Educational Television

By Gamson, Joshua | The American Prospect, February 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

Educational Television


Gamson, Joshua, The American Prospect


The Big Moment the early episodes of the Fox Networks Boston Public comes a school board meeting called by the superintendent--an enemy of Winslow High School's tough-love overseer, Principal Harper--to address the principal's handling of a teacher who brandished a gun in his classroom, a soccer team that tried to download test answers and then persecuted a potential "rat" by hanging him upside down outside a classroom, a social studies teacher who allowed a discussion of Native-American cannibalism, a bully who broke open another kid's head, and a fed-up teacher who abandoned her class with a blackboard note that read, "Gone to kill myself. Hope you're happy!"

Actually, thanks to Boston Public's pile-it-on strategy, you get several Big Moments for the price of one. After the school board chair and the superintendent attack the principal, the teacher who left the blackboard suicide note, Ms. Hendricks, stands up to confront the "stuck-up intellectual superintendent Frappuccino bitch" and makes a long speech about how she has to go "day after day after damn day and try to break through to a bunch of kids who don't want to listen, don't want to learn, don't want to give me the decency of being quiet." Ms. Hendricks adds, "You show me a teacher who doesn't almost lose his or her mind sometimes, and I'll show you a teacher who's not trying." Then she upbraids the parents for leaving the parenting to the teachers.

Next, Principal Harper stands up and offers a paean to his faculty: "Those people over there, they're teachers. It's in their hearts. And when a school is lucky enough to get people like that, you don't let go." He offers to fall on his sword. "You want to get rid of me, do it," he says. "But don't you be touching them." And then the vice principal stands up and declares that if the principal goes, so does he; one by one, the Winslow High teachers stand up and announce the same. In the next scene, the calm after the storm, Principal Harper stops by Ms. Hendricks's classroom. "Is there anything more magical than a classroom?" the teacher asks without irony.

High school teaching is, no question, a noble and pretty thankless profession. And Boston Public--created and produced by overachiever David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal; The Practice), and one of the few success stories in this year's dreadful crop of new television shows--offers a fat, heartfelt thank-you to urban high school teachers and administrators that's even bigger than Disney's faux-glamorous American Teacher Awards on cable TV. According to Boston Public, the heroism of teachers derives not so much from their skills (very few of which are illustrated on the show) as from the crap they take in order to do their jobs (which is illustrated in nearly every scene). Parents pressure teachers to set grades aside in order to let a son play football (his ticket to college) or to set the honor code aside in order to get a son a coveted award (his ticket to Harvard). And then there's the low salary and long hours, the political pressure from superintendents and school boards, and the constant worry about lawsuits.

But most of all, it's the undisciplined, contemptuous, defiant students who make teaching hellish and therefore noble. "They're animals," suggests Ms. Hendricks. "You get no respect from them unless they fear you or think you're crazy," says Mr. Senate, the teacher who demonstrated his point by firing a gun in his classroom. Indeed, every episode features out-of-control children driving adults somewhat nuts. In addition to the bullies and the cheaters, there is the girl who goes braless and the many others who join her in solidarity, the student who publishes humiliating animations of the teachers on her Web site and then sues the school for censoring her, the girl who slips ecstasy into a teacher's coffee, and the one who gives her opponent a blow job so he'll drop out of a student council race. And there is the boy who spits on a teacher, the boys' "sex posse" that totes up points for each sex act completed, the boy who bites off a chunk of another boy's ear, the boy who launches a breast implant down the hall, and the one who is suspected of murder and holds a teacher hostage. …

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