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The Perks of the “Understanding English Teacher”

As always, I stayed in on Saturday night. I ended up watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. With my parents. I can’t decide whether this is fitting or ironic.

Credit: IMBD

Charlie, our young hero, played by Logan Lerman is a psychologically damaged loner (aren’t we all?) who finally makes friends when he gets to high school, and drama ensues. Wow, that makes it sound like an awful movie. I should probably make a note to self along the lines of, “Self, avoid doing movie reviews”.

Pathetic synopsis aside, I adored it.

It had so many shadows of clichés, and yet, somehow, it seemed fresh. There’s the shy, quiet freshman, eating lunch alone at a big table. The understanding English teacher who’s book recommendations and pieces of wisdom help guide our young freshman. The friends who magically appear and are made with little effort. The gay best friend. The lunchroom fight. The drunken parties, the secretive displays of affection, the drugs. The satisfying ending.

Actually, all written out, that sounds kind of like Mean Girls. Except that Mean Girls is a comedy — of which I can recite almost every line — while this is a drama. And in Mean Girls the displays of affection are rather public and nonchalant. During the final scene of Wallflower, I swear I could hear Cady Heron narrating: “Finally, girl world was at peace.” Not that the line makes any sense in the context of the movie, but more that it made sense in the context of the nice, clean, for-now-everything’s-looking-pretty-good dénouement.

And yet, as I wrote, it felt very fresh. Though looking at what I wrote after that, I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because it isn’t what happens, but how it happens and why it happens. It’s a lot like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, a concept I also learned back in grade nine, with my very own “understanding English teacher”. Campbell has this theory that most “hero’s journey’s” in most stories (from Greek myths to contemporary films) will follow the same basic pattern.

But you can make all kinds of cookies using the same cookie cutter, and they’ll all taste different, regardless of their shape. Furthermore, two bakers can use the same recipe and the same cookie cutters and the cookies will likely come out different. (Don’t believe me? Ask your mom to get the recipe for the cookies your friend’s mom makes and tell me your mom’s taste exactly the same.)

Also, clichés occasionally become clichéd for a reason. A lot of them are pretty true. So you can take that clichéd kernel expand it into something new and meaningful. But then some idiot (such as myself) goes to summarize it, and it gets crunched back into a cliché.

Take the “understanding English teacher”. That’s probably the fastest growing cliché in movies about high school. From Dead Poet’s Society to Freedom Writers to Easy A you’ll find one such character playing a pretty major role. In Mean Girls it’s a math teacher, but even then, English class plays a huge role: that’s where Glen Coco gets his four candy canes, that’s where Gretchen Wieners snaps after deciding that WE SHOULD TOTALLY JUST STAB CAESAR.

You GO Glen Coco! Credit: lolsnaps.com

And why? Because English teachers understand people. Because they read a lot so they must be pretty smart. Because they teach us about life, about ourselves. Which is kind of exactly what (the good) screenwriters are trying to do. And is there an easier way for screenwriters to convey messages, both to us and to the characters themselves, than to have English teachers convey those messages for them? Probably not.

Why else are these characters popping up more and more? Because they’re true. English teachers do change lives. At least the good ones do. They encourage you to read. To write. To explore your passions. To be yourself. To figure out who you even are. I know from personal experience. An English teacher once managed to change my life. Or something like that.

Charlie, while arguably a slight cliché, is true. Despite our entirely different experiences of life, he’s me, and yet, he’s his own person enough to be nothing like me. I want to be more like him, I’m glad I’m not more like him.

I don’t know if this movie was good or bad. I don’t know if it’s fresh or clichéd — sometimes I think life itself is kind of clichéd. But I do know that I adored it. It made me feel — and not just in a superficial way. I didn’t cry — movies rarely elicit such a reaction from me. But I had a lump in my throat the whole time, and puddles of tears that sat in my eyes without streaming over to my cheeks. It meant something to me, and to a lot of other kids my age. And that’s gotta be worth something.

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About Elizabeth Anne

I’m obsessed with novels, short stories, poetical works &c., and my family has refused to put up with my ranting and raving about these things any longer, so I’ve decided to ramble to you, the internet.

2 responses »

  1. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I did read the book a few months ago and a similar reaction. It read a lot like The Catcher in the Rye, with an updated spin. I’ll have to watch the movie now based on your recommendation.

    Reply
    • I actually just finished reading the book and after the movie I was a little disappointed… I thought it worked better as a movie and while the book reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, Catcher is one of my favourite books and I didn’t like it as much… I wondered if I would have liked the book more than the movie had I read it first?

      Reply

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