During my A-Levels, from the ages of 16-18, I would decide to take the module of Film Studies alongside two English modules. As a result I spent my entire two years studying in the English department where I was introduced to some of the best teachers I’ve ever had, alongside some of the absolute worst. And since the good – and indeed the best – teacher I had was one of the English Literature bunch, that means this post will be a look at not just one of the worst teachers I’ve ever had, but one of the most curious and bizarre ones, who taught me during my first year on the Film Studies module.
Film Studies itself was a dead subject. Out of the couple hundred people studying in the building, there were only six or seven of us on the module. It was both a blessing and a curse since classes seemed to be incredibly laid back, but I also didn’t really know anyone there. Or rather I did – I had gone through high school with at least five of the people there – but we weren’t friends as we all originated from different social groups. It seems stupid to say as an adult, but when you’re a teenager that stuff kind of matters because we put some arbitrary importance on who you crack jokes with in your downtime.
It was also a dead subject because nobody took Film Studies seriously. Most people viewed it as a joke, mocking anyone who could possibly fail it and even trying to argue that taking it would actually be a detriment to your future education and work life. Indeed, A-Level was where I first got introduced to how pretensions teenagers could be. And while there was a true point at the core of their argument – that being that Film Studies was super easy in comparison to other modules offered, such as physics, maths or history, many of these people were also studying not so dissimilar subjects like English Language or Literature. I mean Film Studies is just English Literature for films rather than books, and while the subject matter for English Language differed a lot from that of Film Studies, the manner in which it was taught was semi-identical as it all came out of the same department.
But as I alluded to before, there were some staff better suited to this way of teaching than others, and I think a part of why Film Studies wasn’t taken as seriously was because of this one notorious teacher who found herself guiding us through the module…
Mrs Klein (not her real name) was the type of teacher I always found insufferable as a teenager; the type that always wanted to be friends with the students and have some joke-cracking banter throughout the class. The reason I specifically didn’t like these types of teachers was because of how self indulgent they could often be – Going on at painful lengths about their escapades outside of school to get a laugh out of a bunch of kids who (lets face it) would laugh at anything, and happily exploit their openness to get through class while completing as little work as possible. I guess you could call me a nerd, but I liked straight-talking teachers who told you to do some work and left you to it. If you didn’t do it then I guess it’s your loss on the exams. And if you did, it was at that point (and only that point) the teacher would try to be relatable to you.
As an example I had this English Language teacher who did just that – assigned us work during class and let it be up to us whether we wanted to put the time into it or not. The only real thing she ever cracked down on was additional reading and homework that needed doing. Anything not done in class, she always said, could always be completed before the next lesson. I eventually wound up doing some mandatory extra curricular work in her classroom with younger pupils. I was supposed to be like a TA, assisting the kids with their learning. But this teacher straight up told me I could sit quietly at the back of the room and do any reading or work for my modules if I needed the time to catch up. I don’t know whether she could sense how awkward I felt trying to help the kids, or if she thought it was a waste of time for me to be there when I could be studying, but it was her proposal rather than mine. At the end of every session she would take my time sheet and sign it so that, as far as anyone else was concerned, I was doing a damn good job as a TA.
This type of teacher wasn’t Mrs Klein. Whereas this other clearly had her own mindset and values that she put in place and treated her students with, Mrs Klein was more focussed on the values of us sixteen year olds (which ranged from videogames to masturbation, probably) and somehow appealing to them.
On the face of it, that doesn’t make Mrs Klein a bad teacher. It just makes her emotionally needy at best. Other teachers did this too after all, so it’s not that specific behaviour that warrants me singling her out. After all, if she was still getting us the information we needed to pass exams then you could just write her off as an out of touch lady desperately trying to get in with the kids. But there was more to it than that. The type of stuff she would talk about was contextually inappropriate at best and grossly disturbing at worst.
While other teachers of her type would go on rants about their wacky student life or whatever, Mrs Klein was much more interested in telling us about her toxic and abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Everyday we’d hear a tale of woe about how helplessly trapped she felt by that man and it built, and built, and built until the day she implied to us she was struck by him. All of this being past tense, by the way, and not a relationship she was in while teaching us.
I also have reason to believe she was sexually assaulted by him or someone else for no other reason than because she had an uncomfortable fascination on the topic of rape. The first film she made us watch for the module was Clockwork Orange, wherein she’d often skip a lot of the story to get to scenes of sex or sexual assault. We saw these scenes multiple times across multiple sessions, always being told that we could raise our hands if we got uncomfortable with it but no one ever did.
She also had a suspicious interest in the differences between how the male and female students reacted to these graphic scenes. In one instance she told us that we were going to watch a near 15 minute rape scene from I Spit On Your Grave so that she could “watch the boys faces, because she already knew how the girls would react”. And this was no dark, inappropriate joke. She admitted to having done the same to a group of students she taught on the module during the previous academic year. It was when she said that, that I decided to grow some balls and tell her I felt uncomfortable watching the film. What also influenced my decision was that I had recently befriended someone in the Sixth Form who I had learned was a victim of abuse herself, and who was disgusted when I told her what Mrs Klein was doing. I told Mrs Klein on the day we were supposed to view it, so she had no alternate lesson planned and I remember the rest of it being kind of awkward. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s one of those moments where I find myself thinking that if I could go back in time, I’d stick to her for being such a loony creep.
Word started to get around. I was telling my friends all the weird shit this lady was saying, and the other students must have been doing so too as the head of sixth form did eventually tell us that Mrs Klein had been told to reel it in. After that the obsession with sexual tones died almost completely. We were now watching films like The Visit and The Blair Witch Project. In fact, this also weirded me out because those films were already in her closet inside the classroom, so it’s not as though those previously graphic movies were all she had to show us. And beyond that, would you believe, I can’t recall Clockwork Orange or I Spit on Your Grave appearing even once in the exam papers, so I have no idea how she was justifying showing us those movies to anyone other than herself.
But yes, I did say almost died.
Mrs Klein prided herself on being a feminist and an advocate for women’s rights. Which, I mean, great. Aren’t we all feminists? I mean anyone who isn’t a misogynist also doesn’t want women to be unequal to men. It might sound as though I’m being a bit passive aggressive towards feminism, but the truth is I feel more that way about how Mrs Klein spoke about it. It was a subject Mrs Klein clung to and frequently used it as a segway into talking about her ex-boyfriend again. When she didn’t, she’d often take up a quarter of the class time or more to preach the many tenants of feminism and examples of inequality in the work place. It started to rub off on some of my classmates, as I noted another teacher addressing them by saying that they’ve been listening to Mrs Klein too much. Her odd desire to spread these beliefs was nothing but a waste of time. We were not in a sociology class. We were not examining feminism as a theme in a film, or in relation to any filmmakers relevant to our module. It was just Mrs Klein telling us that women also have rights. And that was it. There was nothing nuanced about it, or arguments to be made outside of the pay-gap. It was “I think women should have equal rights because women are also people”. I frequently got second hand embarrassment due to the amount of bravado she put into such an uncontroversial statement. She spoke as though she was fighting the system, like she was the bravest woman on the face of the Earth , as though she were slaying dragons, but it was like she wanted to be rewarded for saying something as blatantly obvious as “racism is bad” or “the holocaust kinda sucked, huh?”
I used to think that Mrs Klein wasn’t a bad person and that she just had some pent-up trauma she never was able to express.
But now I realise she was a bad person. She was someone who felt misunderstood and who used her position of power to talk as an authority figure about her belief system to highly impressionable teenagers, in such a away that she was overtly trying to influence our thoughts. She very overtly expressed satisfaction at watching boys be shocked at a rape scene she made them watch – and also told us she was surprised that the boys were equally as shocked at it as the girls, as though she thought boys (because we have penises, I guess) somehow can’t have empathy for a woman in pain. She used her close relationship to the tiny amount of people in the classroom as a therapy session for her messed-up past. And I get it, she went through some bad stuff – very bad stuff. But her expression of it to us, a bunch of kids with zero experience in anything, was perhaps the most morally bankrupt choice I’ve witnessed someone make with my own two eyes. Relaying that kind of sensitive information in a student-teacher relationship is unhealthy for both parties. In my eyes there is no excuse for the way she conducted herself at work. I mean even if she was as fundamentally broken as she unintentionally depicted herself as being, even that would not justify how she acted towards her students.
Mrs Klein lost her job before we entered the second year of Sixth Form. At the time the school was changing management and teachers were dropping left and right, so it’s no surprise she was amongst them. Although I do have suspicion that her behaviour might have played into it, since any mention of her to other members of staff and her replacement after she left was dismissed as quickly as possible. In fact, I noticed students who I had always thought liked her begin to talk about how much of a weirdo she was. I also know that at least one past staff member at the school thought she had some unresolved problems.
But am I wrong in thinking there is something tragic in her story? She was clearly deeply insecure and wanted to use her position to validate herself to no avail. Because the truth is, sad as it may sound, for all the pain she may have wanted to express neither I or anyone else cared to hear about it. We weren’t the right people to talk to and she needed help beyond what our ears could provide. Yet, for all that, I cannot feel even slightly sorry for her, due to her stupidity in thinking any of what she was saying to us was appropriate. We were school kids, many of us with our own problems and dramas, so the last thing any of us needed was to be the shoulder to cry on for someone in a position of authority. So whatever therapy she thought she was getting from us – if any – was utterly false.
Thankfully Film Studies improved greatly after that. Her replacement was one of the heads of the Sixth Form who was not only a much better teacher, but one who didn’t need to be validated by a bunch of kids. We also started watching better films – Fight Club, City of God, It’s a Wonderful Life and American Beauty among them. The number of students on the module increased too. After the first year of sixth form, those who failed in some of the more difficult subjects, like maths or the sciences, were filtered down into Film Studies to, I suspect, secure an easy passing grade. I had a couple of friends join me in the trenches by that point too.
What may surprise you to hear is that, after these changes made by the school in the light of Mrs Klein’s departure, I ended up enjoying Film Studies. Though Mrs Klein will always be the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my time on the module, for all her bravado she has been reduced to some sad throw-away character to me. All that showmanship reduced her to a footnote in my memory, while the much more reserved lady who simply allowed me to study during extra curricular time, and kindly lied about the hours I did on my time sheet, stick out as a notable tutor. It takes less than a second for my mind to discard Mrs Klein, and introduce the time I spent with my friends watching better films on the module than what she had to offer. My school wasn’t perfect, but it did pull off perhaps one of the most perfect saves in recovering that otherwise doomed module.