Monday, November 4, 2019

Joker Through the Lens of Education

Keaton as Batman confronting Nicholson's Joker (1989)
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Ever since I was a little kid, I have always loved Batman.  I was 8 years old when Michael Keaton graced the big screen as Batman, with Jack Nicholson as an amazing Joker.  And who could forget the stellar soundtrack by Danny Elfman and multiple masterpieces from Prince (to this day, Batdance and Trust are two of my favorite Prince tracks)?  And while the origin story for Batman is relatively common knowledge, with a young Bruce Wayne growing up to avenge the murder of his parents as the Dark Knight, the story behind the Joker isn't as well known.  So to say that I was excited when a Joker origin story movie was going to be released is an understatement.  What I didn't realize though was how watching Joaquin Phoenix play this iconic character would make so many connections to my career as an educator.  

Disclaimer: A recent episode of The Soundtrack Show covered Danny Elfman and his roots before becoming the acclaimed film score composer that he is today before another episode that covered his music in Batman.  Check them out wherever you get your podcasts.  And while I will do my best not to provide any spoilers of Joker, I will be making references to events in the film, so if you have not seen it yet, this is your warning!  

Arthur helping his sick mother, Penny
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Arthur Fleck, Phoenix's character that eventually morphs into and becomes the Joker, conjured up multiple potential images of students that we see every day.  As the story about Arthur unfolds, many factors that explain his eccentric behavior, odd mannerisms, and melancholic demeanor are revealed.  And we would be remiss to dismiss the physical and verbal abuse that Arthur suffers as a result of his perceived "freak" or "weirdo" existence.  On top of all of this, Arthur, as a nearly middle-aged man, still lives with his mother, who he as a loving and devoted son, takes care of, as she is in poor health. 

Trying to make a living as a clown advertising a going out of business sale, Arthur is accosted by a group of teenagers who mock him, take his sign and run away through the busy streets of Gotham.  Arthur gives chase, eventually catching up to the teenagers in an alley where they break the sign over his head and savagely beat him before running away and leaving Arthur to fend for himself.  The beating is so severe that Arthur is convinced by a colleague that he should start carrying a weapon to protect himself, a choice that eventually costs Arthur his job when the gun falls out while he is performing at a children's hospital. 

While this kind of bullying is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, there are still students that are bullied to the point that they see no other way out than to protect themselves.  Often times, these are the students, like Arthur, that are the "outcasts" that don't have a circle of friends and are susceptible to severe bullying.  Arthur had no intention of ever using the weapon, it was just meant as a means to protect his ability to make a living.  That is, until his encounter with three more bullies on the subway shortly after losing his job for the incident at the hospital.  Many students are just like this, never intending harm by carrying a weapon, but are suspended/expelled for possession of a weapon (and zero tolerance laws regarding weapons are something that makes my blood boil, I'll save my wrath here), or worse, they end up using the weapon when the bullying becomes too much. 

Phoenix fully evolved from Arthur Fleck to the Joker
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Several times throughout the film, the scene cuts to Arthur sitting in the office of a social worker.  While the worker attempts to get Arthur to talk about his feelings and struggles, Arthur doesn't reveal much and asks about his medications that he gets through the city office.  Eventually, the social worker reveals that the city has cut her office's funding and that she and Arthur will no longer be able to have their weekly chats and that he will not be able to get his medicine.  It's no surprise that from this point forward, Arthur spirals further away from stability and commits some horrific crimes. 

I am fortunate to work at a school that has six counselors and a team of four safe school professionals.  Students at my school have several people that they can turn to, on top of the caring staff of teachers, if they have concerns, are feeling bullied, or if they have suicidal thoughts.  Unfortunately, like Arthur's situation in the movie, many schools and communities do not have the resources to assist students.  But diagnoses of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many other instances of mental illness are becoming more common.  If students are unable to access counselors or social workers at school, issues with mental illness can become worse.  And these same students often do not have healthcare coverage in which to access services outside of school either. 

And how did Arthur come to have these issues in the first place?  Initially, you are led to believe that it is because he grew up without a father, then finding out that his father is Thomas Wayne who in order to protect his reputation as a Gotham City billionaire, has been ignoring his mother's pleas for years for help. However, it is revealed that Arthur was in fact adopted by his mother, and was then abused by his mother's boyfriend for years before she was eventually committed to a mental hospital.  It's no wonder that Arthur struggled as an adult with such a terrible upbringing. 

Many of our students come to school from similar situations.  They come from single-parent homes that are struggling to make ends meet.  They come from homes with abusive parent figures.  Some have parents that are in prison.  And while not all students that come from tough homes have a tough time at school and in life, these situations certainly do not help children to thrive. 

Be your students Batman!
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If Todd Phillips, director and co-writer of Joker, was looking to produce a film that was a political and social commentary, he hit the nail on the head.  As educators, we see so many Arthur Flecks in our classes on a daily basis.  Through our hard work, our compassion, our empathy, and our awareness, we will reach more Arthurs and steer them toward a life of success, not a life of the Joker where his childhood, his mental illness, and the constant bullying eventually lead him to become a cold-blooded criminal that terrorizes Gotham City.  And while it is unfair to say that students that come from a similar background are going to become criminals, I would feel better knowing that I have done all that I can for my students instead of risking it. 

Until next time... 

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