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Monday, January 4, 2010

Doubting our desire to teach: a review of "Doubt"

Tod and I watched John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” yesterday, and it brought up some interesting conversations about our jobs as educators and Gay men after the film. It’s no secret that the central core of this film is the alleged sexual abuse of a young boy by a priest played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I won’t spoil the film for anyone, but this is a very strong theme in this film and leads us to the film’s climatic and somewhat cathartic ending. The accusing nun is expertly played by a relative newcomer named Meryl Streep, she does a great job of transporting us back to 1964 (the year the action takes place) in both her mindset and her dowdy wardrobe.
After we watched the film, Tod brought up the question of what he would do were he to be accused of misconduct such as in the movie. The actions taken by the priest are central to the end of the film, so you’ll need to watch it to find out what happens, but it still gave us pause to think about our current litigious society and how quickly gossip can spread, especially when it comes to subjects as charged as abuse from a priest or a teacher. There is a very powerful scene in the film that has Hoffman preaching on the evils of gossip. He recounts from the pulpit the story of a nun who is chastised by a priest for gossiping, and he tells her to go to her roof and stab her pillow. She does and the resulting blizzard of feathers blankets the neighborhood. This is a visually stunning moment in the film, one that I won’t soon forget. The nun returns to the priests and tells him what she did. She asks what now? The priest tells her to go and pick up EVERY SINGLE FEATHER from the pillow. You can imagine her response to this task. As much as I love to gossip, this was a chilling example of what can happen with just a few misspoken words.
So why did this film bring up so many questions for us? I recall being told as a young college student that I might want to reconsider being a male art teacher, as I would leave myself open to allegations due to stereotypes and vindictive students and or parents. Even though I was not out of the closet officially, the pervading stereotypes of male art teachers (and female gym teachers) were that we were Gay or Lesbian, whether provable or not. This is what happens in the movie, can this nun prove that this priest did indeed abuse his powers with this student? As student teachers, we were counseled by a panel of seasoned experts to never be alone with a student and to quell any suggestions of sex or sexuality by either us or the students. We were told to be cautiously compassionate and to watch how we present ourselves to our students to prevent any questions of inappropriateness. This created an internalized sense of paranoia from my first day of teaching. I entered the classroom eager to teach and to get to know my students, but I also entered scared and perhaps a bit overcautious. When we first began the adoption process, we read about how for many years Gay men were denied the ability to openly adopt as the assumption was that you were going to molest the child. Thankfully, the era we are in now is more open and the ugly stereotypes that surrounded much of the last century are gone.
What would I have done if anything like this would have happened to me when I was teaching? Allegations of abuse, whether confirmed or not are job killers for teachers and the accused very rarely recover professionally from issues like this. Granted, there have been both teachers and priests, and in some cases, nuns that have abused children and their power, which is unforgiveable.
The movie “Deliver us from Evil” documents what can happen when sexual abuse in the Catholic Church goes unchecked and the tabloids are unfortunately filled with stories of teachers who sexually abuse their students. How we as a society deal with this issue is what is important. Back in the 60’s, it was “don’t ask, don’t tell” and those reactions were devastating for many generations of students. The Catholic Church is still recovering emotionally and financially from these transgressions. The transgressions in “Doubt”, whether real, indisputable, or imagined leave many victims, including one you may not expect.
“Doubt” is a great film, one that will raise many questions, questions that may be uncomfortable to some, but never the less need to be asked.