One day, I was assigned to teach for Mr. Palmer, the middle-school’s AV/Tech teacher. Mr. Palmer’s room was relegated to a low-traffic hallway on the far edge of the school. It was very large in order to accommodate the cameras, video editing system, assortment of computer and video monitors, and the newsdesk in the corner of the room. Specially selected students sat behind the newsdesk every morning, stared blank-faced into a camera, and struggled to read badly typed announcements off the teleprompter during the “Warrior News,” which was broadcast throughout the school and ignored by the entire student body.
I arrived in Mr. Palmer’s class that morning to find one tiny note on his desk. His instructions were the words “Press play.” These instructions applied to all four classes I would be teaching that day. I looked at the
As soon as the students for the first class entered, I told them it was time to watch Tron, and they said “No! That movie’s gay! It’s so fag!” I told them they had better be careful, for they would be graded on how well they enjoyed the movie. They believed me, gloriously, and started panicking. “But it sucks! It’s gay! It’s weird!” I shook my head and said, “Oof. That’s an F.”
I ran through the attendance, making sure to mispronounce each and every name on the roster, including middle names where they were listed. Then I pressed play on the
The class tried to watch Tron, but what a crappy movie to impose on middle-schoolers. I tried to confiscate a note from some girls that turned out to be a complicated love probability game involving their names and the names of boys they liked. I asked them, “But what about Tron?” The rest of the students slouched and pouted, furious at Tron. Even the nerds were displeased.
When class was dismissed, I asked them how well they enjoyed Tron. Most of them lied through their teeth. “Oh...I...loved...it,” they said. I said, “Mmhmm! An A-plus for you!”
Period 2 went about the same way, but in period 3, as I was beginning the movie, one of the students said, “Oh!! And we have to take notes too?!” I said, “Huh?,” then looked at Mr. Palmer’s board where, indeed, he had written down a Tron-related assignment. I had completely overlooked this. The first two periods would have absolute nothing to turn in to Mr. Palmer the next day.
According to the instructions on the board, the students were supposed to be spotting metaphors for real life in Tron. “They’re everywhere!” said the board. Palmer, a former and current hippie, was obviously talking about the police-like game controllers in Tron being a metaphor of the man holding down people who liked to have fun. Unfortunately, what Mr. Palmer had overlooked was that middle schoolers have no clue what metaphors are.
“Who knows what a metaphor is?” I asked.
The smartest kid said, “Not using ‘like’ or ‘as.’”
I said, “Right, metaphors are not similes. But what are they?” I tried my best to explain the concept of metaphors to the students, but they didn’t get it. They couldn’t get it. I gave up and started Tron.
The students, afraid of having nothing to turn in, turned the assignment into a collaborative effort, fretting and discussing possible answers, but none of them had any idea what they were doing. They thought the motorbikes in the Tron world were metaphors for motorbikes in the real world. They wrote this down, “motorbike = motorbike” and “tank = tank.” They asked me how many metaphors they had to spot, and I told them, “At least fifty.”
I pointed out one of the characters onscreen and said, “See that guy wearing the big glasses there? Those big glasses are a metaphor for ‘nerd.’” The kids immediately wrote that down, except for one nerd, who angrily shrieked, “It just means he has bad eyes!”
“Very good!” I said. “You’ve spotted another metaphor. Big glasses equals bad eyes.” They also wrote down things like “gray hair = old” and “tall guy = tall.”
Midway through period 3, one of the students bumped Mr. Palmer’ jerry-rigged audio-cord set-up, knocking out the sound to the movie. I tried to reconnect it, and even called in another teacher who was a former electrician, but no one could repair Palmer’s taped-together, ramshackle connection.
There were no alternate plans, there were no other assignments, and there was no reason to trust the students to do something constructive with free time, so I we finished off the class watching Tron silently, with subtitles, me calling on students to read certain lines. Let me tell you, there are long stretches in Tron without any dialogue at all. The kids finally asked if they could make the sounds of the motorbikes racing, and I let them.
Finally, period 3 fizzled to an end, and in trotted period 4, utterly unaware that they were about to spend the next 70 minutes of their lives watching Tron without audio. What’s more, the fourth period students were eighth-graders, which meant that some of them had had Mr. Palmer all three years of their middle-school careers. And every single time Mr. Palmer was sick, he had one plan for his classes: watch Tron. As soon as the kids came into the room and saw me sitting at Mr. Palmer’s desk, they said, “Oh no, we’re not watching that gay robot movie, are we? Ohhh, god!”
I folded his hands, nodded gravely, and told them that they were, in fact, watching the gay robot movie. “Furthermore,” I said, “not only are you watching Tron, you are being graded on how well you enjoy Tron. And not only are you being graded on how well you enjoy Tron, you are required to spot at least fifty metaphors in Tron.” I paused. “And not only are you required to spot metaphors in Tron, you will be watching Tron without any sound. Only subtitles.”
The students groaned in horror.
Being eighth graders, some of them at least had a dim concept of what a metaphor was, and entirely by chance, one student asked, as a joke, “Hey, because that guy has big glasses, is that a metaphor for ‘nerd?’”
I laughed and said, “You’d be surprised, young man. You’d be surprised.”