June 29, 2011
Watching the misanthropic comedy Bad Teacher, I was reminded of how my late father-in-law, who supplemented his careers as a tuba player and union boss with a day job in the Chicago public schools as the world’s most cynical substitute teacher, liked to tell this old joke:
“I can’t get a date, Doc,” the new patient griped to his psychiatrist. “See, I sweep up the circus elephants’ droppings and can never wash the stench off me.”
“Perhaps you should get a different job.”
“What, and quit show business?”
The second least glamorous job in showbiz is teaching schoolchildren. It’s standup comedy for the risk-averse. The government employs truant officers to make sure you have an audience, and they can’t fire you if you’re not funny.
For years, resentment of teachers has been mounting. Public-school teachers have health insurance and pensions, but they still can’t get American students to outscore Koreans. If only they’d work harder!
Idealistic young teachers willingly sweat for their students, but once they have kids of their own, their priorities change. Hence, the most common solution that societies have come up with to get their educators—such as Jesuits, nuns, and Eton schoolmasters—to care passionately about other people’s children has been celibacy. (Of course, celibate teachers sometimes wind up caring a little too passionately for their charges.)
The conventional wisdom in America is moving toward informally demanding celibacy of teachers. In 2007’s Freedom Writers, heroic Hilary Swank divorces Patrick Dempsey when he suggests that maybe she should come home from school before he falls asleep so they could someday have a baby.
Yet from the Hollywood perspective of screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (is that a real name?), teaching sounds like a gig for losers. Compared to the starlets they know, most teachers appear underpaid and undersexed.
Thus, they anticipated how shocking and titillating today’s audience would find Bad Teacher’s high concept: Cameron Diaz plays a lazy gold-digging teacher in stiletto heels.
Their intuition proved accurate: Despite a budget of only $19 million and angry reviews from offended critics, Bad Teacher enjoyed a $32-million opening weekend.