Carrie and teacher revenge

Spoiler alert: at the end of Carrie, many people die. Unleashing telekinetic powers against her school community, the heroine generates a scene of carnage seemingly impossible to survive. “Don’t hurt me,” someone begs. “Why not?” replies Carrie White, “I’ve been hurt my whole life.” It’s a powerful scene of psychological revenge, in which the girl’s repressed suffering returns as the suffering of her oppressors: bullies, parents – and teachers.

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Last week I saw Kimberly Peirce’s remake of the film, in which Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the shy student who prefers English to sport. But she doesn’t like the English teacher, Mr. Ulmann, who seems more interested in students’ bodies than their minds. “That was, ah, disturbing” he says after Carrie recites a poem. “Arsehole,” replies Tommy Ross on behalf of the audience. Later, Mr. Ulmann is shown attending the prom.

Principal Morton is also there, killed off for his complicity in the culture of bullying that spurs Carrie’s revenge. His hands-off approach to punishment comes back to punish him, bloodily, at the hands of the school’s most vulnerable girl.

Only one person is rescued, and she’s a teacher. In a striking turn, Carrie lifts PE teacher Ms. Desjardin out of her own scene of destruction, rewarding her for – what, slapping her in the change-room? Like other Hollywood teacher heroes, Ms. Desjardin is a problematic model for good teaching, even as the film establishes her as an ideal. I mean, she swears at, slaps, tackles and punishes students by forcing them to run “suicides.” Also, in a contemporary twist, she threatens to share a student’s video with the media to bring shame on her family and the school. Not only does she try to talk Tommy out of taking Carrie to the prom, she then physically ejects and locks out Sue, the only student with information that might save everyone’s life – including Carrie’s.

Nevertheless, her rescue is coherent with the logic of the film. This is not a school inspector’s revenge fantasy, but a student’s, and Ms. Desjardin embodies the kind of teaching that Carrie most lacks, both at this school and while homeschooled by her self-harming mother. Indeed, this blurring of parent and teacher is signalled early in the film, when Ms. Desjardin stands in for Carrie’s mother in a belated lesson about menstruation. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Carrie asks her Mum. Carrie needs knowledge, but also protection, and the vision of her sport teacher standing up for her is one of the film’s chief pleasures for both character and target audience.

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But if Ms. Desjardin stands in as Carrie’s mother, she also stands in as her friend. Casting the young-looking Judy Greer in the role is a strategy that allows her to speak with students as if she were their peer. This note is strongest in the scene where she and Carrie are in the change-room, looking in the mirror and exchanging make-up advice. Their faces and clothing are not dissimilar. Ms. Desjardin’s youthfulness and casualness troubles the distinction between student and teacher. From here on she will be depicted as Carrie’s most powerful friend.

During my teacher training, “do not to be their friend” rivalled “make your profile private” as the most common advice given to teacher candidates. We learnt that a key element of professionalism is maintaining boundaries between the world of students and a teacher’s own world. I find this easy enough. In fact, I wondered about the source of this perceived risk. Surely teachers didn’t see students as their peers? During both of my placements the distinction between students and teachers was not only easy to maintain, but codified and reinforced in language, architecture and uniform.

But students see movies. Indeed, films about school are often studied at school, making the system complicit in disseminating fantasies at odds with its own version of the real. Expectations about students and teachers come from art as much as life. I enjoyed Carrie, but it gave me a lot to unlearn.

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