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School Daze: From the Dark Side to the Sunny Side Up In Reagan’s America

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Today, I wanna talk to you about a really great film I just saw. Really evocative. Maybe I'm gonna write a StoneMan song about it. The film, which I treat here, has also inspired me to look back and see where I got my encouragement in a school system that is hit-or-miss at best sometimes. I would very much like to know YOUR experiences, sunny side up or over hard, in the comments below. Enjoy!

2022 - Director Writer: James Gray Rated R - 114 minutes NETFLIX SYNOPSIS - In 1980s Queens, New York, 12-year-old Paul and his best friend, John, are inseparable. But when the two get caught smoking pot, Paul's parents enroll him in a private school. Unhappy in his new setting, Paul decides to run away to Florida with John. I have heard this said: "High school is an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine designed to keep you from becoming who you are." This film might be that statement's doctoral thesis. It is made even more salient because it takes the viewer back to the slights, injustices and injuries of youth. You will remember the brutality of kids. The blithe antipathy of those in charge of your life until you graduate to the damaged older order whose dreams have long ago been dashed. You get a sense of kids existing in a world where they are just passing through. Where they don't really matter in 1980s America. They have the semi-formed hopes and dreams of kids their age that are immaterial in the material pursuit of the American Dream their adults have been sold.

The milieux is spot on, from the kind of bad clothes to the crazy family dinner hours that -- my God -- It's as if Gray bugged my mom's kitchen on the West Side of Clearfield. I was the sixth of seven and, boy-oh-boy, can I relate to Paul. I didn't exist in a place where I suffered damage, much, but I did exist in a world where nobody saw you. It's a strange world to be in where you can do anything you want and unless the cops drag you home, nobody raises an eyebrow. That said, the film does have a very real sense of familial love in it. Brother fights. Kids not listening. Dad pulling off his belt and doubling it over. Man, the parents in this film don't catch a lot of breaks and I think Gray caught the parents of the day flush. Let's get to our protagonists. You got Paul, a white Jewish kid who wants to be an artist, though few hear him or appreciate it as an important thing. You got John, a black kid with nonexistent parents, who wants to work for NASA, although he's been held back in school and "Put with the retards." Paul's choices are slim. John's are nil. I get the feeling watching the film that you are watching child abuse. You are seeing the damage being done. That the way we grow up in the world is defeating instead of prospective and hopeful. You feel that the casual biases of adults struggling to get through their own shit can be harmful for those they are trying to nurture. I wonder how John and Paul, a biblical allusion no doubt, are going to think back on each other when they are older. The film does a kindly turn in the wonderful performance of Anthony Hopkins as Paul's beloved grandfather. The old man is crucially the only one who sees Paul, takes him seriously and nurtures him. There is a lesson in Hopkins' performance. Paul's parents, however, think he's slow and maybe things will change if they put him in an "elite" (read racist, conformist, dogmatic) academy where, it turns out, the kids are perhaps no more beastly than the ones in the failing public schools. In a strange and apropos aside, we find the private school partially funded by Fred Trump, who makes a cameo along with his daughter Maryann, who makes a speech at a class assembly that is suspiciously realistic -- and, depending on your point of view, either disgusting or elegant, but either way decidedly toward the point of the film. The two schools are juxtaposed over pieces of art. Paul is caught doodling in class in his public school where he's sketched a fairly accurate portrait of the teacher. The teacher finds it and is outraged. In the academy, Paul is in art class and makes a piece, again, that is pretty good; of an Apollo rocket blasting off. The teacher admires that he shows talent but admonishes that, "This is not the assignment."

I always like to look at the title of the film. Good ones have titles that get to the point of the story you are about to observe. This one seems unlikely at first glance. It is a hopeless title. Armageddon is when the world ends.

Ronald Reagan, who appears in the film, embraced a kind of nuclear holocaust nightmare politic of the time. Maybe, for Culture America (TM), it was the end of a simpler world; or maybe the beginning of a world full of the hurt of knowing. Certainly, for Paul and John, the film describes at least an inflection point in their world. In my world, to digress and make this discussion more personal, well, the old piano I was attracted to in our family living room was thrown out at a very young age. Public school in Clearfield offered mostly discouragement, especially in the arts. Still, I, and I bet you, did get some nourishment along the way. List your own in the comments below, because I think that's a fun conversation. I'll go first. My encouragements: Marvel Comics. Mrs. Irwin, in 3rd grade, loved me. I just know she did.

Bill Funk in 6th grade at Third Ward read us a short story every Friday afternoon. Most of the kids thought it was baby shit and made fun of him for it. I still remember every story. I wanna say it was Chris Rowles in maybe 7th or 8th grade English who taught me how to diagram a sentence. It was fun and it was a way more important thing to learn than maybe anyone gave it credit for. How to think about a sentence, almost like an auto mechanic, by form and by function; it lay there like a tool on my workbench and still does. Sentence diagramming needs brought back. Evelyn Supko got my attention. Potpourri of Poetry was the class poetry rag. That rocked.

Ardell Bressler. Lowest grade I ever got in English, but worth every deducted point. He was like having a giddy troll bedeviling you every day. It was like getting hit over the head with "The Elements of Style" every goddamned day. Paul Young. Jr. English. Scott Boyle. Senior Journalism Advisor. We got shut down by the school board I don't know how many times. Scott walked in one day while I was editing and informed me I needed to be at the high school this evening at six to try out for the class play he was directing. I didn't even look up. "OK," I said. Changed my life.

Yeah. Looking back, I wanna say the Clearfield School System had a Beyond Thunderdome English Department for a while. Point is, that while films like today's fare are true and poignant, they often have counterpoints too. There IS hope, but it can be pretty hard when you're 12. I have told my son, who was his school's valedictorian and author of the opening quote, that college was "For finding your people. For becoming who you are." In today's film, you have two children in the balance who cannot see where they are. It's precarious and scary and it is from the dark side. Somewhere, someplace, each person is desperate to catch that one thing that matters and leads you to a better place where you fit.

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