FOX TV Goes to High School
'Boston Public' isn't so much a show about high school as it is a soap opera set in one.
A friend with a radio show used to include a feature called “Closet Classics.” He encouraged listeners to call in and “confess” the titles of songs they remembered listening to in secret, but wouldn’t dare admit to liking openly. People called in and named songs so obviously uncool (or “cheesy” as my students today might say) they howled in embarrassment at the memories. I confessed to pumping up the volume for songs by Journey when no one else was around.
I get a similar feeling these days watching FOX network’s TV hit “Boston Public.” The show, simply put, is a mess, alternately sensationalizing and trivializing real school issues, and sending out dubious images to a viewing public that already receives daily alarms about the state of public education. Still, for a longtime urban teacher like myself, “Boston Public” has the irresistible lure of watching a train wreck. It’s a show I love to hate and talk back to when I probably should be preparing for the next day at school.
About to enter its second season, “Boston Public” chronicles the affairs (pun intended) of the staff and students of Winslow High, a supposedly typical big-city high school. “Every day is a fight” the show’s tag line declares, as it follows the school’s beleaguered principal, maniacal vice principal, assorted faculty, and—in a very supporting role—various students through the school day and after hours.
Actually “Boston Public” isn’t so much a show about high school as it is a soap opera set in one. Sex and sensationalism drive most of the story lines, and the personal relationships and love lives of staff and students (often staff with students) take top priority.
Many of the show’s plot lines are absurdly over-the-top. Winslow High has teachers who shoot off guns in class and leave suicide notes on the blackboard. It’s a school where security officers “mistakenly” install video cameras in the shower, which the model-thin young female faculty use after their workouts. In one episode, a student sells some shower scenes to an Internet pornographer, while another student, who edits the school paper, puts up video clips on her web site, which regularly runs profane accounts of school gossip. (The student editor has a lawyer who brokers the terms of her frequent suspensions hour by hour.)
There are so many things wrong with this picture it’s easy to see why the show elicits strong reactions from those who spend their days in real schools. Some despise “Boston Public” for its sensationalism and exploitation of real-life issues. Others are drawn to the show’s melodramatic rendition of things they encounter every day like administrative chaos, sporadic violence, and the personal emergencies that so often spill over into students’ school lives.
Created by producer David Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice”), the show has a trendy veneer of social relevance stretched over an empty skeleton of TV clichés. It’s the latest in a long line of media portrayals of life in schools, and like most TV shows, it trivializes its subject matter, reducing complicated issues to simple-minded dramatic formulas.
For example, “Boston Public” rarely shows teachers actually teaching or students learning anything. At Winslow High, what happens in classrooms is marginal. A good teacher, the show suggests, isn’t someone who has mastered the craft of teaching, or who works overtime to create imaginative lessons that move students to understanding or action. Instead, a “good teacher” is one who personally empathizes with students and who intervenes, sometimes quite dramatically and often inappropriately, in students’ private lives.
This portrayal of a good teacher as someone who combines a missionary’s zeal with a social worker’s caseload is a familiar staple of media misrepresentation of life in schools. Good intentions and earnestness count for far more than the craft and content of teaching. This is not to suggest that students don’t need compassion, or that teachers don’t need to build strong, positive relationships with their students. But being a good person and being a good teacher aren’t quite the same thing. It’s a distinction the media doesn’t seem to get.
To be sure, it may be difficult to dramatically portray the real stuff of good teaching, but “Boston Public” doesn’t even try. Take Marla Hendricks, one of my favorite characters on the show. Marla is a history teacher struggling with depression. Actually, she doesn’t try to hide it very much. One morning she left a note for the class on the blackboard: “Gone to kill myself, hope you’re happy.” Part of her depression, we’re told, comes from having to stare at those “blank faces” every day, reflecting the apathy she confronts daily in her classroom.
But when we get a momentary glimpse of Marla’s classroom, what we see is her haranguing students for not completing their homework or studying the text. When one of her students complains that the text is old, boring and irrelevant, the show comes teasingly close, as it often does, to engaging a real issue: just maybe there’s a connection between lifeless, sanitized curricula and pervasive student alienation. But Marla doesn’t get it. She responds to the student’s complaint by sending him to the principal’s office for mouthing off.
In another episode, Marla is berating her students for their inadequate knowledge of the Louisiana Purchase and General George Patton. As punishment she sends them all out to the parking lot to pick up trash “since you’re all going to be janitors anyway.” Since this is TV land, the kids (with one mild objection) all sheepishly shuffle off to the parking lot as ordered. (All over America I could hear teachers saying, “Yeah, right.”) Having kids behave in ridiculously scripted, orchestrated ways is another of the annoying conventions “Boston Public” borrows from the media stock box about life in schools.
“Boston Public” is a master at turning a potentially compelling moment into a cheap plot device or snappy put-down. One of the show’s featured characters is Harry Senate who teaches geology to the “toughest” kids down in the basement. (At my school, the kids in the “dungeon” get ditto sheets and newspapers, not geology electives, though I can’t recall Senate ever actually talking about geology.) His wisecracking arrogance and edgy behavior are presented as part of what makes him a “great teacher” who can “reach these kids.” During the first season Senate’s character was involved in kissing a student, shooting off a gun in class to “shock” students out of their apathy, and covering up a student’s role in a gang murder in hopes of protecting the student who was ultimately shot and killed himself. Ordinarily, this track record would get a new teacher derailed in short order. But on “Boston Public,” it all just adds to Senate’s mystique as a hip, dedicated instructor.
In another episode, Senate takes his students on an unapproved trip to the morgue. It’s part of a “suicide club” which he formed to get students to talk about the fears and depression that led many to consider harming themselves. Some students got sick, others were shocked at seeing the reality of death. For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine how a teacher might combine such an experience with some real teaching; maybe Senate could have his students read Patricia Smith’s powerful poem, “The Undertaker,” then have them write about the endemic urban violence that cheapens the value of human life (which they’ve no doubt seen more of than their teachers). Perhaps this could lead to research on the real causes and dimensions of that violence, including the internalized violence of suicide and other self-destructive behaviors.
“Boston Public,” however, follows up with a confrontational meeting between Senate and angry parents. When the parents complain, quite reasonably, that Senate’s unapproved exercise in shock therapy exceeded proper bounds, he responds flippantly: “If only I could take them someplace and show them what a real parent looks like.” Senate’s sarcasm gives “Boston Public” a lot of its edge, but such attitudes also undercut the show’s periodic flirtations with relevance. It’s the “commercial break,” not the “teachable moment,” that is ultimately “Boston Public’s” defining feature.
DEALING WITH RACE
This is equally true of the show’s treatment of racial issues. On the one hand, where else on TV can you see teachers forced to reflect on whether their own racial background might be influencing their grading or discipline polices? In one episode, white history teacher Lauren Davis was confronted with the real possibility that she was holding her Black students to a different standard than her white students. In what was perhaps an “equal time” balancing act, another episode finds an African-American teacher challenged over the possibility that he was grading too leniently in an effort to encourage students. Neither of these storylines was particularly well-developed, but at least the suggestion that the core business of schooling (grading, sorting, labeling, and credentialing students) might be influenced by race was provocative.
Similarly, another episode drew strikingly on the current struggle against standardized testing, specifically mentioning opposition to the state’s MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test. Kevin Jackson, a Black student who refuses to take the tests, convincingly counters the vice principal’s arguments, saying: “Those tests aren’t written for me or for people like me…They come up with questions like ‘starter is to marathon’ as ‘coxswain is to regatta’ … when do you think I was in my last regatta? It’s funny that 53% of white kids answered that same question correctly when only 22% of Black kids did … The Massachusetts school reform law never intended one test to be the only means of measuring schools … education ceases to be learning when the three Rs are read, remember, and regurgitate.” It’s a scene I could easily imagine using to prompt classroom discussion, though the issue is dropped abruptly to return to the soap opera story lines.
More typically annoying are scenes involving the 80-year-old history teacher, Harvey Lipschultz, the bigot with a “heart of gold” and a fading memory whose character is generally an insult to the aged. Lipschultz is sometimes used as a buffoon for comic relief, as when his pants are stolen and run up the flagpole, or when he is ludicrously chosen to lecture the student body on sexual matters. But he’s also used to represent a kind of old-fashioned racism, unbowed by the “politically correct” insights of multiculturalism. Lipschultz is allowed to voice blatantly racist opinions (most criminals are Black, Blacks commit most of the murders) while still earning the respect of his Black students. “He’s a bigot, but he never let me forget every day that I could be something. He took an interest in me,” Kevin Jackson says.
Lipschultz’s barely believable behavior reaches absurd levels as he screams in Jackson’s face, “My job is to see that you get your Black ass into college and if you fail American history you’ll be sitting here again next year and you’ll have to listen all over again to what my shriveled white Jewish ass has to say.” In the real world, such classroom lunacy might provoke a mild riot. But on “Boston Public,” the students absorb this frothing in silence as the directors cut away.
The inability to resist going for the cheap shot over the substantive point is a “Boston Public” trademark. For example, after hearing Jackson’s articulate critique of testing, the dictatorial vice principal recruits him to the debating team. The subplot has a number of telling themes as the team prepares to debate whether drug companies should be made to provide AIDS drugs to people in poor African countries. Gradually, Jackson suspects, and the vice principal comes to realize, that he was being “exploited” by the team for his race. But whatever insight the story was building disappeared when, in the middle of the debate finals, Jackson suddenly punches out his opponent.
Like a lot of TV shows, “Boston Public” is so consistently ridiculous, it’s hard to take it too seriously. But it’s also hard not to see its capacity for harm. One teacher educator notes that her graduate students “seem to watch it religiously. I even had a student try to pass off a moral dilemma from ‘Boston Public’ as his own … [It] makes me wonder what student teachers are learning about teaching and student-teacher interactions from watching this show.”
Whatever they’re learning, it has only a passing relation to reality. As a Boston area teacher put it, “The real Boston Public daily soap opera script isn’t nearly as juicy as ‘Boston Public’ would like us to be believe — it’s about resources, the impact of standardized testing on kids and schools … all the important stuff.”
Too important, it seems, for prime time TV.