Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

The Incredible Nerd

Posted: March 20, 2012 by Bill Gauthier in Childhood, Comics, Movies, TV

The television series The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno was woven into the fabric of my childhood. Yet, I realized recently that I had never seen the entirety of the very first episode, the pilot movie. So I called it up on Netflix Instant Streaming and watched it last night. Watching it made me realize what has been wrong with the more recent film versions of the Hulk.

I enjoyed 2003’s Hulk, starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, and directed by Ang Lee quite a bit. I want to get that out of the way because I know many people consider this movie a failure. I don’t. I liked the story, I liked the acting, and I liked the Hulk. He was massive, he emoted, and he was fun to watch. Still, though I liked it a lot, there was still something about that didn’t quite feel right to me.

2008’s The Incredible Hulk is notable only because it’s tying in with this summer’s The Avengers. Tony Stark makes an appearance, there may clues to other Marvel movies, the nerds align and cheer with glee. Except it’s dumb.

The 2003 film is an intelligently crafted movie with a real concept behind it. The 2008 movie is an excuse for a brawl in the streets of a major American city (I’ve forgotten which one, mainly because it doesn’t matter) and to tie into The Avengers. Both are missing something that made the 1977-1981 television series the classic it remains to this day: pathos.

The older I got as I watched the TV show’s reruns, the more David Banner’s plight seemed more important–and more interesting. This is a man who wants to do good, who wants to love, yet keeps losing the people closest to him, first by happenstance, then because of his self-inflicted curse. Bill Bixby’s portrayal of Banner is great. Caring, careful, and empathetic, you can’t not watch him onscreen. He portrays Banner as an intelligent, caring, yet flawed man who must reconcile his sins every time the monster comes and disappears. He Dr. Jekyll. He is Dr. Frankenstein. He is Dr. Richard Kimball. But you care about him. And if Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk now seems quaint and silly (and he does, oh man, he does!), then it’s forgivable because of Bill Bixby’s performance.

Eric Bana’s situation in Hulk also provides pathos, yet not in the same way as Bill Bixby’s. Because Bixby’s Banner radiated himself trying to solve a problem brought on by his wife’s death in a car accident, you already care about and understand why he blasts himself with the gamma rays even while you’re hoping he won’t do it. The audience is seeing a tragedy in the making, brought on by raw emotion. Bana’s gamma blast is more like the comic book’s version, where Banner is helping someone else who is in danger of being blasted. The added empathy that helps the story immensely is that Banner’s father, played by Nick Nolte, has already been messing around with his DNA. The creature is essentially already there, just in need of a little push out. But, by my money, it’s just not the same. Yes, Bana’s Banner is more a victim and should be in need of more empathy, yet it doesn’t work out that way. I still feel more for Bixby’s Banner than Bana’s Banner.

In The Incredible Hulk, Edward Norton also plays Bruce Banner. This isn’t a sequel to Hulk, yet in many ways feels like it is. It also feels a little like a sequel to the TV series, including the musical cue Bixby gets at the end of each episode. I’ll be honest here, I had to look at Wikipedia to even know how this Banner becomes the Hulk. I still don’t remember. It doesn’t matter, because this is the least sympathetic Hulk by far. Norton’s Banner tries to get into our hearts but never quite gets there. What time is there with all the running away from, being chased he’s doing? At least the comic book feel of Bana’s Banner left the viewer feeling something, Norton’s Banner is just sort of there. Yes, Norton is a physically perfect Banner, and yes, he can be a good actor, but in this…eh.

Overall, I think that the 2003 and 2008 movie suffers from their closeness to the comic books. They’re not adapted enough. Kenneth Johnson’s adaptation of the Hulk is akin to Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Batman: it’s set in our world. Yes, there’s a fantastic element to it, yes, there are unbelievable–even silly–things that happen, yet, for the time it takes to watch (the the very least) the pilot movie, I was left rooting for Bixby’s Banner and feeling sad when he loses his second chance at love. And while the visual representations of Bana’s Banner and Norton’s Banner might be more spectacular (yes, I am one the people who actually prefer CGI Hulk to Lou Ferrigno Hulk) the pathos just isn’t there, and we the audience inevitably don’t care.



Fred Rogers, known to the world as Mr. Rogers.

K. Wilson, author of the blog teachingthekids, commented on my recent post about teachers from pop culture that had an effect on me and noted that Mr. Rogers was the first teacher for many youngsters because he influenced her “in the 70’s.” Fred Rogers was absolutely an important part of my early childhood.

I was one of those kids who hated kids shows because I felt they pandered. I loved The Muppet Show because it wasn’t really for kids, but hated Sesame Street, for instance. However, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of those kids shows that I loved. Yeah, I went through a phase at around six or so where I was too big to watch it, but here’s how I know what he did mattered:

It was 2005, somewhere between May and July, and things had been a little bleak. I’d been separated from my soon-to-be-ex-wife (we finalized our divorce in September 2005) and was working at a local bookstore, which I would’ve loved had they paid me what I deserved, treated me the way I deserved, and otherwise didn’t have their heads up their asses (not all of them, just those who were in charge). I sat down to eat my lunch around 11:30/noon, and I only had twenty cable channels. My choices were game shows, talk shows, or PBS. One PBS channel was running Sesame Street. Blech. Another was running Teletubbies. Barf! The last had on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I decided to leave it on. I quickly realized that I remembered the episode from my childhood. I sat watching this show that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, mesmerized. At the end, Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and said in that way he had, “Just remember that you are special. That there’s no one else in this world like you, and that you are important.”

I can’t explain it. I begin weeping.

Lots of stand-up comedians and people who are too cool for school have made jokes that Mr. Rogers was probably a pervert, or some sort of strange dude because of his show. That’s an easy, cynical kind of joke to make in a world where teachers marry students, priests rape their choirboys, and you never know who’s lurking on the playground, the schoolyard, or anywhere else children may congregate.

I have no patience for jokes like that about Fred Rogers. This man was the Real Deal. He understood the power television had and insisted on doing his best to teach children what he could. He understood that by the 1970s, many parents were using the glass teat as a means for babysitting, and that the networks were making tons o’ dough from selling violence, stupidity, and bastardized entertainment to children. Fred Rogers wanted to do something different. He wanted there to be a place for children to go where a human adult could teach them, to build their confidence, and to give to them the sort of love that many children needed. Yeah, he had puppets, but unlike Jim Henson’s beautifully constructed and performed Muppets that lived on a special street in some city, even the dullest child knew that residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were simple hand puppets that were terribly performed.

I can’t believe that I forgot about Mr. Rogers, a man whom I love dearly and wish that I could have met to say, “Thank you, Mr. Rogers. You believed in me, and I thank you for it.”

I got home about half an hour ago, my clothes damp with sweat. I wish I could say I just came back from working out, from performing with my rock band, or even that I just got back from a stand-up comedy gig, with those bright, hot lights, the grateful audience, and the rest of those clichés. But I didn’t. I got home from work. I am a teacher.

Yes, that's my teacher look.

I call teaching The Day Job because I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve wanted to write for a helluva lot longer than I’ve wanted to teach. As a matter of fact, if I can tell you the truth (and what’s the purpose of writing if I can’t tell you the truth?), I’ve never necessarily wanted to be a teacher. I fell into it nearly by accident. The good news is that I enjoy teaching nearly as much as I enjoy writing, and while I’m certainly not paid what I believe teachers should be paid, it has paid me a lot more than writing has, and it is fulfilling. If I look back though, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that I teach. As a matter of fact, I think it was more of a surprise to those who know me that it took as long as it did for me to become a teacher. Since it’s the time of year when the kiddies (and many others) are returning to school, I figured, let’s look at some of the teachers from the movies and TV shows that I watched growing up. This isn’t going to be a definitive list of teachers from the media, I’ll let some other list making website deal with that, but I will talk about the ones I think have an effect on me.

I was in my teens when I was flipping through the channels one day and happened on The Dead Poets Society (1989). The movie got a lot of buzz when it came out and I love Robin Williams, but I hadn’t seen it. Part of it was that I was young when it came out (11/12) and part was that my mother’s co-worker had been dragged to see it by his wife and had reported that it was boring, so my mother didn’t want to watch it. I’d wanted to watch it when it came to cable but just never had until the afternoon, I believe I was 16 or 17, that I was flipping through the channels and there it was, just beginning. I loved it. The piece of the movie I remember the best from that first viewing, and the thing I carry with me in the back of my mind in my Badass Book of Teaching is when Robin Williams instructs the students to tear out pages from the textbook. The tight-ass prep school boys have trouble believing that they’re to follow him at first, but eventually do so in a scene that is both beautiful and inspiring.

There’s nothing really beautiful about Carl Reiner’s Summer School (1987) except for Courtney Thorne Smith, but when I saw it at the age of 10 or 11, I loved it. The thing I remember from that, that I still kind of carry with me now, is that Mark Harmon’s Mr. Shoop is lax, miserable, but treats the students as people. He is the typical 1980s hero in that he has a very I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck attitude about him but he reaches the students. It may not be by accepted (and these days, he’d be fired without a second thought), but he reaches them and the class mostly succeeds. The other thing that stuck with me, but that has nothing to do with teaching, are the boys who love horror movies, Dave and Chainsaw. The viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class, as well as the gory horror-movie-type prank (check out about halfway down the page) that the kids play on a substitute after Shoop’s fired, I think helped guide me into my love of horror movies (though the date of the movie’s release, July 1987, leads me to believe that I’d already seen the three A Nightmare on Elm Street movies that had been released by then).

Oh, how this scene had an effect on me.

Mr. Miyagi from 1984’s The Karate Kid wasn’t the typical teacher, yet he was a teacher that I could dig. I was probably about eight when I first saw The Karate Kid on HBO or Cinemax, and it was a story that I loved. Though my days of being bullied were to begin in the following years, I already felt like an outsider and the story of Daniel LaRusso’s warm welcome to Cailfornia from New Jersey struck home. Plus, he learned to kick ass, which seemed really cool. But as cool as Daniel seemed to me at eight, nine, and ten (when The Karate Kid Part II came out), Mr. Miyagi was the coolest person in the movie. Wise and comical, blue collar and elitist, difficult taskmaster and best friend, Mr. Miyagi was the friend all boys wanted back then. A father figure who wasn’t your father and who could teach you to defend yourself, but would still play jokes on you. Forget that he’s an Asian stereotype, Pat Morita brought a pathos to Miyagi that Jackie Chan did not in the boring, lame 2010 remake. Mr. Miyagi wasn’t a schoolteacher, but he was one of the best teachers of my childhood and there have been moments in my 5-year-old career that have definitely been influenced by him.

None of MY teachers did this for me.

And that was one of the problems with the 1980s. The punk rock, MTV movement had seeped into the popular culture so much that everyone sort of became the anti-hero, even teachers. Many of them were mean to the kids, or clueless, and being a little boy in the 80s meant I missed some of the good teachers, such as Mr. Hand, played by the venerable Ray Walston, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie I only saw for the first time in the last few years. Most of the teachers in the John Hughes movies, especially The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were shown as boring, mean, and inept. Of course you had Morgan Freeman taking on a tough, inner-city school in Lean On Me, or James Belushi doing an action movie version of same in The Principal. I recently saw Teachers with Nick Nolte and while he proved to be a caring, even good, teacher at the end, he was pretty much the anti-hero teacher, which is why Mr. Miyagi and the last few important teachers of my childhood in Pop Culture 101 were so important.

Indiana Jones was a hero to me, and probably every other boy born in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the strangest thing about him, to the seven-year-old Billy who first saw him, was that he was a teacher. At seven, you pretty much believe that your teachers live at school, or something like that. To think that they have lives, that they go grocery shopping or have spouses and children of their own is ridiculous. They can’t because they’re your teacher, damnit! And yet, here was a guy who not only was so cool that the girls painted I love you on they eyelids, but he went around, collecting treasures, fighting bad guys, and otherwise being a badass. And he taught you something, too! I don’t know how many fights I got out of by running like Indiana Jones does at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oh, and there’s the whole Nazi and Biblical history thing, too.

"I strongly urge you to turn in your homework, or I'll kick your ass."

Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness was probably the first onscreen teacher I saw that had me listening. He taught Luke some valuable lessons like, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them,” and outcooled Han Solo with, “Who is more foolish: the fool or the one who follows him?” Of course the most important piece of advice from the first Star Wars was “Use the Force.” Yoda also taught about the Force. Never had a green puppet (not even Kermit the Frog) taught me so much at that age. What the hell was the Force? Yeah, yeah, a mystical field that surrounds all life because midichlorians and whatever. It’s magic. Or, as I saw it growing up, it’s the inner power we all have that gives us faith in ourselves. There is nothing more important than faith in yourself. Go back, read that sentence again. I’ll wait.

Teachers should have patience. Some have to deal with two generations of whiners.

Done? Good, let’s continue.

Faith in yourself gives you the ability to make the first step toward whatever goal or dream you wish to achieve. It also happens to be the most important thing that a teacher can pass along to a student.

There are so many other teachers in movies, on TV, and in books, plays, songs, etc. that I haven’t even come close to mentioning. I chose mainly to focus on the teachers I watched in the first dozen or so years of my life, and I’m sure I’m missing some, but those were, for me, the ones that seemed to leave a lasting impression. The only one I’d like to add, from my early twenties, is Richard Dreyfuss’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Mr. Holland’s Opus, which is a bit schmaltzy at times, but is still a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit when I first saw it. He wasn’t a part of my childhood, but I’ve thought about that movie a few times since I began teaching back in the fall of 2007.

"We're going to need a bigger band."

In the end, all the teachers listed above were rule-breakers and taught their students how to fend for themselves, with love, with compassion, and with knowledge. We could all use a little of that in our lives, and we should do our best to use those traits, as well.


So, do you think I missed a teacher? Is there a pop culture teacher who deeply affected you? Let’s discuss it!

Let’s Play!

Posted: August 18, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Childhood, Toys
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Summer is winding down. In some parts of the country, kids are already back in school, I’ll be returning to my teaching day job in less than two weeks, and other local kids go back to school the week after that. Though those dark days are a-coming, I’m still in summer-mode enjoying my vacation (or as much of a vacation as a writer gets, anyway) but I can’t help but get a little nostalgic. Maybe it’s that my birthday is next week, and I always get a little soft around that time. While I know that turning 34 is a joke to anyone over the age of 34, it is still making me remember childhood with rose-colored glasses. What can I say? The sunshine outside and my birthday does that. Now, I’m not thinking about summer in terms of Stephen King’s great novella The Body, which most of you know as Rob Reiner’s greatest film, Stand By Me, me and a group of friends going on an adventure (though there is a summer I may write about like that at some point) but of the thing I spent the majority of my childhood doing: playing.

What better way to spend the summer is there than looking for a dead body?

I loved to play. Big whoop, right? All kids love to play. Maybe. But in my experience, I’ve never seen a kid play quite like I did, except for my daughter, but even she was different in many ways (at least in front of me). Not only did I love to play, but I loved to play alone. My favorite thing to play–mostly indoors–was with my action figures. Being born in 1977, I was at the exact right time for the Birth of the Action Figure. Well, maybe not the birth, since G.I. Joe existed as early as the mid-1960s, and the company Mego was making action figures of superheroes before I was born, but I was basically on time for the birth of the 3 ¾” action figure. Up until the late 1970s, you see, most action figures were larger. G.I. Joe was the boy response to Barbie. By the mid-70s, the action figures that were coming out were smaller than Barbie, but bigger than the 3 ¾” that were beginning to come out. I may be wrong, but the event that tipped the scales of where the action figure would go was Star Wars.

Because of Star Wars, my Mego figures ended up in a yard sale.

The story goes that George Lucas, who had maintained not only sequel rights to the original Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope) but also maintained the merchandising rights. He figured that 20th Century Fox would not give Star Wars the promotion he wanted so he could license out imagery for posters, tee shirts, mugs, comic books, and toys. Of all the toy companies that pitched to Lucasfilm, the license went to Kenner, who had already wanted to put out a line of science fiction 3 ¾” action figures. Well, the unforeseen success of Star Wars made the action figures a huge hit. Other toy companies responded.

Star Wars came out on May 25th, 1977. I was born on August 24th, 1977. Is there any surprise action figures were my favorite toy?

Well, growing up, it sure as hell felt that way. On the block I grew up on, there were handful of kids and less than that who were my age. But there were the brothers Scott and Eric, the former a year older and the latter a year younger. In terms of playing, I’d play with Scott and Eric a lot, but there were some major differences between them and me. Well, one major difference: imagination. I had one. That’s not entirely fair, they had imaginations, too, but as their mother once told my mother, “You know, Billy has an overactive imagination and that might be bad for him as he gets older.”

Mego's Pocket Heroes. I had all these, including the cars, except for the Green Goblin. I even had this Batcave. Somewhere, I still have Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the Batmobile. Robin is buried in my parents' backyard.

While Eric proved to be a great playmate when I was around eight, nine, and ten, and Scott and I played the world’s most boring games of teacher (we were both teachers for the same school, and the day went…well, like we imagined teachers’ days were) and detective (lots of desk work because Real Life wasn’t like the movies) when I was around 10 and 11, neither one figured much in my “real” play. First, they didn’t have many action figures. They had very few Star Wars figures, and while they had a decent amount of G.I. Joe figures (by now, the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero 3 ¾” line), I always preferred to play with my action figures alone because I was better able to manipulate the story.

That’s right. Manipulate the story. See, even as a child, I was telling stories to entertain myself. Those action figures were my creative outlet, even more so than drawing, something I was pretty good at back then (and if I’d studied art or had worked harder to refine my abilities, I think I’d be a decent illustrator even now; when I get the chance to write a comic book, I won’t have any problem giving the real artist sketches if I think it’ll help bring the story to life). I was able to make up stories and often had subplots, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I was just copying Star Wars and TV shows I watched.

Two TV shows I watched as a kid and whose action figures I owned.

Even when I role-played, actual physical play outside, I would tell a story. It often meant playing alone, because other kids broke character or hurt the story. I remember a parent calling me bossy once. Maybe I was, but I tried to explain to her that her son was breaking character, that a farmer wouldn’t all of a sudden do whatever it was her son (who wasn’t the brightest person I’d ever known, even at that time–I was eight or nine) insisted on doing. I was directing.

Not mine, but one I found on the 'net. Mine is in a closet and hard to get to.

I began to fall in love with movies around the age of nine, and my action figure play began to change. I stopped using Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures for just those kinds of stories, but rather began casting the action figures for my “movies.” I’d then time the stories. I knew that after an hour had passed, I’d better start moving toward the climax of the story. My favorite Star Wars figure became Han Solo in Bespin Outfit. I could use him as Indiana Jones (I didn’t own my first Indiana Jones figure until sometime in the last 10 years; one I got from eBay that was a Disney World exclusive, the other Indy Jones figure I have is from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those figures disappeared before I could get the Raiders one). I could use him as a detective in a suit or undercover a lá Axel Foley. Hell, I could use Lando Calrissian as Axel Foley! Sometimes I used my action figures to play other media-related stories. That Han Solo figure was sometimes Bruce Wayne, sometimes Clark Kent, but most of the time, he and my other action figures were characters of my own creation. I remember telling Eric about this and he was shocked. The next day he came over excited and told me that he used his Darth Vader figure as Batman, which was a stretch even for me.

I spent hours playing with my action figures or role-playing, running around the neighborhood with toy guns or swords or capes, lost in my imagination, lost in my stories.

So when I was twelve, and some kids I’d buddied around with in junior high came over and saw my action figures set up in mid-story, and then went to school the next day and made fun of me (in front of my crush, no less), things had to change. The action figures moved from their Tupperware containers and into shoeboxes and went under the bed. I felt lost, though, having to secretly do my playing, tell my stories. Until I bought The Shining on my 13th birthday (1990), and I decided I would start writing.

An action figure I bought just this past weekend.

Twenty-one years later (next week), and I still buy action figures. You see, something has happened. All those other mutants out there, the kids like me who loved their action figures, grew up and got jobs at toy companies or created their own companies and some of the best action figures ever known to humankind have begun being produces. I buy some of them and I keep them out as reminders. Also, they’re really good for letting off steam. If I’m in the middle of a scene that seems to be going nowhere, I can reach over and grab Batman, Superman, or one of the Freddy Kruegers I have (I just got one this past weekend), or I can go grab Indy Jones or Luke Skywalker, and pose them, fool around with them, study the sculpts, and then I put them back and find I have the answer I need for my scene. Because while I was being nerdy and goofing around with my toys, the subconscious was conversing with the muse, and goddamn if it didn’t do the work that needed doing.

Harlan Ellison has said, “Success is achieving, in adult terms, that which you longed for as a child.” All I wanted to do when I was a kid was play. Between writing and teaching, I get to play and people pay me for it. Not bad, eh?

You'd better agree, or the superheroes will get you.


What were your favorite toys as a child? How did you play? Are you like me, an adult who still loves those windows that look back on childhood? Leave a comment below and hip your friends to MediaBio!