I'm a secondary English teacher in a co-ed state school in a north-western suburb of Melbourne, Australia.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Teaching 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Again. And again...
I was slumped at my front desk during period 4, the last period of the day. My laptop was plugged into the data projector, blinds were drawn, the room was dark; a tad warm. My year 10s were watching – their third viewing – The Shawshank Redemption,the story of a banker, Andy DuFresne, wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to serve two life terms in the fictitious Shawshank Prison. During the students' first viewing they just watch; the second is stop/start and includes commentary from me and discussion. They concurrently complete written tasks to develop their understanding of plot, characters, themes and cinematography. The usual. You know the drill if you’re an English teacher teaching a film text
It was about 2.50 pm; 25 minutes until the final bell. I closed my eyes briefly and did that slight drift into sleep from which I awoke with a start. Don't think anyone saw, given the dark. (Have never actually fallen asleep in class but I need to watch myself.) To engage my mind and see if I could prevent the barely stifled yawning, I started writing. (Think I've already mentioned elsewhere that this is a great tip for staying awake during a boring meeting.)
I calculated that given I’ve taught year 10 for at least ten years at my current school, that’s at least thirty viewings of Shawshank. Add to that an extra fifteen viewings for the years I’ve taught two year 10 classes. Forty-five viewings. Plus the initial couple of viewings when I prepared my lessons. Consequently, I can just about recite every line.
We don’t mix it up much in English in these days of the ‘guaranteed viable curriculum’. No variety permitted. Seems there’s too much team planning incurred if we choose another film.
But never mind that. I love Shawshank. It’s an engaging, uplifting story with plausible characters and a terrific plot. It was written by Stephen King and effectively rendered for the screen by Frank Darabont. With its important themes of justice and the prison system and whether it rehabilitates it is perfect for our year 10s. It also addresses the idea of hope, of having an inner life and the importance of education and a sense of purpose.
But what really gets to me is that notion of people becoming institutionalised, being so enmeshed within a system that they can't function beyond it. Red, the narrator of the film, in a dialogue with Andy DuFresne, the main character, wonders where the last thirty years of his life has gone while he’s served time in Shawshank Prison. I watch the film, with this current generation of students, and wonder the same thing about the years - 35 - I've served in education.
Brooks Hadley, another significant character, paroled after 50 or so years in Shawshank, can't cope with the outside world. "He's an institutional man," says Red, explaining how the walls of Shawshank have a curious effect. At first you hate them and then you get used to them. On the inside Brooks is an important man, an educated man, the custodian of the library. On the outside, as an ex-con, he probably can't even get a library card. ( I said I could recite it but I paraphrased because I'm not quite sure.)
A student stayed back at the end of that class where I nearly fell asleep. He asked me to explain again what it meant to be institutionalised. While I was explaining about Brooks, again it struck me how I am also institutionalised. I've always been either a student or a teacher. At 59 - yeah, I know - I'm struggling to imagine myself retired. Sad, perhaps, but I feel I am very little without my profession. I'm totally used to running to bells and whistles.
The irony of teaching Shawshank again and again is that it has become part of the institution of our school. While our school is devoutly embracing the latest educational research it seems some of us are making safe reliable choices for which there is already a scheme of work and resources.
Another irony. when we first taught Shawshank we were concerned about its profane language, its brutality and its references to male rape. Today's kids seem almost inured to that kind of thing. They know it all. They've seen all the horrors of the real world on the internet. To think that fifteen years back we were so concerned about MSN messenger and kids creating MySpace profiles..
Final irony. Teaching Shawshank has become part of my own institutionalisation.