I’ve just read two shifting thinking blogposts about Shakespeare, one by Jane and one by Jim, and it’s inspired me to segue to a favourite topic of mine: Television.
From Shakespeare to Television? That’s a bit of a plummet isn’t it, from the heights of Western literary culture, to the morass of mass stupefication?
Not so! At least not the way I’d like to approach it. Here’s what I’m interested in – looking at fictional stories from television (or books, or film) and deconstructing these to examine some ideas about:
- how they represent how schooling/education “is”
- what they say about how we think schooling/education “should be”
- and (if I can find some good examples) what kinds of possible futures they can help us to imagine for schooling, learning, and education.
I’ve chosen my first television show/character to discuss: Loretta West from the utterly brilliant New Zealand TV series Outrageous Fortune. The show is a refreshingly original comedy/drama that is unashamedly grounded in kiwi (or perhaps more accurately, the mythological “Westie” – West Auckland) culture, language, and humour.
When Outrageous Fortune begins (season 1 started in 2005), Loretta is 15 years old and a student at Shadbolt High. The youngest child of Cheryl and Wolfgang West, Loretta has grown up in a family that makes a living on the wrong side of the law – through burglaries, break-ins, car conversions, robberies, and otherwise dodgy deals orchestrated by her father, usually aided and abetted by at least one of her older twin brothers. However, at the beginning of season 1, all this starts to change when Wolf is sentenced to prison for his last “job”, and Cheryl decides to turn the family around and go straight. Cheryl doesn’t receive rousing support or enthusiasm from her offspring. Yet she battles on, doing her best to carry the family through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Naturally, enormously entertaining complications ensue.
Anyway, back to Loretta. What does she have to tell us about schooling, learning, and education? (And where is the connection to Shakespeare?)
During season 1 we learn that Loretta has been frequently truant from school. The reason for this is pretty clear: Loretta finds school boring, pointless, and an utter waste of time. What makes Loretta’s attitude towards school interesting is that she is obviously extremely intelligent. She’s a talented writer, she’s articulate, can speak confidently and argue her opinions. She’s no slacker; she has big goals for herself. Her single-minded goal at age 15 is to become a film-maker, and she’s already working on a screenplay with her teenage friend and fellow video store employee, Kurt.
Yes, Loretta is highly intelligent. However, she is also rather devious .
She discovers the perfect way to avoid her mum finding out that she’s not going to school: blackmail. Several years earlier young Loretta took some incriminating photos of her young female teacher in “compromising” positions with Loretta’s older brother, and now years later is using them to keep her teacher quiet on her truancy. However, through a series of plot twists and turns this plan eventually falls through and Loretta has no choice but to go back to school.
In season 2, Loretta turns 16. This is both the legal school-leaving age in NZ, and the age at which each of her three elder siblings has left Shadbolt High. She is momentarily overjoyed – only to be foiled by her parents’ insistence that she remain at school to develop her full potential. So Loretta tries get herself expelled. But even this backfires, as her parents decide that she will have to attend a private Catholic Girls’ school instead. Finally, in a stroke of genius, Loretta cuts a deal with a young homeless woman of a similar age and appearance. The homeless girl will attend the school as “Loretta West”. In return, she receives a free education, a place to sleep, and payment. This frees the real Loretta to get on with her “real” life – managing her video business, and working towards her first film. As you can imagine, things don’t work out exactly as she planned, but again, I can’t give too much away….
In a truly digital-age convergence of television and the internet, you can read Loretta’s view of school in own words, right here on Loretta’s Blog. (Hint: that’s where you’ll find our first connection to Shakespeare….)
So what can Loretta West of Outrageous Fortune tell us about how schooling is? I know that Loretta is a highly fictionalised character, and many elements of her life have been exaggerated for dramatic and comic effect. But I think there’s something interesting simmering underneath this portrayal of a student’s deep antipathy towards school. In representing secondary school, Outrageous Fortune has played on a stereotype or cliche not uncommon in television or filmic portrayals of school: The disaffected student, who finds teachers boring and uninspiring, doesn’t do what she is told, and eventually goes on to become so disruptive that the school is happy to see the back of her. These kinds of students are rife in the film world – although usually they’re often set up to be saved by a charismatic teacher who “won’t give up on them” even when every other teacher has. Thus re-engaged, the delinquents become stars, show the world not to dismiss them while they’re at it. Think Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2, Take the Lead, etc. These cliches about students “work” partly because they are grounded in truth. Plenty of kids are disengaged by school by the time they reach secondary classrooms. Plenty of kids, like Loretta, have extremely complicated lifeworlds that sit at odds with the culture and practice of the secondary classroom. Plenty of them leave early, as soon as they are legally entitled to, with few or no qualifications. And not all of them are as resourceful and resilient as Loretta West. The question is, do we think this is just “part of life”, “the way things are”, “the way they are always going to be”? Or can we imagine something different?
*The title of this posting is a line from Romeo and Juliet. In case it’s not obvious, this is an homage to the writers of Outrageous Fortune (the television series) who have borrowed both their show’s title, and the titles of each episode, from William Shakepeare.