Educational Television

The Big Moment in the early episodes of the Fox Network's Boston Public comes at a school board meeting called by the superintendent--an enemy of Winslow High School's tough-love overseer, Principal Harper--to address the principal's handling of a teacher who brandished a gun in his classroom, a soccer team that tried to download test answers and then persecuted a potential "rat" by hanging him upside down outside a classroom, a social studies teacher who allowed a discussion of Native-American cannibalism, a bully who broke open another kid's head, and a fed-up teacher who abandoned her class with a blackboard note that read, "Gone to kill myself. Hope you're happy!"

Actually, thanks to Boston Public's pile-it-on strategy, you get several Big Moments for the price of one. After the school board chair and the super-intendent attack the principal, the teacher who left the blackboard suicide note, Ms. Hendricks, stands up to confront the "stuck-up intellectual superintendent Frappuccino bitch" and makes a long speech about how she has to go "day after day after damn day and try to break through to a bunch of kids who don't want to listen, don't want to learn, don't want to give me the decency of being quiet." Ms. Hendricks adds, "You show me a teacher who doesn't almost lose his or her mind sometimes, and I'll show you a teacher who's not trying." Then she upbraids the parents for leaving the parenting to the teachers.

Next, Principal Harper stands up and offers a paean to his faculty: "Those people over there, they're teachers. It's in their hearts. And when a school is lucky enough to get people like that, you don't let go." He offers to fall on his sword. "You want to get rid of me, do it," he says. "But don't you be touching them." And then the vice principal stands up and declares that if the principal goes, so does he; one by one, the Winslow High teachers stand up and announce the same. In the next scene, the calm after the storm, Principal Harper stops by Ms. Hendricks's classroom. "Is there anything more magical than a classroom?" the teacher asks without irony.

High school teaching is, no question, a noble and pretty thankless profession. And Boston Public--created and produced by overachiever David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal; The Practice), and one of the few success stories in this year's dreadful crop of new television shows--offers a fat, heartfelt thank-you to urban high school teachers and administrators that's even bigger than Disney's faux-glamorous American Teacher Awards on cable TV. According to Boston Public, the heroism of teachers derives not so much from their skills (very few of which are illustrated on the show) as from the crap they take in order to do their jobs (which is illustrated in nearly every scene). Parents pressure teachers to set grades aside in order to let a son play football (his ticket to college) or to set the honor code aside in order to get a son a coveted award (his ticket to Harvard). And then there's the low salary and long hours, the political pressure from superintendents and school boards, and the constant worry about lawsuits.

But most of all, it's the undisciplined, contemptuous, defiant students who make teaching hellish and therefore noble. "They're animals," suggests Ms. Hendricks. "You get no respect from them unless they fear you or think you're crazy," says Mr. Senate, the teacher who demonstrated his point by firing a gun in his classroom. Indeed, every episode features out-of-control children driving adults somewhat nuts. In addition to the bullies and the cheaters, there is the girl who goes braless and the many others who join her in solidarity, the student who publishes humiliating animations of the teachers on her Web site and then sues the school for censoring her, the girl who slips ecstasy into a teacher's coffee, and the one who gives her opponent a blow job so he'll drop out of a student council race. And there is the boy who spits on a teacher, the boys' "sex posse" that totes up points for each sex act completed, the boy who bites off a chunk of another boy's ear, the boy who launches a breast implant down the hall, and the one who is suspected of murder and holds a teacher hostage.

Plainly, Boston Public wants to say something critical about the state of urban education, and it does take up some of the ways in which schools have changed since Karen Valentine cuted her way through Room 222 and John Travolta cooled his through Welcome Back, Kotter. Much is made of the tensions among white and black students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Even more interesting, the show occasionally considers the complexity of a situation in which the adult urban-educational leadership is largely black and the resulting tensions are among African-American students, parents, teachers, and administrators over their responsibilities to one another. In the big Ms. Hendricks moment, for example, all three central players--the teacher, the superintendent, and the principal--are African Americans. Today's reversed power relations also are on display, as students take advantage of the ways teachers' hands are tied by lawsuits, district politics, and low status. The sexual tensions between teachers and students are a source of much drama as well, and here and there the show hints at the weird eroticism that infuses authority relations.

But for the most part, Boston Public relies on a string of clich├ęd characters and familiar hot-button confrontations over freedom of speech, accusations of racism and homophobia, and teen suicide--with romantic relationships and Kelley-patented quirky fare (like the rebellion of the braless) thrown in for good measure. Students are bored, aggressive, rebellious, and horny; parents are simply strident or pushy or faces in an angry mob. Although they appear to come in a wider variety, the teachers also borrow heavily from stereotypes. In addition to the strict-but-tender Principal Harper and the tell-it-like-it-is, big-voiced Ms. Hendricks, you've got your goodie-goodie young white Ms. Davis, your geek-who-gets-the-girl Mr. Bottle, your uptight white Vice Principal Guber, and your funny-sad old Jew Mr. Lipschultz, a borscht belt throwback who doesn't get the students at all, says things like "that's because you're black and I'm a Jew," and even sings "If I Were a Rich Man" at a school charity event. Some of the cast, like Chi McBride as Principal Harper and Anthony Heald as Vice Principal Guber, find subtlety in their characters; others, like Loretta Devine as Ms. Hendricks and Fyvush Finkel as Mr. Lipschultz, play to the cheap seats. But they are all from central casting.

What is interesting about this show has nothing to do with inventiveness or critical perspective--both of which are sacrificed, not surprisingly, in the name of entertainment. Rather, it is the fact that such a formulaic version of high school can seem extraordinary on television right now. In a field dominated by shows about white, mostly suburban teenagers--descendants of Beverly Hills 90210 such as the very popular Dawson's Creek--Boston Public stands out by featuring a racially diverse population in an urban setting. In a field that courts a teenage demographic by showing life, including school, from the teenagers' point of view (even the smarter teen shows, such as the short-lived My So-Called Life, have followed this strategy), the show stands out by taking the perspective of adult educators. That such unmomentous twists can grant a show distinction suggests how little of the American educational system is represented on television. Given all the political rhetoric about what's wrong with schools, and the political wrangling over what to do about it, this is an especially striking, pathetic absence.

Boston Public fills the void with screechy melodrama--even Kelley's unpredictable elements are becoming predictable. And while its swollen heart, like those of its teachers, is in the right place, its brain, like those of its students, is underutilized. Indeed, in its dedication to portraying the real indignities that teachers often suffer and the real virtues they often embody, the show uses its students as foils. In doing that, Boston Public ultimately reproduces the most disturbing, lazy, and unconvincing assumption about city kids--an assumption already circulating widely and virtually unopposed: that they are not much more than wild things. ?

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