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.