March 01, 2000 3 min read
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Movie Make-Believe: When it comes to movies about teachers, Hollywood rarely gets it right. The most popular story line is the lone classroom crusader taking on (pick one) the bureaucracy, the burned-out colleagues, the cynical principal, or the troubled students. The latest in this cliché-ridden genre is Music of the Heart, released to mixed reviews last fall. Starring Meryl Streep, the movie tells the true-life story of a Manhattan music teacher who successfully battled the budget-crunchers who killed her innovative program. Naturally, the filmmakers simplified the story to make it more dramatic.

But educator Deborah Meier thinks they went too far. Writing in the February issue of Brill’s Content, Meier, founder of the school—Central Park East 1—where the film takes place, says the movie “alters the historical events it portrays and reinforces some destructive myths about public schools in America.”

Meier should know—in 1980, she hired Roberta Tzavaras (called “Roberta Guaspari” in the film) to run a Suzuki-type music program for 30 to 50 of the school’s students. Yes, she writes, the program was expanded to Central Park East’s sister schools. Yes, district funds used to pay for the program were slashed in a massive budget cut. Yes, a star-studded Carnegie Hall concert was organized to raise money to keep the program going. But, in the film, Central Park East—a legendary alternative school where decisions are made jointly by the entire staff—is portrayed as a typical inner-city public school. It’s shown as “the kind [of school] where one student is killed in a drive-by shooting and another is caught carrying a box-cutter knife,” Meier complains. (Those incidents never occurred.)

Worse, the school’s fictional principal, “with very few allies and with teachers she’d be happy to get rid of (but for tenure), struggles to turn the school around.” The heroic Roberta is contrasted with “a particularly mean and lazy music teacher who, apparently protected only by his tenure, ignored the children’s musical potential in favor of his own rigid teaching style.”

In fact, according to Meier, Central Park East’s real-life music teacher, Barry Solowey, “expertly” taught music to large numbers of children and was “an important factor in the school’s eminence.” Tzavaras, on the other hand, was able to teach only a small number of each school’s students. “In short,” Meier writes, “Roberta was one star among many.” That’s a concept that Hollywood just can’t seem to grasp.

Dirty Talk: Kids are having less sex than they used to, right? Not so, writes Lucinda Franks in a disturbing-and controversial-article in Talk (February).

For “The Sex Lives of Your Children,” Franks interviewed dozens of adolescents, who, speaking anonymously, spared no particulars as they revealed a brave new world of random sexual encounters. According to Franks, “a significant portion of middle- and upper-middle-class adolescents have created a social universe with entirely new rules.” They represent “a new generation that uses sex as play, free from the burdens of intimacy or even warmth.

Kids across the country describe a culture that starts, for the most part, in 7th grade, when random couples begin sneaking behind auditorium stages, into copying rooms, and into girls’ bathroom stalls to experiment with everything from French kissing to fellatio—and they are all the more excited by the possibility of being discovered.”

Many parents are too busy working in high-powered jobs to notice what’s going on, Franks claims. But she also blames schools, particularly middle schools. “After years of moving freely into and out of classrooms, balancing trays of birthday cupcakes, and chaperoning field trips,” Franks writes, “parents find the middle school doors slammed shut. With competition for college admissions looming even earlier, a nurturing environment is replaced by the push for good grades.”

Franks’ article, with its lurid sexual details, is certainly an attention-grabber. But is it solid journalism? At least one commentator doesn’t think so. “It’s not a new story,” writes Amy Benfer in Salon (“Talking Trash”). “It’s more of a threadbare tale guaranteed to satisfy adults who like to publicly bemoan the values of adolescents while privately drooling over the graphically described ‘real life’ activities of underage sex addicts. . . . Basically, it all adds up (conveniently) to a rather cynical excuse to print hardcore porn from the mouths of babes.”

—David Hill


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