by our senior year, just like the History Boys, we moved within a world of shared knowledge, alingua franca of books, plays, poetry, and films that peppered our speech. We acted out scenes in the front of the classroom, worked on projects secretly and then gave them to each other like gifts. We strove to get into good colleges, wondering how to impress, how to stay truthful. My long affection for The History Boys never made more sense to me than in that moment, as I sat watching it alongside another student from that weird and beautiful class, a friend who felt that same sweet leap in her heart when one of the characters alluded to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” one of our teacher’s favorite poems.

Every time I sit down to re-watch The History Boys, either with others or on my own, there comes this moment right before it starts when I worry that my love for it might have faded, that what I once found so resonant will now feel hollow, that I might simply have outgrown it. But each time, it still knocks my heart asunder. And so again I’m left wondering, as I’ve wondered now for years, how much this has to do not only with me and my own history, but with the group of actors onscreen. They were together for such a long time—hundreds of runs of the play—before their living relationships were encased forever on film. There’s an amber-like quality to the movie, a preservation of a real and deep familiarity between people who truly have spent countless hours playing in a classroom together. There’s a certain magic there, and it lends a sense of real, lived-in life to these characters, beautiful and sometimes aching in its intensity.

There’s the boisterous Timms (James Corden), happy to poke something (or someone) just to see what will happen; Rudge the rugby player (Tovey), who sticks out as much as his endearing ears; the phenomenal Mrs. Lintott (de la Tour), the wisest of them all—tell it like it is, Totts. Hector (Griffiths): learned, beloved, romantic, immoral. Irwin (Campbell Moore), whose earnest and careful personal life runs oddly counter to his academic credo of making a sensation above all, even strict factuality. Scripps, oh Scripps (Jamie Parker)—confidante of all, simultaneously wry and wholehearted, irreverent and devout. That rascal Dakin (Dominic Cooper), clever and bold as they come, winding his way through life one cock-browed smirk at a time. And Posner (Samuel Barnett), sweet, sensitive Pos, who wears his tender heart pinned brave and innocent on his sleeve, as he simply cannot fathom anywhere else to put it.

The boys are vivid. Quick-witted and charming, with a sort of unified unruliness. Like their teachers, I watch them feeling grateful and hopeful and sad all at once, an almost bittersweet nostalgia. It’s not something I would have guessed I’d keep coming back to, that particular pang of the past, those old dreams.

"Oh Pos,” Scripps sighs, “with your spaniel heart. It will pass.”

“Who says I want it to pass?” Posner responds. “But the pain, the pain.”

Like any film, the world ofThe History Boys is not quite real, but contemporary neuroscience, with its flair for the casually catastrophic, would say that many of our recollections are barely any more true. Still, what our movies and our memories make us feel—the warmth and the hurt—that’s the realest thing we can ever know. That’s what matters. That’s what we carry forward.

And, as Scripps reminds us, “That’s the only education worth having.”

So...does anybody want to watch The History Boys with me?


Tarra Martin has worked as a cooking show producer, podcast host, theater management assistant, barista, and writer. She is currently in the process of moving from NYC to Portland, OR, to pursue her interest in trees.


Concrete Roads

by Adam Boffa

We are always fleeing our hometowns. Or, at least, we are supposed to be. Everything we need to experience seems to exist at the edge of the towns we grew up in, just out of sight. It's all far enough away to ignite our imaginations, yet still feels within reach, if only we could leave our baggage behind. Past a certain age, the only thing waiting for us back home is frustration.

I've ignored all of this for twenty years, sometimes through my own decisions and sometimes due to circumstances outside of my control. Whatever the reasons, I've been hanging around the same Jersey suburb since my family moved here when I was in first grade. I moved into my own place eventually, but kept the same zip code. I don't particularly love it here; it's complicated. I graduated from a local college three years ago. Some days, I'm grateful for the familiarity. Other days, I want to drive west until my car runs out of gas—hopefully near an airport or train station that can take me even further.

Whisper of the Heart (1995), Yoshifumi Kondō's sole directing credit before his untimely death in 1998, is something remarkable. Every beat of this Studio Ghibli film (written by Hayao Miyazaki) celebrates the communities, schools, and relationships we so often overlook out of familiarity. It is steadfast in its reassurance that it is okay to not be sure of your future, that there is a value in the places we've known since childhood, and that the effort made in trying is as important as any goal. And perhaps most impressively, it does all this with such nuance that it allows for an entire range of experiences, without ever condemning or shaming any of them.

Shizuku is fourteen years old and discontented. She does well in school but is unsure of the path she wants to pursue. She feels suffocated by her city, Tokyo. But she loves reading and her openness to experience—initially through literature—soon sets her into motion: through the library's lending cards, she discovers that someone has been reading most of the same books she's read. She imagines a kindred spirit somewhere out there, and sets out to try and find him.

What makes Shizuku stand out, and what makes her a far more mature and inspiring (and tolerable) fourteen year old than I ever was, is her wide sense of curiosity and her openness to new ideas. She can be stubborn, and she's afraid of making the wrong choices or failing at the right ones, but she always allows herself enough room to listen and to keep her eyes open. She follows a cat from the train station to an area of the city she's never been to before. She finds an antique store and converses with the owner, who tells her the stories behind some of its wares. This small taste of adventure inspires and refreshes her. She becomes more aware of her city, and the people all around her that she never really knew.

Shizuku's discovery of the antique shop is a definitive moment in her life. Not only does the shop amaze her, it also, eventually, leads her to uncover the identity of the person from her library mystery: Seiji, a boy from her school. He is an apprentice violin-maker, confident in what he wants to do with the next few decades of his life, and about to head off to Italy for a few months, or possibly longer. This is horrible news for Shizuku, especially since they've started to fall in love, and only serves to remind her of her own uncertainties about the future.

School frames all of this in a way that will feel familiar to most of the film's audience. It's something always there, always present. There are standardized tests to prepare for and rigid schedules to work around. Shizuku's mother is finishing up her post-college education and feeling its stresses and financial burdens. Schooling permeates Whisper of the Heart in ways we all can recognize: homework, early mornings, sleep deficiency, test anxiety, classroom gossip—the daily routines of academic life.

It's often difficult for a film to portray mandatory education, especially high school, in a way that's not either mostly tangential to the real plot, or just plain miserable. (Though perhaps I'm just projecting, based on my own middling high school experience.) There seems to be an assumption in popular culture that school is largely just an obstacle to overcome, something that gets in the way of the truly important things in life, like getting out and finally seeing the world for what it really is. Seiji has this opportunity, a chance for escape, while Shizuku doesn't. It's a very particular kind of frustration, one with which I'm intimately familiar.

Shizuku, though, holds onto her curiosity for experience, and an eagerness to try new things. She decides to channel this energy into a writing project, something she's never attempted before, hoping to finish her first story before Seiji returns from Italy. She plans to present it to his grandfather, the man who owns the antique store. She is utterly terrified of failure but absolutely determined to finish the story.

It's tough to access that kind of perseverance, especially when filled with so much doubt. A fear of failure looms largely over most any major choice we have to make. Maybe we don't know enough yet, or maybe we simply aren't good enough. Shizuku feels that same fear and embraces it—she knows she still has so much to learn, but never lets that stop her. She stays up late, researching and writing, while her grades take a dive. Her family becomes concerned, but she never intends to abandon school entirely; she simply wants to try something for herself, even if it means failing. It's a lesson I am still trying to learn.

Shizuku ends up writing a wonderful story based on "The Baron"—a cat statuette from the antique store—filled with the type of fantastic environments and storylines often associated with Studio Ghibli films. The reason the story is wonderful, though, is not because it's perfect (it isn't, as Seiji's grandfather tells her), but because it shows such earnest effort, as well as a kind of wide-eyed ambition that is inimitable and intangible, things that seem to drive most any worthwhile endeavor. This is what Shizuku learns to value: trying—even when self-doubt exists—thinking, testing yourself, and persevering. Whatever the outcome, you will have learned.

Over the course of the film, Tokyo itself appears new to her, as well. The film occasionally grants Shizuku a moment to witness a sunrise or a sunset, something that paints her old familiar streets in gorgeous new shades. Seiji shows her the magic of the jeweled eyes of the Baron statue—which illuminate when viewed with just the proper amount of sunlight—revealing an entirely different perspective on a character she already admired. Whisper of the Heart dares us, like it dares Shizuku, to look at our cities and surroundings with a fresh pair of eyes.

This is a daunting task for anyone, especially if you've spent almost two decades in the same place. Our preconceptions usually dictate how we see familiar places, often before we ever really have a chance to realize they're taking hold. I take the same route to work every single day without being aware, eat at the same restaurants I decided I liked best however many years ago, speak to the same people I've always known. When I start paying attention, though, this town can still surprise me, even after twenty years. I find brand new things everywhere, like the used bookstore in the center of town filled with long out-of-print volumes; or the tiny Italian restaurant on the other side of the hill with the owner who stops by each table to ask everyone if they're enjoying their meal; or the small, independent movie theater tucked in right next to it, which shows the kinds of movies people might read essays about online.

Throughout the film, Shizuku works on a translation of John Denver's "Country Roads", which her class plans to sing. She struggles to find the proper phrasing and a way to capture the spirit of a city that simply doesn't excite her anymore. Her coping mechanism involves writing a parody called "Concrete Roads" as well, with lyrics that swap the rustic idyll of the original for modern Tokyo's development and sprawl. She's mortified when Seiji discovers both versions of the song, embarrassed by her inexperience as a writer, but by the end of the film, she is proud of her work; by both translating it and adapting it, she's found her place in Tokyo all over again.

I don't plan to stick around this Jersey suburb forever. I know there is a wealth of experience waiting for me beyond the borders of this place. There are so many things one can’t learn at home, perspectives we can’t be exposed to, people we can’t meet. At some point, it’s simply time to see what else is out there. But this doesn’t mean that we have to forget where it is we’ve come from, or all the places we've been. Keeping our hometowns with us as we go out into the wider world only makes those new experiences more meaningful. It grants us a point of reference for everything else we’ll ever encounter. It helps us appreciate our differences and try harder to relate with others. Whatever we can manage to hold onto will, if we're honest, stay with us wherever we go.


Adam Boffa is a writer and musician from New Jersey.


I Feel Old, But Not Very Wise

by Taylor Hine

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It is 1961 in a suburb of London. In this suburb there is a school, made of weather-beaten brick with classrooms painted white or in various pastels. In this school young girls, hardly over seventeen, dressed uniformly in white button-downs, knee socks, gray blazers, and neckties, learn how to be proper women.

We first see Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) walking home from school during a light snowfall. She glances up at a point just above the camera in a tired, off-handed way. She sighs, as if she can’t quite put her finger on what she expects to find in the sky. Jenny is sixteen years old.

When I was seventeen, I found a pre-viewed copy of An Education at a Blockbuster closeout sale. I had recently reconnected with a boy I had been in love with for years. Every time we got in touch, it was the same, though I desperately hoped it would be different: he’d tell me he still loved and cared about me, and admit that he couldn’t believe he’d let me go again. I was seventeen, and in love with an idea. I just didn’t know it yet.

I had vaguely heard of the movie and was intrigued by the cover—Carey Mulligan, chicly dressed and done up, lying on the ground with Peter Sarsgaard, holding on to him carelessly with one hand, cheek-to-cheek. Next to him, she looks terribly young. The back cover asked, “Will she let this affair ruin her dreams of attending Oxford, as her headmistress fears?” It was all I needed to read; Jenny and I were both likely to make mistakes regarding the men we loved, but I would be able to watch her mistakes and perhaps learn from them. Right?

When she first meets David, Jenny is standing outside in the rain, demurely holding her cello upright. A man in a maroon sports car pulls up alongside Jenny and offers to drive her cello home for her while she walks alongside the car. A self-proclaimed “music lover,” David even offers her money for the cello so she doesn’t think he’ll steal it. Jenny is, of course, instantly charmed. So charmed, in fact, that when she sees him on the street a few days later in the company of her friends, whose names we never learn, she approaches him and lands herself a date, to a chorus of schoolgirl giggles.

Now that she’s met David, Jenny’s world takes on a purple glow, much like the one adorning the jazz club they visit that first night. She meets Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), friends of David’s. We later learn that Danny and David are “business partners” – “buying and selling, this and that.” These three glamorous characters assure Jenny that she fits right in with their crowd, and that she would fit like a glove in the city of Paris, a place she dreams of almost constantly. And despite the number of warning signs, Jenny’s got that wide-eyed look of young people who encounter elders who “understand them” and consequently think, what they’re saying about me must be true.

Jenny’s parents are taken with David from the start—at least, the clever, intelligent, and charming version he presents to them. Under the guise of going to visit “his old English professor, Clive Lewis” at Oxford, David sways them into allowing Jenny to go away with him for the weekend. It’s during this trip that she discovers the true nature of his “business partnership” with Danny; they steal art and sell it for good deals of money. Jenny is unsettled, and nearly walks away from the situation, but David draws her back in by convincing her that weekends filled with concerts and fine restaurants are a far superior alternative to “doing Latin homework.”

Jenny’s first words in the film are in response to a question from her English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), which we do not hear: “Is it because Mr. Rochester’s blind?” Miss Stubbs and the headmistress (Emma Thompson) both question Jenny’s relationship with David and try to instruct her, gently at first and more desperately later, as her grades slip and her arrogance grows. Jenny responds, “Nobody does anything worth doing with a degree. No woman, anyway.” Perhaps Miss Stubbs asked her class, “Why does Mr. Rochester initially refuse Jane’s help?” Why does Jenny refuse to acknowledge those who question her relationship with David? Because she’s blind—it’s not difficult for her to seek validation from the people who already support her.

Jenny ends her discourse with her professor by stating, “It’s not enough to educate us anymore…You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Here, Jenny is unwittingly trying to be proven wrong. She is trading the possibility of Oxford for the possibility of a cultured life, free of responsibilities, and she knows intellectually that this is wrong.

I couldn’t help but root for her to see this as clearly as I did.

That summer, like every summer, he called me. “I need to talk to you,” he said. He asked if he could come over; I gave him my address without a second thought. At the time, I was living in one of the booming suburbs on the outskirts of Denver; he lived closer to the city and needed me to guide him through the winding streets of identical houses. I stood on our small front lawn with my cell phone to my ear. He half-ran to me and lifted me up in an embrace.

My mother’s jaw dropped when she saw him. “Oh my God,” she mouthed to me, her eyes wide. He had grown up—physically, anyway. I smiled at her and nodded. He and I went up to my room. I sat cross-legged on my bed and listened intently to his concerns about going into the military, about his family life, about losing me. I eagerly offered whatever comforts I could; I let him kiss me and put his head on my shoulder. He spoke as though he was lost, starving for human contact. After he left that evening, denying my mother’s offer of dinner, he didn’t answer my texts or calls for weeks. I looked him up on Facebook and saw that he had a girlfriend. There were several pictures of them, smiling back at me on the screen—all white teeth and laughing eyes—dating back to mere days after I had seen him last. I immediately sent him a message telling him to never contact me again, for any reason. For years, my mother would ask me, “Whatever happened to him? He was so good-looking. And really polite, too.”

When David asks Jenny to marry him, she accepts only after trying to gauge her parents’ reactions. They’re stunned that David has proposed, but nonetheless happy, and Jenny bluntly says, “This is where you’re supposed to ask me, ‘What about Oxford?’” Her father says, “Well, there may be no reason for you to go now, is there?” When I first watched this movie, my face fell when he said this. It still does. What about Oxford? What about her education? Jenny is surrounded by characters as blind as she is.

Jenny finds out that David is married purely by accident. Soon after the proposal, David takes her and her parents out to dinner. In the car, she shuffles through the glove compartment for a cigarette and, finding none, sees a pile of mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman.” It’s when he leaves without explaining himself to her parents that she truly realizes she’s on her own.

Rather than going to pieces, Jenny takes it upon herself to remedy the damage she’s done. She goes back to her headmistress and asks apologetically for re-admission; she is promptly denied. To Miss Stubbs’ utter relief, Jenny asks her for help. She accuses Danny and Helen of not telling her that David was married; she accuses her father of encouraging her to “throw her life away.” She goes to David’s house, running into his wife before she has made the conscious decision to ring the bell, and learns she isn’t the first one that he’s duped. She returns to school and repeats her last year. She paces her room, night and day, a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other, brow furrowed in concentration. She is sitting at the breakfast table with her parents when she receives her Oxford acceptance letter.

I was seventeen when I first saw An Education, in love with the idea of a boy coming to the realization that I had been there for him all along. It’s the wish of anyone in an unrequited love, because unrequited love involves a delusion. I have a chance to be the hero in someone else’s life. I took this chance several times. I learned that it’s not your responsibility to be someone else’s hero, but it is your responsibility to know your own limitations and strengths. Only once I realized this did I learn the difference between loving an idea and loving an actual human being with flaws. Jenny loved the idea of a cultured life, not David himself. She loved that he could offer her such a life. What she had on her side all along was the very real and tangible possibility of Oxford, a possibility that she could, and did, turn into reality.

I watched An Education to learn from Jenny’s mistakes. I didn’t learn from them right away because, in the back of my mind, I thought that the only way to learn was through experience itself. What I failed to realize, though, was that I’d had the experience already, several times over, each time coming up short and preparing myself for another go-round. I thought this was heroic, when really it was nothing but blind faith in someone who never deserved it.

Where Jenny’s courage really lies is in her willingness to admit to having made the wrong decisions, and to rectify them. We don’t have to go out and fall in love with a man while ignoring his faults to learn what a broken heart is. Why seek out that pain? We cling to the “what if” in the face of what we know to be wrong, but if we can reach the notion that what we’re doing goes against what we know to be true – for Jenny, that was Oxford – then we must take a step back. We must decide just how much of an education we really want.


Taylor Hine is a writer living in Asheville. She is a regular contributor to This Recording.


Dear Diary

by Arielle Greenberg

(assembled from altered lines from Heathersdirected by Michael Lehmann, 1988, screenplay by Daniel Waters)

I don’t really
like my friends:
Swatch-dogs
and Diet Cokeheads.

I got paid in puke,
no fags allowed.

You were a Bluebird.
It’ll be very.
You were a Brownie.
Fuck me gently.

I love my dead.
What’s your damage?

You were a Girl Scout
with a cookie.
You were a chainsaw.
Oh the humanity.

Our love is god.
Let’s cherry slushie.

A nice little swordfight
in your mouth.
My teen angst bullshit
has a body count.

Great paté
but I gotta motor.

Are we going to prom
or to hell?
Color me stoked.
Get crucial.

I suck big dicks.
Jealous much?


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including GurlesqueShe lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.