Note: I know I promised to finish the tale continued in “An American in Babel” in my next blog, which would be this one, but I could not NOT write about this (yes, that makes sense; read it again), so I’m asking my two or three faithful readers to please forgive me for leaving you hanging once again. Part III of my journey is coming soon-ish.
I think I’ve mentioned this before: I teach high school English. When people ask me why I’m a teacher, I tell them it’s because I was born that way. I’m serious. When people ask me why high school, I tell them it’s because that’s the only age group I can tolerate being trapped with in a block building. So serious. Why English? Because I like it; at least I like the reading and writing and discussing of it. And that’s where things get really serious.
Imagine a crowded high school English class, the last block of the day. We are reading a dystopian novel because every teenager needs to understand the danger of “the man” and the oppressive nature of the unknown they…Yeah, not so much.
Ensuring a successful reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with regular ed sophomores requires a good deal of pedagogical wisdom and even more dramatic pausing. I am determined that my students recognize not only the literary elements of what is read, but also their society and themselves, especially in the more culturally prophetic pieces.
So I can’t read Fahrenheit 451 without asking them about the Mildreds they know, without discussing caves and masks and mirrors, without commenting on our perpetual technological distractions and our mindless entertainment. And that’s where things picked up in my fourth block class the other day.
“Ms. VanMeter,” a student asked, “have you ever seen [insert title of random stupid movie made in the last ten years]?”
I get the question a lot. The kids are trying to kill time or sneak in something they’d rather talk about or, more often than not, set me up for a diatribe. They are amazed at the list of shows I’ve never seen, and I have a repertoire of blistering one-liners on their “entertainment” choices that they seem to enjoy. But we had a lot of ground to cover that day, so I wasn’t taking the bait.
Me [deadpan]: Have you met me?
Other students [voices overlapping]: Don’t be stupid…you know she hasn’t…why’d you ask her that?…
Student: Why not?
Me: It’s junk. You know I don’t watch junk.
Student: How do you know it’s junk if you don’t watch it?
I take the bait.
Me: Things, like people, usually let you know pretty quickly what they are.You just have to pay attention. We can start with the title. And the previews. (In my head I add “and the maturity level of the people who enjoy it,” but I know they’ll get a kick out of that, so I stop short of saying it. For now.)
Student: So are you gonna watch Bad Grandpa?
Me [nonplussed]: Of course not.
Student: But that movie’s hilarious!
Other students chime in affirmatively, though most, like me, have only previews to go on. I turn the discussion to weightier matters, but it isn’t long before we are back to Bad Grandpa, thanks to a discussion of how men have been portrayed in the media in the last couple of decades–despicably. In everything from cartoons to comedies, men have been dumbed down and damned to the lowest common denominator of human decency. Thus, I said, my disgust with movies like Bad Grandpa. To take the patriarch of a family and reduce him to a juvenile expression of baseness and prurience, someone who tosses one dollar bills at a child dressed up and dancing like a stripper on a pole…
Laughter. Lots of it.
Uh, oh. This was going to get ugly.
And so it did. My pointed lecturing gave way to fury. The next few lines were delivered with a pounding of both hand and tongue, so loud my words were heard by the teacher next door.
THAT’S NOT FUNNY! THAT IS NOT FUNNY! There is nothing funny about a child on a pole, about a man throwing ones at a child on a pole. Every day on this planet children are sold to satisfy the sexual desires of the depraved and anything that so much as implies that and makes light of it is foul and disgusting, and a society that finds that funny is hopelessly corrupt!
Now–do you want to ask me any more questions?
They did not.
But I have a question: What the heck are these kids doing watching that garbage? Two questions: Who the heck is letting them? This is the 21st century. We should have “come a long way, baby” by now. I recently asked my class why they thought such films were even made, and I got this from a perceptive young woman who rarely volunteers her wry observations: “Because we set the bar so low for ourselves and the people who make those movies know it.”
And therein lies the problem. Just like that stupid old Virginia Slims ad, our “long way” has been down. Students who are positively aghast when I toss a Bible on the floor and step on it (yes, yes, of course I do; it’s the it’s-not-the-books-but-what’s-in-the-books-getting-into-you-that-matters routine) are watching movies that would make the Harlot of Babylon feel right at home. Rather than raising our standards, we’ve degraded ourselves. And our children.
All our claims of being a godly nation, all our insistence on what a civilized society should not tolerate, all our scrambling to protect our offspring from danger, and all the while our box offices and inboxes are full of things that only a dog would down. Or only a dog should down. We have blithely pulled the family up to a buffet of vomit and vulgarity and are shoveling it in one over-priced popcorn at a time. And you know what they say–you are what you eat.
So let’s chew on this instead: Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:21-27)