Since I was a kid I have been fascinated by movies and books about schools. This probably comes from growing up on a boarding school campus and taking in my family’s administrative worries with my meals of institutional food from Number Ten cans. From Blackboard Jungle to Lucifer With A Book to Up the Down Staircase to A Separate Peace to Teachers to Rushmore to The Emperor’s Club to Prep and the Harry Potter series and way too many more—with retro journeys through Tom Brown’s School Days, Stalky & Co., The Lawrenceville Stories, The Gold Bat, and even the Rover Boys’ and the Little Colonel’s adventures in boarding school—school lit and school flicks have floated my boat for sixty years or more.
There is no denying that there is pain in all this experience, as no school story recipe is complete without standard ingredients that are toxic to the teacherly soul: bullying students, sadistic teachers, manipulative parents or guardians, and corrupt (or just heartless, for a relative blessing) administrators or board members. The merely clueless, like Ferris Bueller’s Economics teacher, are invariably offset by the capriciously cruel, as in the relentless Ed Rooney. School, as portrayed in all fiction genres and even when there is some sort of “happy” ending, tends to suck.
I wrote a senior thesis in college about novels set in New England during World War II and written in the fifties and sixties—a genre that includes, of course, A Separate Peace and The Rector of Justin. But characters in books like Peyton Place and Edna Ferber’s forgettable American Beauty manage to have experiences that tarnish whatever beau ideal of education you might think New England could offer. School still sucked, even back there and then.
It’s an easy but yucky to drop down the rabbit hole of analyzing why schools seem to come off so badly. The independent schools settings are easily pegged as bastions of privilege and all the corruption that goes with it, and the problems of public schools too often can be reduced to the needs and interests of a diverse group of learners pitted against witless hegemony and tone-deaf bureaucracy. Who is listening to the kids or speaking up for them? Who believes and believes in the kids who are desperately trying to figure out and then do the right thing? What price do kids and teachers pay for standing up for truth and justice and even simple fairness?
For example, it’s a relief, strangely, when “The Prodigious Hickey,” the entrepreneurial ne’er-do-well of Owen Johnson’s antique Lawrenceville Stories, is at last expelled in a scene devoid of headmasterly rancor and any suggestion of rage or injustice. “Well, Hicks,” says the head, “We’re going to let you go.” After some discussion and a full reading of the very accurate bill of particulars against Hickey, the head concludes, “All this is true, but that is not why we are going to let you go. We are going to let you go, Hicks, for a much more conscientious reason; we’re parting with you, Hicks, because we feel we no longer have anything to teach you.” By this last episode of the saga, the reader is in full agreement.
Readerly pain is sharpest when the self-interested, malevolent forces effecting the downfall of good people and perhaps their schools seem a bit too familiar. Nothing has hurt me more over the years than to have a friend in the biz mention, confidentially, that they are living one of the plot-lines of Saying Grace or Lucifer with a Book or The Dead Poet’s Society, or when I realized that I had seen shadows of the preposterous (PREP-osterous—hah!) Galer Street School report card (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) in my own work.
But a week ago in Boston I had a new experience: theatrical pain. A friend had recommended that I see Greater Good, a new play by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by a long-ago colleague, Steven Bogart, and staged at an independent school by the Company One Theatre in partnership with the American Repertory Theater. I had nought but a review and the website description to go on, but off I went (with a friend whose late spouse had been in the biz, too) to watch the play.
From the opening scene, a parent meeting at the faltering Gleason Street School, through vignettes of teachers, families, and a particularly hapless school head, to the final quasi-denouement, I was hurting. I had lived through or heard about every single one of Gleason Street’s anguish-inducing issues, and we have all experienced social justice conversations that become buried under personalities and interests and plain old fear. Just like Gleason Street’s head, I’m a third-gen independent school educator and idealist, although by the play’s mid-point I was very glad that I had fallen in love and run away from home before the mantle of leadership was sewn onto my inadequate shoulders.
In the end my feelings were so mixed that I haven’t been able even to try to express them until today. Was the play good? The inventive staging and performances were excellent. But, did I get it? I dunno. The parent and teacher caricatures and the absurdly progressive ideals on which the school was attempting to operate were so familiar (another of my hobbies is collecting vignettes from film that pillory progressive education—try The Parent Trap, Miracle on 34th Street, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Housefor starters) that they felt a little old, but was it only me? And was the very fact that they felt old the exact point: that schools have been mush-mouthing our way around doing the right thing for so long that Greater Good’s originality and power lie in this very revelation?There was a strong social justice message in the play, but as I left the theater school where it had been staged I worried that over-wroughtness and inanity had obscured the message. But I’ll say it again: over time I have come to think that THAT is the social justice message—that we in education bumble and fret so much about doing what we know is right that we don’t get around to actually doing it so much or so well.
The Boston run is over, but if you’re a school person, you need to look for and perhaps do what you can to instigate new productions of Greater Good, everywhere. Its medicine, if I understand it at all, is hard to take, but perhaps I have benefited from even one dose.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)