This week’s question comes from reader Bryan Moore:
As a high-school English teacher, I have great experience with showing movies in class. I love watching girls scream as Leonardo DiCaprio starts to wake up in Romeo + Juliet; I’ve literally cried along with my class at the end of Life Is Beautiful (after reading Elie Wiesel’s Night), and I love watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? and comparing it to The Odyssey (which my students always end up loving). What movies do you remember watching in school growing up—the powerful, the inappropriate, and the inexplicable time-wasters?
I remember watching a lot of movies in school, but the one I remember watching the most is Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, the 1991 movie about horse diving. For whatever reason, this is the movie that kept getting passed from class to class when I was in middle school. I don’t know what the teachers’ rationale was for showing it—maybe Sonora’s struggle with blindness was supposed to be motivational? Or maybe it was because the movie is rated G, but isn’t for babies?—but I saw this movie about five times in one year, all in different classes. Sure, we could have told the teachers, “Goddammit, we’ve seen this already,” but even watching something we’d all already seen was better than learning. Plus, Sixteen Candles’ Michael Schoeffling plays the horse trainer in the movie and he’s pretty cute, so there is that.
For the most part, the movies we watched at my school largely fit with the curriculum. We’d watch a movie adapted from a book after reading that book, or a PBS documentary on a science topic while discussing that topic in class. (Okay, and our guidance counselor showed us the entire run of Degrassi Junior High for some reason.) But my high-school science teacher was the kind of guy who occasionally just decided, fuck it, he wasn’t going to teach that day, and that would inevitably result in him pulling out one of the two VHS tapes he had in the back of the science lab. The first was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was sort of vaguely appropriate for a science class (though not really the chemistry class I saw it in, I guess), but the second was an old special, taped off of TV, of Jeff Dunham And Peanut, which had absolutely nothing to do with science or… anything, really. (And in trying to research this special, I’ve discovered that Dunham didn’t do any solo specials until 2003, long after I was out of high school, so I have absolutely no idea where my teacher got this tape.) This was before Dunham became famous by channeling anti-Arabic sentiment into “laughs,” so it was all pretty tame stuff, but it killed an hour, and the students seemed to like it, so I saw that fucking Jeff Dunham video probably a dozen times before I graduated. At the very least it killed whatever dreams I might have had of being a ventriloquist.
We watched some surprising films at my conservative college-prep school, but one of the Jesuits on staff was a cinephile, so I remember watching at least a couple Woody Allen films for my theology classes. At some point freshman year, we watched Platoon in my English class, which remains my high-water mark for “Whoa, they’re letting us watch this?” We were treated to a barrage of colorful language and disturbing shit, much of it from Kevin Dillon’s Bunny character: “Holy shit! You see that fucking head come apart, man? I never seen brains like that before, man,” “Ain’t nothing like a piece of pussy, except maybe the Indy 500,” etc. I think we also watched the film version of A Separate Peace, but who the hell would remember that?
For some people, the first act of Neil Patrick Harris’ career is defined by his portrayal of a teenaged physician on Doogie Howser, M.D. Those people obviously weren’t in my sixth-grade English class—otherwise, like me, they’d find themselves perpetually amazed that Harris can still manage such acrobatic feats of physical comedy after losing his toes to frostbite. Maybe I should back up: Have you seen the made-for-TV movie Snowbound: The Jim And Jennifer Stolpa Story? Based on the true story of a young family that found itself stranded in the frozen wilds of northern Nevada for eight days in the early ’90s? Co-starring future Practice star Kelli Williams? Anybody? If none of this rings a bell, might you at least help me remember what bearing the Stolpas’ miraculous tale had on Scranton Middle School’s English curriculum? I know we watched the original “Treehouse Of Horror” the following year because its rendition of “The Raven” tied into a brief unit on Edgar Allan Poe. But the only thing I learned from Snowbound hewed closer to the teachings of J. Walter Weatherman: “That’s why you always keep extra winter gear in the car.”
Corpses being shoveled into a pit. I’m not sure which particular Holocaust documentary it was that featured graphic footage of such atrocities, but I vividly recall being shown one such film in middle school. The black-and-white images still haunt me: Torsos and limbs flopping over each other lifelessly as they were pushed like so much pale, meaty garbage into a mass grave. Did it matter to whom they belonged? It didn’t seem so. The numb, monotone narrator didn’t help. I suppose there was a reason why my history teacher showed that film to my dumbstruck class, even if that reason totally eluded me. All I remember are the nightmares and the fact that, suddenly, Metallica and Slayer songs made a lot more sense.
The movie I remember the most falls directly into the “inappropriate” camp. As congratulations for completing the AP Calculus test, my teacher and classmates decided we’d watch a math-themed movie to end the year. We picked Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogsbecause it was about an astrophysicist, and we assumed it would be all about math. It was an incredibly uncomfortable viewing, even before the savage rape scene halfway through (though we all cheered when Dustin Hoffman finally used the Chekhovian “man-trap” that’s introduced early on). Even worse, we watched it over two days, just extending the brutality. It lingers in my mind even now. I don’t know if I’d have ever been introduced to Peckinpah’s work if it wasn’t for that viewing, so I guess I’m glad we watched it, but I can’t think of a less on-topic (or appropriate) film to play for a bunch of 16- to 18-year-olds.
I distinctly remember a week in seventh grade where several of our teachers (science, English, and social studies) got together for a group unit on, as far as I could tell, science fiction. I suspect our science teacher, a charming oddball who hung an inflatable frog from the ceiling and made latecomers to his class publicly kiss it, was responsible for the whole thing. I remember sitting in his class reading photocopies of a bunch of short-story classics, including Richard Matheson’s chiller “Born Of Man And Woman,” and simultaneously thinking, “This is fantastic!” and, “What does this have to do with science?” For some reason, the capper of the unit involved the entire sixth and seventh grade being herded into a single conjoined room and sitting on the floor while our teachers subjected us to 1955’s Tarantula, a black-and-white Them! ripoff featuring a tarantula expanded to gigantic size by the ’50s greatest bugaboo: atomic radiation. By today’s standards, it’s rather adorable, thanks to its ultra-quaint conversations between lab-coated scientists dryly explaining why the audience should totally be scared, and its cheesy perspective shots that make an ordinary tarantula seem huge. For a bunch of sixth and seventh graders, though, it was dull, and the highlight of the film came when one of our class troublemakers got bored enough to stick an unfolded paperclip into an electrical outlet to see what would happen and then got toted off to the nurse’s office with electrical burns.
In third grade, my teacher decided to show us Something Wicked This Way Comes for some reason presumably pertaining to education. Maybe we read the book first? Anyway, the big deal with this movie is that we had to get permission slips signed by our parents, because it was so purportedly scary. Whether it was actually frightening enough to merit our parents signing our pleasant dreams away for the foreseeable future, that was my frame of mind going into this monster: This was going to be nightmare central. And it was, at least to 8-year-old me, although 28-year-old me wants it on the record that The Innocents’ Jack Clayton directed it. As if Jonathan Pryce’s freaky clown procession and the backward carnival weren’t enough, there’s even a scene where spiders overtake the kids’ bedroom. I’m getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Thanks, Mrs. Van Putten.
I don’t remember watching anything mind-blowingly inappropriate—though everyone in my English class got a good eye roll in when the teacher put cardboard over the TV screen during the racier scenes in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, but my Spanish classes definitely featured a few time wasters. Coming from a small town meant there was only one Spanish teacher in school, so I had the same teacher for all three levels, and every year she basically took an entire week to show movies in Spanish to give the students a more “immersive” experience. Except the movies weren’t dubbed in Spanish, they had subtitles, so “immersive” is a relatively flexible term in this circumstance. I’m fairly certain I learned absolutely no additional Spanish language skills from watching Batmanwith subtitles (I doubt anyone even read one word of them), but a chance to ditch conjugating verbs to watch a superhero movie instead is a chance all the students in my class appreciated taking. So, gracias! (That’s basically all the Spanish I remember, which isn’t surprising.)
This wasn’t for any class, but the movie I best remember watching in school (not counting the teacher who had us watch all of Ken Burns’ The Civil War) is The Cutting Edge. This would’ve been grade school, the day before winter break, when no one really cares about anything, We were hustled into a classroom and told to keep quiet, in order to better savor the majesty and romance of the ice-skating rom-com staring Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad choice for a bunch of kids. The movie is unassuming, kind of adorable, and follows a structure so predictable you can set your watch to it. I don’t think we were supposed to learn any valuable lessons (apart from always following your heart, and that figure-skating is just as bad-ass as playing hockey), but it was quiet, and I think we all shut up for most of the running time, so consider that a tacit endorsement for all future viewings. (And there are multiple sequels now, so teachers can eat up a whole pre-break day!)
This was a no-brainer for me, partially because I can’t remember any other case where we watched a film in class, but mostly because—even if I could—I don’t think any other experience would ever top watching Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan during Mrs. Kiskinis’ English class at Great Bridge High School, in Chesapeake, Virginia. Why did we watch it? In order to write a paper detailing the parallels between the film and A Tale Of Two Cities, a book which—as you may recall—was given to Kirk by Spock as a birthday present. Certainly there’s a theme of sacrifice inherent in both, and I think I may have written something about Khan and his people being the peasants and Kirk and company being the aristocracy. Mostly, though, I just remember, hey, we watched Wrath Of Khan in high school! It’s probably not what Mrs. Kiskinis wanted us to take away from it, but as it’s one of my favorite high-school memories, at least it won’t soon be forgotten.