When I first turned on Netflix’s new mockumentary, I wasn’t expecting a profound lesson in teaching to be learned. I wasn’t expecting the very real and important points the show brought up, or the meaningful dialogue the characters engaged in. I expected what I assume most people expected. Dick jokes. A fun and light-hearted poke at the true-crime genre which has dominated most people’s watch list these last few years. I got that and a whole lot more.
Now, I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum (but beware – spoilers ahead if you continue).
If you’re like me, you enjoy the discovery of each new tidbit of information as it’s given during the course of the episode, not from a summary you read online. After all, the source is always better shot, acted, and written. But to give you a very brief overview of the plot, this mockumentary follows the aftermath of a prank gone awry wherein 27 high school teachers’ cars are spray painted with penises. Yes, you read that right, penises. Dylan Maxwell, the stereotypical under achieving trouble maker of the senior class, is the unlucky kid who gets expelled for the prank. Aspiring sophomore documentarian Peter Maldonado decides to investigate the crime along with the help of his friend Sam Ecklund. The documentary takes multiple twists and turns, questioning students and faculty alike, and leaves you wondering who actually committed the act of vandalism.
I realize at this point, you might be asking “Okay, but penises? That’s the premise? Why would I want to watch a show about penises?” and if you’re like me teaching in a high school setting you might also be adding on “I see enough bad penis drawings in a day. I don’t need to see more on my off time.” Unless you’ve got a certain kind of sense of humor (like we do in the art department…)
…the idea of 27 faculty cars getting vandalized with giant, red, crudely drawn penises might not be your cup of tea. (If you’re like Ms. L and I above, then maybe the word “penis” was enough to sell you on the series in which case – awesome. Glad to know there are a few more teachers who enjoy high school humor too.) However, I will plead with you to overlook its first impression and dig into the nitty-gritty discourse of the show because it’s an important one. Let me explain why.
When the show opens up and introduces us to its main protagonist and star, Dylan Maxwell, it becomes abundantly clear why he’s immediately pegged as the culprit of the crime. As I stated before, he’s painted as the underachiever, the class clown, the distraction; that kid who just won’t shut up or sit down or stop drawing dicks on everything he sees. A majority of the show only reinforces this idea of his character as we watch him play mean-spirited pranks, partaking in illegal activities such as underage drinking and smoking pot, and doing the least amount of work during his half a day job picking up orders for customers and dropping them off. Yet the show does do a good job of also endearing viewers to this character. We see him struggle with being expelled from school and realize the loneliness of being stuck in a house with nothing to do and nowhere to go while all his friends continue with their senior year. We see him do sweet little things for his best friends, the Way Back Boys, and his girlfriend Mack. We see the love he has for his mother and the respect he has for his step-father. The show does a great job of showing us there is more to this character than what his reputation implies.
Then there’s Peter who at first seems to start off as an unbiased narrator navigating a fairly complex series of events that lead to the vandalism and subsequent expulsion of Dylan Maxwell. Yet as the series continues, we find out a bit about Peter and his friend Sam; two sophomores who are rather isolated from the bulk of students at their high school, only really hanging out with a select few people but still feeling removed from the culture they’re a part of. Sam is smart and friendly but enjoys joking around and due to being about 15, hasn’t quite figured out how to navigate certain social situations. Peter is even more awkward, content to be behind the camera and because of having little social interaction with people outside of his peer group, has a hard time relating to and talking to other people.
There are of course more character archetypes. There’s the faculty: the favorite, kind and sweet but hard when she needs to be a Spanish teacher who “revitalized” the school with her arrival but makes harsh judgments on students she deems “problems”. The well-liked, very handsome gym teacher who uses his position and status as teacher of the year to get things he wants. The “I just want to be liked” history teacher who doesn’t quiet understand boundaries and probably should have never been a teacher in the first place. The Vice Principal who maybe relies too much on taking things away from students rather than actually interacting with students. Then there are the other students: the one kid who lies or over-exaggerates facts in hopes that he’ll be liked and popular. The girl who is known for being not only gorgeous but also a bit too friendly. The class president/activist who enjoys being involved and engaged in different causes. The kid who tanks her academic career due to the aftermath of her parent’s divorce.
A lot of these archetypes are based on common factors that exist within our own classrooms and schools. We’ve shared our hallways with a few of those faculty members. We’ve shared our rooms with these types of students on a regular basis. Each one of us has had the overachiever, that one student that has to get everything right and do everything well. We’ve each known a child who maybe stretched the truth a bit just to be well-liked. We’ve all known the introverted kid who sits quietly at their desk or table, only opening up around a select few. We’ve also all experienced what I’ve dubbed the “fun child”, the one who resembles Dylan.
It isn’t really until the last episode of the series that the point of it is laid out so neatly for viewers to consume and understand. Throughout its course, we come to understand that the focus of the show isn’t how the system is rigged against students like Dylan- though that’s what the premise is first presented as in the first episode. It is instead a reminder that how we treat students impacts them in ways we may not always realize. Like Dylan who eventually succumbs to the vandal label because that’s what everyone thinks of him anyways so it must be true. Or Peter who is in some ways so desperate to be seen and heard that in investigating the case he spreads information that damages the reputations of fellow students despite being overall unrelated to the case. There are more examples of this important message throughout the series though they may not jump out at you during the first go-round.
Not only is this mockumentary well shot, acted, and written, but it also brings home the hard truth of just how very impactful our jobs as teachers are. Not only because we’re imparting knowledge, skills, practices, and strategies that relate to our content areas but we also teach students how to be caring and empathetic human beings. In regards to Dylan Maxwell, if even just one teacher hadn’t relegated him to the “problem box” and had instead taken the time to figure out why he acted the way he did or formed different strategies to help him focus and succeed, then maybe he wouldn’t have ended up becoming the very thing he was accused of being in the first place.
I realize this is a LOT of pressure to put on a teacher and goodness knows I don’t always do this. Like the show’s Mrs. Shapiro, I too have put students in the “problem box” and metaphorically washed my hands of them because “there’s only so much I can do.” I know I’ve had days where I’ve gritted my teeth and asked the universe “hey- you couldn’t have given me one day off from this child this week?” And oftentimes with these same students, it feels like what is the point if they won’t even meet me halfway?
I also realize there is the fact that at some point these students have to take accountability for their own actions despite what people are doing around them. Yet we cannot deny that our actions and words impact the decisions of others. If these same students, like Dylan, are put in the “problem box” before ever being given the chance to discover who they are outside of their stereotype, is it any wonder why so many end up becoming that stereotype?
This show is a great reminder to take the time to get to know students like Dylan, or Peter, and find out who they are behind the persona they act in front of their peers and teachers. Find those endearing qualities and try to celebrate them, especially on those hard days (where you find crudely and inaccurately drawn penises everywhere) in hopes that maybe those students will remember that you saw them as someone other than the distraction, the underachiever, the activist, the exaggerator, or the invisible/quiet one. Maybe your simple act of seeing, of hearing, of allowing them to discover will be enough for them to keep trying to find themselves instead of succumbing to the labels society has given them.