Category Archives: History

Stretching the Truth

I couldn’t sleep this morning, so I watched Resurrecting the Champ about a reporter who composes an article about a former boxer who fell on hard times and became homeless. While I enjoyed the film, something just felt “off” as I watched. I decided to look up the true story upon which the film is based and felt disappointment upon discovering that a major plot point of the film is false.

Spoiler Alert!

The reporter in the film, Eric Kernan, Jr., writes about a boxer whom he believes is named Satterfield when in fact that man has assumed Satterfield’s identity. The Homeless man, known primarily as “Champ,” was a boxer but one named Kincaid. Kernan’s article brings him fame and potential fortune until the truth is revealed, and he loses his reputation and must then compose a second article redacting the first, which also becomes a piece about truth and love.

However, the real author of the pieces (upon whom the film is based) actually began writing the article about Champ, but he discovered the deception prior to completing the piece and changed it into a story about how he was deceived.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but it reminded me of a post I wrote a few days ago about how teaching is distorted on-screen. The protagonist of Resurrecting the Champ appears somewhat morally corrupt and makes journalism appear sullied. As Dana Parsons says in her commentary on the film:

“…we get a movie that beats up the newspaper business for being so hot for a story that it doesn’t bother to check things out. The reporter is reduced to a bum in his own right who, even after learning the truth, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. He’s not only lazy; he’s unethical.”

Dana Parsons is a journalist for The Los Angeles Times, who personally knew the original author, who further states that:

“Rather than running with the story, as would be the temptation, Moehringer put so much time into it that he eventually learned — to his great distress — that the guy posing as former contender Bob Satterfield really wasn’t him.

I remember us talking in the office when he learned the truth. He acted as though the world had come to an end. All that time spent on the story, he lamented, for naught…All the things the movie says the reporter didn’t do — ask the boxing experts, check the archives, talk to Satterfield’s relatives, be skeptical — the real-life Moehringer did.”

Journalism is shown in such a poor light in this film that I couldn’t ignore the similar way teaching is skewed on film and on TV. The realities are ignored in favor of what the producers and directors believe the public wants. As Champ says in Resurrecting the Champ, “I gave you the man you want[ed].” And so we got the story the film industry thought we wanted.

Instead of presenting what people truly feel and do as teachers (and in this case journalists), we are given a tale, a fabrication of the truth. Maybe truth can be stretched for a purpose as in a film like Big Fish, but I would prefer the truth.

Of course, this led me to think about the classroom as well. Students often tell me that some of the most interesting things they learn about the writers and historical figures in my classes are the imperfections; they tire of myth and want truth.

The students enjoyed hearing about how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden alone in the woods, but he allowed himself reprieves from the absolute isolation and independence of the famous pond when he would visit his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson from time to time. The students’ question “how could he do that for so long” is duly answered.

Ken Kesey became an interesting figure when the students learned of his drug use and flight from justice. Abraham Lincoln’s shifting views of slavery interested the students as did Benjamin Franklin’s dalliances with women, and Thomas Jefferson’s relations with his slaves, and the Colossus of Rhodes’ true appearance, and Thomas Edison’s ruthlessness, and Marie Antoinette’s attributed words about peasants eating cake (which she never said), and Napoleon’s true height, and how George Washington could be considered the 15th President of the United States.

They say the same things about the characters in the texts, too. Every year the students find Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities “boring” because she is not three-dimensional; she has no real imperfection. Lucie is perfect in every way and betters everyone around her. How dull! How predictable! But these same students love Sydney Carton’s boorish and drunken figure as he transforms himself from “a disappointed drudge” into a “far, far better” man.

When we reveal truth we may actually increase interest and appreciation.

Day of Music

We finished The Grapes of Wrath and are starting A Gathering of Old Men, but I was gone for a few days. Now, I had intended to do this earlier, but I had time today and we had “music day.”

We listened to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and look at the final two verses in particular which are often not used when singing this tune. Most of the song is so hopeful and positive, but the last two verses change the feel and meaning of the song.

As I was walkin'  -  I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side  .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Next, we listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as we finished off The Grapes of Wrath. The kids were at first curious about the song’s folksy sound and gradually got into the tune while easily connecting its ideas and its final verse to the novel. The kids told me it was “cool” that people today still sing about Steinbeck’s work.

Then I talked to the class about how Springsteen may be becoming the voice of new generation. We started out listening to “Born in the USA” and focused on the desperation and sadness in the tune. Believe it or not, I used the film and novel First Blood starring Sylvestor Stallone (we didn’t actually watch the film) to discuss the post-Vietnam society and the veterans themselves as a connection to Springsteen’s 80s hit: the unemployment, the hopelessness, the frustration, and the decision to make a stand. Of course, this connects quite well to Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. We also briefly discussed the irony of how “Born in the USA” became such an American anthem while being a less than patriotic song.

Lastly, we listened to and examined the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. My students were shocked by the title metaphor and the juxtaposition of the “pastoral scene” and the “gallant South” with the image of a hanging man. Quite a few of the kids actually questioned the truthfulness of the song’s subject, but I also have some pictures of actual lynchings with people smiling and pointing proudly to their handiwork. The kids were horrified at the sight of the pride in the photos. I’m glad they can’t imagine events like these occurring in their community, but I also want them to understand the magnitude of these horrific events and their influence on Gaines’ novel.

All in all, today was a great day and the kids were sad to leave the room at the period’s end. 🙂

Response

I waited a couple days before commenting on my January 6 post, “Serious or Satire?”, but now I feel I should provide my opinion.

I think Foley must be seriously recommending the elimination of novels using negative terms about African-Americans. If his intent is satire, it’s entirely too subtle. Thus, I wholeheartedly disagree with his arguments. Continue reading

Next Up

I am very excited to teach The Tragedy of Julius Caesar this week. I love this play!

We finished up quite a bit of historical context last week and will begin Act I on Wednesday. The opening scene is so dense introducing some of the play’s major themes while injecting humor, word play, and emotion into the dialogue.

When Marullus shouts down to the commoners, ending the frivolities, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! Knew you not Pompey?” the kids are stunned at the sudden shift in tone. In that one moment the students begin to grasp that this play and the characters will be complex. Continue reading

Discovery and Decoration

Eureka! I created a way to keep my bulletin boards changing frequently without increasing my workload. I know it’s not rocket science or a monumental unearthing of educational knowledge, but I got the students to do the work.

I copied off a lengthy list of events, people, and items dealing with the 1920s in preparation for our unit on The Great Gatsby and gave the list to the kids. They crossed off all of the ones they could compose three detailed sentences about and then they chose two of the ones not crossed off to research. I passed around a master list, and they signed up for two items on the list.

They got two days to research the two topics and to create two 8-12 sentence summaries of their findings, which each contain at least one image and a proper MLA citation. While I am out of the building tomorrow, the students will decorate the three bulletin boards in my room.

I love it! The kids work on research skills, basic writing skills, citation skills, and decorate the room all at once. Plus, we’re surrounded by images and information of the era for the next two weeks!

I will have to decide which class will discover and decorate next.