e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


freaks and geeks

This term I'm teaching one of my favorite classes, English 327, an advanced writing course for education majors. The class presents a cool opportunity to talk about writing in a variety of contexts including the context of K-12 schools. And while I never teach the class as a methods class, I do try to make assignments flexible enough to encompass concerns and issues related to public education, child development, and the like.

For example, we just read a novel (more or less, a piece of "young-adult lit") called "Twisted," an angsty and interesting narrative about a suburban high school kid who finds himself in a culture of violence, first as a victim of bullying and later, as...well, I don't want to give it away. Read the book. Well worth your time. Students have designed some interesting writing projects connected to the text, some opting for more traditional kinds of textual analysis and others looking at the book critical and popular reception among various audiences.

They've been working pretty hard, so tomorrow we're going to spend half of class watching an episode of "Freaks and Geeks," the canceled-before-its-time show which presents some neat connections to the novel. The show follows two cliques in a circa-1980 suburban Detroit high school: stoners and nerds. Much of the action centers on Lindsay, who decides to leave the world of mathletes and try to become a "freak." I've never seen anything on tv as well-written. The premise sounds "after school special" but always transcends those cliches, opting instead for one relentlessly awkward representation of adolescence after another: the stoner serenading his girlfriend with Styx's "Lady," the peanut allergy that results in an ER visit, gym class scenes, and the geeks watching a stag film.

The show was clearly headed for cancellation and the last few episodes really expand the thin-line-between-stoner-and-nerd theme begun with Lindsay's clique switch. One of the freaks gets caught with dope and has to join A/V as punishment, subsequently realizing how awesome Dungeons and Dragons is. In the series finale, Lindsay blows off academic camp in Ann Arbor and runs away with deadheads for the summer. A perfectly surreal-yet-banal ending to the series. The school's hippy guidance counselor turns her onto the Grateful Dead, loaning her a copy of "American Beauty" he thinks will speak to her angst. It does. I don't even like the Dead very much, but when she puts on "Box of Rain" in her bedroom, it's a moment of transcendence:
Look out any window
any morning, any evening, any day.
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging
rain is falling from a heavy sky
what do you want me to do?
Anyway, great book and great show. And those 327 students have earned half a casual class.

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