I refuse to pay for cable TV, which means that I use a simple antenna to get whatever programming flows into the evening. The other night I was wading through the TV wasteland when I came across an old movie I had seen multiple times before. It’s titled Meatballs. It was one of those commercial vehicles that made money for Bill Murray in his younger days. It was much as I remembered it, though there was more sexual harassment and vulgar comedy than I recalled. The big inspirational speech Murray gave at one point was vintage fun, and just as stirring as it was way-back-when.
The film itself did not have much of a story. It was simple-minded, superficial, juvenile–perfectly tuned to the audience it intended to entrap. I wonder now if Murray looks back on some of those scenes (and the ideas behind them) and cringes a little. Maybe that’s why he and Harold Ramis made one of my favorites of his movies, Groundhog Day.
Those of you who do not like that movie can stop reading if you like. I have to say, if you don’t get the humor and ultimate wisdom of that movie, you may have a very frustrating life. Still–unwilling to read about Groundhog Day? Go read about popcorn balls.
Groundhog Day takes a ridiculous construct of a man having to re-live the same day over and over until he gets it right. Superficially it may seem repetitive, but that is central to the story. It is the story of “learning your lesson” by being locked up with your own superior mind. The idea is you have to keep being taught the lesson until YOU GET IT! See, that’s one of the things we all have to face, and as a classroom teacher I face it several different ways. First, I face it with my own shortcomings as a learner.
When I started teaching, about three times a week I would spend a half-an-hour and a good deal of my calm searching for my keys. This is one of those simple lessons that MUST be learned or you WILL relive it regularly. Pattern your behavior, and restrict your keys to very specific locations. When I started teaching at the military school I had to learn the same stupid lesson concerning the stupid hat I was required to wear with the uniform. How is it possible I didn’t learn this thoroughly the first time I encountered it? Because, as Vonnegut says, “Humans are lot dumber and meaner than they think.” My superior mind eventually does function. It has its off days, but often it solves problems quickly, and for that I’m supremely grateful.
With my students, repeating the lessons insures my continued employment. (Not really. It’s just that some people NEVER SEEM TO LEARN!) I had a student who never put quotation marks on the titles of short works he referenced. Over and over I would add the quotations marks. Finally, I stopped him one day in class and said, “Why don’t you fix that?” He explained he thought those marks were little smiley faces. I wanted to choke him. I didn’t. I just wanted to.
In the movie Meatballs, Murray’s character befriends a lonely boy and helps him to be successful, accepted and admired. It only takes a few vulgar jokes, some blackjack with peanut stakes, and early morning jogging. It works. Everything works in the end. In Groundhog Day Murray’s character indulges in all sorts of self-pity, excess, conquest, and navel gazing, but he learns lessons. Finally he tries to save a doomed man, and no matter how hard he tries, the old fellow still dies. It’s heartbreaking. It turns out that sometimes meaning well isn’t enough. Trying hard isn’t enough. Love and concern is not enough. People suffer. People fail. People die.
Why? (Stony superior silence gazes back.)
Fine. Have some faith. Do what you can. Fart around and find your bliss, and f— ’em if they can’t take a joke.
There are problems with owning a superior mind that learns lessons and eventually faces the abyss. One is that you recognize when other people haven’t learned their lessons. You watch friends and neighbors go through the world, stumbling over the same exact rough spot in the concrete, over and over and over. Maybe you try and save them. Sometimes you do save them. But, only sometimes.