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Medium Dawn Felagund of the Fountain

What a Sad Week in Pop Culture.

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

What a Sad Week in Pop Culture.

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death of an idea
You know it's a sad week in pop culture when the only reason you stop seeing the omnipresent headlines about the young racecar driver who was run over on the track last week is because Robin Williams committed suicide.

And when, by the time Lauren Bacall completed the "they always go in threes" rule at the age of 89, I actually felt a little grateful that I didn't have to think of how she was gone before her time.

Robin Williams was especially sad for me. He was probably one of the first actors I learned to recognize when I was a kid. I knew him as the voice of the genie in Aladdin and from Mrs. Doubtfire, which my sister and I watched so many times that we knew every line. And suicide is always such a hard topic for me, a bitter reminder of how far we still have to go in improving mental health care.

Bobby and I were both ridiculously busy this week. He had orientation most of the week for his new school; he was also offered (and accepted) a section of seventh-grade world history (unlike at my school, he will be compensated with a handsome stipend for taking on another prep) and so has been spending almost every spare minute working on getting lessons together for that class. I had a literature review due today for my cosmology class that has taken up most of my spare time this week. Last night, we decided to treat ourselves by watching a whole movie in one sitting--usually we have an hour of TV time a night, so movies are divided however many times needed to fit into those hour-long increments--and decided to rewatch Dead Poets' Society because of Robin Williams.

It's always interesting--and often perilous!--to rewatch movies that I remember enjoying when I was younger. My reaction to Dead Poets' Society now that I'm older and also a teacher was a bit different from when I watched it as a wannabe teacher some years ago. The movie is often held up as an exemplar of an excellent, inspirational teacher. Robin Williams' character (Mr. Keating) is made out to be the victim of a rigid and authoritarian system that Just Doesn't Get What He's Trying to Do. My view of him now, as a teacher, is a bit more complicated.

Watching him energize his students toward a subject not often preferred by adolescent boys--poetry!--often provokes the response, "Now that's a great teacher!" And, yes, he does inspire his students to invest themselves in a subject they ordinarily didn't care for and to invest more in themselves, but there is also a hearty helping of ego there that made me cringe. There is a certain type of teacher that invests a lot into becoming The Cool Teacher whose relationship with his/her students often verges more on friendship, not because the students benefit from such a relationship but because the teacher wants that image. It is very obvious that Mr. Keating wants to be that teacher and makes an effort to be perceived as such. He makes a deliberate effort to elevate himself in the minds of his students. When he suggests on the first day that they can address him as "O Captain, My Captain" if they're feeling daring, none of the students take the bait. He later will not respond to them until they call him that. *cringe* His "Oh, I can't possibly tell you about the Dead Poets' Society--the administration would have a fit!" makes it very obvious that he wants to tell them about the Dead Poets' Society so that they'll follow in his footsteps. His subtly passing along his book of poems used at the Dead Poets' Society seals the deal.

It's not about his students. It's about him.

That's not to say that he isn't pleased at having a positive impact on them, but he's also pleased at the image that creates of him as a teacher.

I also felt like a lot of his success with his students was contingent to a large extent on the obedience that had been inculcated into them by their education to that point. They were taught to do what they were told by authorities without questioning. He can get away with a lot of his more esoteric teaching stunts because his students have been raised to believe that they are powerless to refuse or offer criticism. Trust me, it does not work that way with most high school kids, especially gifted high school kids. If they think that what you're doing is stupid or lame, then they will tell you that it's stupid or lame. (If they're gifted, they'll tell you that it's stupid and lame and how they can do it better.) Even at their most rebellious--forming the Dead Poets' Society--they are merely following his lead, to some degree his explicit instructions, and are not yet truly thinking for themselves.

I also found myself wondering if such a movie would even be possible today. The movie was released in 1989, and I have trouble imagining a story about the travails of privileged white boys getting much traction 25 years later. The suicide of one of the main characters notwithstanding, it was hard to imagine that any of the characters faced much in the way of serious consequences for their actions; if they were privileged enough to get into [H]elton Academy, they presumably had ample connections to orchestrate the usual favors and cover-ups their social class enjoys. It naturally would have been Mr. Keating who took the fall.

This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!

  • I remember finding it complicated and problematic when I saw it, as an adult, who relatively speaking, was not really much younger than I am now. I found it compelling watching, however. I wasn't looking for any answers or any pedagogical advice in it. Watching someone send a jolt into that kind of teaching environment and those who had, for the most part, learned how to exist there, at greater or lesser damage themselves, was interesting enough to me. He was an egotist, played beautifully by Robin Williams, and his desire to raise consciousness and open up their minds, was not simply to show off. He was flawed and driven by bad and good impulses.

    I generally do not watch movies either for commentary on the class-system in this country--how could they do a great job of that? I would find any movie that actually managed to be produced and distributed in the mainstream Hollywood movie apparatus, would almost have to be incredibly flawed and troubling.

    Kind of like hoping The Hobbit would be a great interpretation of the book--doubtful if it could have been that because it probably would not have been a blockbuster and, it kind of had to be, to justify the expense. Harry Potter had a better chance of giving a clue as to what the books were like. Because the books, entertaining as they were, were not layered--new and creative, but not complex.

    In that context, I found it very engaging on an emotional level. Keating, of course, was going to take the fall. But nonetheless, he did change their lives. My inspirational high school teacher, who taught me more about the roots of English lit, Chaucer, The Seafarer, Beowulf and Shakespeare, etc, etc, than I learned at UC Berkeley when it was rated the #1 university for English lit in the country, was an alcoholic with a wooden leg and a mean temper. My dad claimed she got the wooden leg by falling down drunk in a gutter and car backing over her leg. Anyway, she had a bottle her desk drawer and took a nip now and again. But she exploded my mind.

    The film resonated for me.

    There were schools like that. That was nearly identical to my school years one through eight! I learned the basics and read lot with paperback novels propped up behind my textbook. (And they knew I was gifted and it was not a cool thing to be--it was dangerous and annoying.)

    Edited at 2014-08-18 03:21 am (UTC)
    • Yes, it's too bad more study hasn't been done on depression - the kind that kills people - not the reactive kind that we all feel from time to time. These suicides should never happen, yet they occur far too often. :(
      • I don't even know that I think it's a deficiency in research; I think there is often a systemic failure to provide appropriate access to mental health care. I don't know Robin Williams' specific situation, of course, but I speak from bitter experience that people who want and need mental health care often don't get it because of a seeming unwillingness to believe that mental health issues are "real diseases." (In the U.S., suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all age groups and the third for young people. It's not an exotic problem, so I don't understand why it's so hard for people to get the help they need.)
    • his desire to raise consciousness and open up their minds, was not simply to show off.

      Of course it wasn't. I just found it interesting that I hadn't picked up on his ego when younger!me watched it. Probably because I understand how that can happen, despite the best of intentions. It is a pretty heady thing to stand in front of a group of young people who are willing to grant you their trust and respect to the extend of being willing to take your lead. It can be hard not to let the lines blur. I speak from experience there, coming from a school whose philosophy is "unconditional love" and actively encourages staff to replace somewhat the family missing in our students' lives.

      I generally do not watch movies either for commentary on the class-system in this country

      Neither do I, but I have a hard time imagining DPS being made today because it doesn't do much to address the very obvious issues of race, class, and gender. I don't necessarily think that's a good thing (that DPS couldn't be made today) because, as I'm getting ready to type to Himring, I think the movie functions well as a coming-of-age story. Everything doesn't have to address issues of social justice.
      • I have a hard time imagining DPS being made today because it doesn't do much to address the very obvious issues of race, class, and gender

        But the ones that do address those questions bother me just as much or more, because they often trivialize and condescend or preach. In their majority they come from a place of privilege--like the social justice crowd on Tumblr. The shrillest voices sometimes understand the least about the causes and cures for those maladies in society.

        I can count on one finger a widely recognized movie that handled the inequalities of my childhood in a way that did not bother me and it missed the race question, partly because it was a very local movie--Oscar-winning documentary film Harlan County, USA (1976--wow, that's a while ago now) and, not accidentally I think, it was made by a woman, Barbara Kopple--a young one at the time and without much of budget.

        Speaking of shrill--I was and I apologize. Didn't intend to be. I don't want to see only coming-of-age movies about privileged white boys, but I don't want to see them banned either. Stand and Deliver was another movie which I liked a lot. But it had at least as many flaws also--sugar-coated some stuff in an inexcusable way. In real life the same drive and heart from teachers very infrequently result in an ending like the one in that movie. I liked it because I personally knew teachers like that one and could relate. They helped a lot of individuals, but usually lost the big fights.

        I want those movie too!! But Hollywood cannot make them. Maybe there are new methods. Maybe one could come from a Kickstarter program? I do think that art reflects life, it reflects social struggles, long after the fights that enable people to talk about the issues have happened. One will only see Hollywood movies mirroring not leading a social struggle. It's fine to demand it, kind of flawed thinking to expect it.

        Edited at 2014-08-18 10:48 pm (UTC)
        • Speaking of shrill--I was and I apologize

          Thank you, but no apologies are needed. I felt like you were arguing with Tumblr and nothing that I said. ;)

          I do NOT hold with the ideal so prevalent on Tumblr that art, to be worthwhile, must address social justice issues in some meaningful way and include x number of women/POC/LGBT characters. (What about people with disabilities, especially mental illnesses, I always wonder? I want my people represented too!) Of course, it's very cool to tackle those issues if that's your thing, but I don't think that art becomes worthless just because it doesn't meet those expectations. I was sad when a fandom friend told me that she stopped posting her writing to Tumblr because she enjoyed writing about male characters and was catching a lot of flak for that.

          I do think that art reflects life, it reflects social struggles, long after the fights that enable people to talk about the issues have happened.

          This was my sense as well. Obviously, post-Reagan, class was a huge issue when DPS was made, but I feel like, in my lifetime, it has only very recently received anything resembling acknowledgement in mainstream entertainment/discourse.

          I feel like, if DPS were made today, it would have to be set against a civil rights background or Chris-the-girlfriend would have to be studying particle physics ... or at least there'd have to be more overt awareness of the social/economic strata between the boys (which are hinted at), not merely a movie that treated the individual growth and relationships among a group of privileged white boys as worth exploring. I don't know that that would make it a better movie, but I think it's the reality of creating mainstream art today that these kinds of issues at least have to be acknowledged, however clumsily.

          Edited at 2014-08-19 11:51 pm (UTC)
          • You are so right. I was ranting!

            but I think it's the reality of creating mainstream art today that these kinds of issues at least have to be acknowledged, however clumsily

            See, I would rather see those things addressed thoughtfully, even if it meant less often. The money thing is nuts when making a major film these days. And it has to be sold with a silly one-liners or one paragraph summaries before one can even get an appointment with the right people. So how does one sell something that actually has some depth?

            • I'd rather they be dealt with meaningfully as well. I've pretty much given up on Hollywood movies, though. Every now and then, something comes out that I think would be fun to see, like Guardians of the Galaxy, so I see it. Ten years ago, Bobby and I had a movie-a-week habit; now we're lucky if we see ten per year at a multiplex. (We see more at the Majestic, which requires a 45-minute drive to Gettysburg.)

              So how does one sell something that actually has some depth?

              Forgive me for being uncharacteristically cynical and pessimistic, but I don't think that's possible at this point. I mean, my coworkers were squeeing over the possibility of seeing the Ninja Turtles movie. As long as shit sells, they'll keep selling it, I fear.
  • I remember that there was a discussion about how pedagogically sound Mr Keating was (or not) even then, when the film came out.
    And, yes, these boys are highly privileged. I do realize you're comparing them with your own students. But that school seemed absurdly remote to me even then--but that didn't mean the boys' plight didn't have any traction.

    (ETA: I should have explained that I'm talking about what it was like to watch this film in Germany, where even privileged kids would not be expected to attend a school of this kind)

    Edited at 2014-08-18 08:24 pm (UTC)
    • I actually wasn't comparing them to my students, not deliberately anyway. Of course, anything I write about education/teaching is going to be colored by my experience with the population I teach.

      That experience does make it hard to take seriously the consequences for the boys (aside from the one who committed suicide, of course). At the end of the movie, when Mr. Keating comes to collect his things, there is a lingering shot of the desk of the boy who was expelled for refusing to "rat out" Mr. Keating ... but Charlie/"Nuwanda" is going to be okay. He will be propped up by the privilege of his family. It's hard for me to feel badly for him or even to feel like his actions were heroic (even if I believe they were sincere).

      Given that, I think the movie works best for me as a coming-of-age story. As I just typed to Oshun, I don't think that movies/books have to tackle social justice issues to be worthwhile--although I can't see DPS being made in today's political climate--and I agree that the individual journeys of some of the characters have resonance. After all, most of us can remember being a teenager and believing that flunking a test or being made to drop an extracurricular would send the world careening into the Sun. :)
  • I think out of all three deaths, Kevin Ward's (the racecar driver) was the hardest for me. The others, I can at least somewhat understand...his...he's dead and the driver of the car that hit him hasn't raced since. Robin William's was hard too, but at least his I can rationalize parts of it.

    I'll side step the discussion of Dead Poet's Society, since I haven't seen it, with only the brief remark that having seen gifted students that won't question it if they find something stupid, there's generally a reason for that and it's not a good reason. It's hard for me to stomach the idea of people being raised to not question authority figures, having grown up in an area where that was the prevailing view of how to raise kids.
    • Kevin Ward's was incredibly sad. I think I understood it, though, as he made a foolish, emotion-driven decision (ironically, one that Tony Stewart himself might have made). I loathed the attention the accident got in the days after: People who wouldn't have known his name (or would have turned up their noses at the idea of car racing) who were suddenly fixated; the blame being leveled at Tony Stewart (who despite his temper and his dramatics, I could never imagine accusing of deliberately running over a young opponent at 60 mph); the play the video was getting on television, despite its graphic nature ... it was not an attractive moment for our society, methinks.

      But Robin Williams was the hardest for me, I think. Part of that is personal; part of that is an ongoing sense of frustration with how poorly mental health care continues to be handled, despite the fact that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death among all age groups in the U.S. and the third among young people. Yet people persist in thinking that depression (and other mental illnesses) are not "real diseases."

      having seen gifted students that won't question it if they find something stupid, there's generally a reason for that

      There are definitely going to be cultural differences. But one of the marks of giftedness is a willingness to challenge authority, and as a teacher, if you teach gifted students, you learn to have all of your ducks in a row quickly because they will often try to outsmart you! :)
      • I understand it logically, but I know plenty of race car drivers who have run onto the track and not died - it's not a progression I'm used to, even though my step-dad used to race car.To me depression followed by suicide, or getting diagnosed with a major illness like Parkinson's and committing uicide...it's not good, but at least it doesn't come off as a freak accident. It's what I expect, however much I cry and scream about it being unfair.

        I think I've just given up on the United States and how we deal with mental health issues. I have no hope that it will become accepted that mental health issues are real diseases, I've already seen too many friends die to have hopes it will stop or therapy will be funded more. My own father doesn't believe in treatments, especially drugs. I just don't see any happy ends in sight. So Robin Williams was easier for me, because at least - and this makes me an awful person! - I can relate to it and understand why it happened. I can't relate to a freak accident as a result of someone being hot tempered.

        That's kind of what I was getting at - gifted children in general challenge authority. For ones who won't, there's generally a reason behind it that isn't happy (not cultural differences). This is coming from someone who was both a gifted student and who didn't really challenge any authority until I was in college (and I still cry and worry sometimes when it's over email that I've overstepped boundaries and this will have consequences or when I see other people do it). Because there are teachers and other authority figures who think the best way to deal with gifted children is to intimidate and force them to not question it, at least anywhere outside of their head. *shrugs* It's to me the difference between students who see teachers as people to fear and those who don't. Even a gifted student who fears their teachers isn't going to question them very much.
        • For ones who won't, there's generally a reason behind it that isn't happy (not cultural differences).

          Without impugning your own experiences, I don't know that I agree with that. Willingness to challenge authority is a "symptom" of giftedness, yes, but I don't think that a G&T class is a hotbed of everything being questioned or defied by every student. And the reasons can by myriad why students don't stand up for themselves or their beliefs. I was always very opinionated, and my opinions tended to distrust anything I was being told by authorities, but I was quiet in class; it wasn't until high school (and even then only a handful of occasions where, at the time, I would have represented myself as under duress) that I stood up for myself. And even then, I didn't always. A teacher made fun of my outfit once, and I said nothing, even though it made me feel like shit; two other girls in the class came to my defense. The teacher apologized and I said it was okay, even though it wasn't. I should have stood up for myself, I know in retrospect (although then, as now, I would have rather swallowed a thumbtack then to admit that anyone had the power to hurt me), but I was pretty quiet as a youngster for no other reasons than simply being shy and slightly socially awkward. :)

          My best friend from childhood, though, was definitely like the reason you describe. She was kept on a leash so tight it was a wonder the poor girl could breathe. She had her defiant ideas--she began studying Native American religion in a devoutly Catholic family--but knew to keep them to herself. As soon as she was old enough, she got the hell out. I don't even know if she has much at all to do with her family today.

          And then there are the cultural differences. I had an Indian friend in high school who couldn't believe that I was allowed to date and was horrified at the thought of hugging someone in public. He never thought to challenge those ideas; he was raised with an immense respect for his elders and for tradition, so he probably seemed like an obedient kid, even though he was ridiculously bright.

          Anyway, long story short ... kids are complicated. :)
          • Oh, I'm not saying it's the reason behind everything.

            Of course, I'm also convinced that there's changes in the educational system that are making even gifted and talented students less likely to challenge authority (and when they do, I think it's more likely to be just telling the school to fuck off, they don't want to be in gifted classes anymore...). And yeah, I'm biased, since I can only base it on my own school. Anybody who challenged authority was automatically out of gifted and talented. *shrug* I can only base it on that. To me, being gifted and talented (at least in elementary through high school, uni has been completely different) comes with it either completely going against everything the school says, thereby getting kicked out of the program, or being completely polite and not challenging anything.

            So yeah. I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than that it completely baffles me that there are that many teachers that would tolerate disrespect and not go completely off the rails and start screaming and throwing things or snapping that there isn't time. That's the complete opposite of my experiences in school - and that's what I'm referring to when I say something unhappy, at least in many cases. I just don't think that with increased reliance on testing and all that, there's the time to invest in gifted programs and encouraging thinking outside the box. Maybe at schools with a lot of money, but all I can remember as a gifted student was being expected to quietly do my work, do the tests, and tutor other students.

            Oh, yes, there are cultural. I mean, I want to be an anthropologist, of course there's differences. But I think sometimes the cultural differences get overstated as an us versus them thing.

            Sorry if I'm all over the place. It's been a bad week (long story short, my sister had a complete breakdown her first class at college and is being sent home for medical reasons), and I'm not sure I can get my thoughts to come out straight at all.
            • G&T at my school was very different. I never knew anyone who was kicked out of G&T. That was actually ... pretty much impossible. I did know people who chose to leave the program.

              Our district erred toward permissiveness in G&T and magnet classes. It was a well-known fact that a parent only had to call the school and request their child be put in G&T for that to happen. In my junior year, a powerful parent complained that his special snowflake daughter wasn't allowed to take magnet school electives (because she hadn't spent two years doing the work to prepare for those classes) and her QPA was suffering, since all of those electives were G&T level, so the rules were changed to allow students to take magnet electives, even if they didn't have the prerequisites. We ended up with more kids in G&T that really didn't belong there than kids who did belong but were frozen out. (I'm sure that there were some that would have benefited but lacked the advocacy of an involved parent.)

              We "magnet kids" could be pretty terrible to teachers we perceived as not knowing what they were talking about or who we perceived didn't respect us. We were fiercely loyal to the teachers we liked and admired ... who were almost universally the same as the teachers who stuck up for us. (The administration once locked all of the bathrooms because kids were smoking in them. Our AP biology teacher marched to the office during our class and demanded the bathrooms be opened because it was against the law to not allow us to use the bathroom. I still admire her for that to this day!)

              Anyone who would punish G&T kids (any kids!) for being defiant doesn't know shit about giftedness. But I know you know that. :)

              But I think sometimes the cultural differences get overstated as an us versus them thing.

              I come to it from an ed perspective, where we are often taught to be aware of cultural differences because students might respond differently in the classroom. Not speaking up for themselves is something we're taught to watch out for.

              I'm sorry about your sister and your week in general. :( (Mine has been pretty shitty too, and it's only Tuesday!) I'll keep you guys in my thoughts that everything turns out okay for her.
  • Oh i had a few days of moping around quite sad after i heard the news of Robin's death. I have been watching endless runs of Mork and Mindy in the meantime.
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