So I watch this show, Once Upon a Time. It’s a very popular show, and I enjoy most of the episodes, though the other week they definitely lost me with their high-end-Halloween-store fairy costumes and cantankerous dwarves (Fred from Angel, what’s happened to you?!) Anyway, last week I was watching when something hit me: Mary Margaret/Snow White is the mortal enemy of the Wicked Queen, right? This same queen’s the one who sent all the fairyland folks into exile in Storybrooke. And so everyone from the fairytale world has a new reality, one that in some way reflects their former situation. Jiminy Cricket was a sort of insecty-conscience dude, and now he’s a shrink, for example. But not Snow White. She was sort of an arrow-shooting, knife-wielding princess chick before. It seems clear that because her new situation doesn’t reflect her old life, that Regina designed hers as a punishment. And what job did she get? Teacher.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to notice this. For one, Snow’s ass-kicking past was revealed over the course of several episodes, so might not have noticed right away that Snow’s new life was probably part of some sort of curse from the queen.
Why am I upset about this? I am a teacher (and some days it does feel like a curse) but it’s also a calling. As I’ve told several generations of students, we are not in it for the fabulous compensation package, the glamorous lunches in brown bags (eaten while grading papers most of the time—those of us who are lucky enough not to have lunch duty). So after making a certain amount of if not sacrifice, then certainly adjustment in my life to answer this call, it does bug me when so much of what I hear and see about teachers when I turn on the escapefromrealitydevice/television is so…bad.
Of course the vast majority of teachers who make it into the news are accused or guilty of something terrible, and that’s upsetting enough. But news aside, because let’s face it, when a teacher of children does something despicable, it is going to be (and should be) on the news. But the part that really gets me, because I’m not only a teacher but also a fiction writer, is the way we show up in stories.
So we have the cursed Mary Margaret, serving out her life sentence on Once. Where else have teachers appeared on recent shows I watch? I watch Ringer (because Buffy’s in it, come on!) The Sarah Michelle Gellar character’s stepdaughter had a teacher who was recently featured in the show. At first he seemed like a great guy, concerned about his students. But he was actually working for the girl’s mother, involved in a really atrocious sex-scandal scheme and out to make a few million dollars. Not a great role model. (Made all the more heartbreaking because the character was played by Jason Dohring from Veronica Mars). Then we have Gossip Girl, where kids magically managed to attend only one year of college, so obvi education is not really a priority over in the 212. But back before they jumped the shark, Dan had a torrid affair (in the costume closet AT THE SCHOOL) with his teacher. Ick.
The only show I currently watch with a teacher as a main character is The New Girl. And I really do love and adore this show. But I’m not too sure I’m a hundred percent in love with Jess as a teacher. It seems like making her a schoolteacher might have been a conscious choice by the creator/writers to give Jess a nurturing but essentially innocuous profession. I read an article in EW recently about backlash against the show, and Jess’s overly “girly” manner of dress and speech. The show’s creator, Liz Meriwether, created an episode of the show meant to answer those who thought Jess’s girly adorkablity was anti-feminist. The character Meriwether designed to go head-to-head with Jess? A lawyer. A “serious” girl wearing a suit. Jess defended her love of polka dots and whimsy, and we were definitely meant to side with her, but I’m still a little bugged. The opposite of a teacher is not a lawyer. We’re both professionals. It’s true, many teachers don’t wear suits. But many of us have advanced degrees, put in the (very) long hours, and take our work very seriously. The difference is, I don’t think the girls who grow up to be lawyers ever have to hear that most heartbreaking of phrases: She’s just a lawyer. I’ve heard just a teacher (I’ve even thought it... maybe even said it myself in a weak moment.) I think many of us have soaked up the cultural ethos that makes this idea okay.
The teachers in YA books are often absent, along with the parents. There are of course some bad ones in the mix there as well. The teacher who receives a tape in Thirteen Reasons Why, for example, is a pretty terrible person. But I think his character might at least serve a purpose. All adults need to keep in mind that kids are fragile and the things we say or don’t say to them matter.
The things we say—and write—do matter. So as I continue work on my next YA I’m going to make a conscious effort to write in a teacher who is not only present but admirable in some way. There has to be room for a few of those. After all, fiction reflects life, right? And in my career I’ve worked with some amazing people who also happen to be teachers.