There are a number of perfectly good reasons not to take up secondary school teaching, even aside from the prospect of being trapped in a classroom with 30 rebellious, restless kids not your own. The pay is traditionally low, 10-hour workdays are not uncommon, and there’s a constant threat of having your work criticized by indignant parents, huffy administrators, and vacuous politicians. And then there’s the stigma of the old cliche, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” U.S. media have not been inclined to give teachers much respect: they are generally portrayed as incompetent, greedy, sadistic, or some combination of the three. Even in movies featuring a heroic teacher (such as Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds), that teacher is portrayed as an anomaly, a one-in-a-million educator, distinguished by his or her dedication.
And yet, many former students can name at least one teacher who encouraged them and excited them to learn. So, it probably seemed like a good idea to decide to stage an hour-long drama from the teachers’ point of view, to show what it’s like to work in a job simultaneously thankless and important. The problem is, this idea has resulted in Boston Public, which does high school teachers no service at all.
Created by television mogul David E. Kelley, Boston Public, is set in the fictional Winslow High School, supposedly in Boston (though, other than a couple of references to “the desegs” and a minor character with a Boston accent, you wouldn’t guess this setting). There’s no indication as to why Winslow High is as crowded (a 29-to-1 teacher-student ratio) and chaotic as it is whether it’s in the richest or poorest section of Boston, or somewhere in between; we just have to take it on faith that the heroic teachers are operating under siege conditions. And these teachers are: Lauren Davis (Jessalyn Gilsig), a young, idealistic social studies teacher; Harry Senate (Nicky Katt), in trouble for kissing a student and firing a gun in class; Marla Hendricks (Loretta Devine), driven into hysterical depression by her uncaring students; irascible Harvey Lipschultz (Fyvush Finkel), who requires his students to sing the national anthem before class; Milton Buttle (Joey Slotnick), a picked-on English teacher; and Kevin Riley (Thomas McCarthy), probably the least physically imposing football coach in television history. They are all mentored by tough-talking Principal Steven Harper (Chi McBride, last seen in The Secret Diaries of Desmond Pfeiffer) and his loyal Vice-Principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald). And they are all, we are reassured numerous times, “great” teachers. The first three episodes each featured, at some point, Harper making a speech about how “great” they are and he must believe it, since he didn’t fire Senate for waving and firing a gun at his students, or Hendricks for abandoning her class with a note: “Gone to Kill Myself. Hope You’re Happy.”
It would be one thing if we actually saw these “great” teachers, oh, teaching. But except for Lipschultz’s obviously-meant-to-be-a-signature monologues, there’s almost no teacher-student interaction during classes. While I can appreciate the producers’ apparent belief that there’s more drama to be found outside the classroom, the lack of class time generally and any attention to subjects other than English and social studies (the less “viewer-friendly” math, science, foreign language), compounds the show’s unreality. It doesn’t help that many emotional scenes take place in classrooms that are empty save for the couple of characters involved for a supposedly crowded school, Winslow High seems to have a lot of unused space.
Instead of seeing the teachers actually teaching the students, instead we watch them fighting with students in the hallways, holding whispered conferences with them in out-of-the-way areas, or kissing them in classrooms (after everyone else has left), as Senate does his student, Dana Poole (Sarah Thompson). Their interactions are rarely about grades and almost never about actual academic topics. Usually they consist of the student making disdainful statements and the teacher issuing threats. Boston Public‘s actions speak louder than its words: in this show, the students act, and the teachers react, with fear, hostility, and scorn.
Still, judging by a scene in the first episode, it may be a good thing that Boston Public focuses on the melodrama rather than the teaching. Lipschultz delivers a facile analysis of James Madison, calling him a “midget,” which prompts derisive snickers from a black student who wants to know why neither his text nor his teacher mentions the complicated relationships between the Founding Fathers and slavery. A different teacher might have acknowledged the student’s interest in, and apparent familiarity with, this area of history and used it to spark debate. Mr. Lipschultz, however, is the kind of teacher who tells the student that this version of history is on the test, and this is what he will teach; then he runs off to complain to sympathetic Lauren Davis about the “desegs.” And then he wonders why the students don’t warm to the same style of teaching he’s been using for fifty years.
While the show gently makes fun of Lipschultz’s old-fashioned ways (he calls Hendricks “un-American” for discussing slavery in class), it also seems to position him as a strong-willed center, a moral throwback admired by Davis (the most warm-hearted character). Lipschultz gets the better of a student who mocks him on her website, and his ability to get his students to sing the national anthem was presented as one of the few bright moments of the first episode. Originally I thought his using the term “the desegs” was meant to present him as mildly racist and backward, but Harper’s black assistant, Louisa (Rashida Jones), has also used it in subsequent episodes. Thus Lipschultz is apparently no more racist than any other Winslow High staff member. His ham-handed, bombastic approach to his students should apparently be a model for the other teachers.
And so, we’re not too surprised when a teacher cries, “They’re animals!” (Give Kelley some credit: he knew enough to put that line not in a white character’s mouth, but in Hendricks’s, as she’s describing a racially mixed class.) The show’s website goes so far as to say that “Every day is a fight.” This apparently justifies punching a student, as Harper does (he apologizes, but we are clearly meant to think of him as a better man for standing up to a bully); pulling a gun on students, as Senate does; and generally insulting and belittling students. At no point do the teachers stop to consider the possibility that their paranoid, self-aggrandizing behavior may turn the students against them. Instead, they demand unconditional love and respect from their supposedly troubled students; and when they don’t get what they want, they act like spurned lovers, calling the students names.
Boston Public is, in short, a view of high school that dovetails with conservatives’ worst fears: here, teachers can’t teach because the students are too horny and violent to learn. In theory, the show could regard the misbehaving students and misbehaving teachers both with ridicule and sympathy alike. This is an approach with which Kelley is fairly familiar: on Ally McBeal, which he also created and which follows Boston Public on Monday nights, all the characters make fools of themselves on a weekly basis. Ally isn’t necessarily a heroic lawyer, or even a good one, simply an entertaining character.
But, unlike Ally McBeal, Boston Public is being taken seriously. Judith Shulevitz, writing for Slate, praises the show as “a neoconservative critique of the rights revolution” and dismisses Hendricks’s breakdown and Senate’s gun-waving as “momentary lapses.” Lisa Schmeiser (at teevee.org) called it “amazingly believable.” The show has also received a fair amount of support from teachers themselves, who would, in theory, be the most offended by an inaccurate portrayal of their lives. (I say this as a magazine writer who can’t watch more than five minutes of Just Shoot Me or Deadline without shouting at the screen.) A viewer identifying herself as a teacher posted to the Boston Public official message board, “The message [of the show] is that many American youths respect violence over self-control, disrespect over politeness, beauty over common sense, and so on… I see it in a middle school Monday through Friday. It… makes me shiver to think where our society is headed.” Another teacher wrote, “It’s too heartbreaking to give so much and be respected so little.”
If the teachers of Boston Public do represent the frustration and anger of teachers everywhere, then the usual U.S. attitude toward its high school students benign contempt has truly backfired. Parents are apparently sending their kids to schools where the teachers are busy patting themselves on the back with one hand and punching or dismissing a student with the other. David E. Kelley may well have created a show that accurately dramatizes the sad state of American high schools but contrary to current popular belief, the students aren’t the main problem.