I took my two teens to see Captain Fantastic tonight. I was really excited. Certain themes of the movie excited me, they always had. When the kids were little, I very much wanted to home-school them and read many books about the topic. I would get so excited thinking about how incredibly well-read they would be, how they would love learning, how it would never occur to them to say, “I hate school.”
This is especially relevant right now as my 15 year old daughter’s two closest friends both “hate school.” In fact, one hates it so much, she dropped out last year and eventually wound up at a local in-patient ward to be treated for anxiety and depression. The other can barely withstand school. She also is taking medication to manage depression and anxiety. Her mother is hoping and praying that this year is different. My daughter also has said more times than I’m willing to admit that fateful, terrible phrase, “I hate school.”
Every time she does, it galls me. Deep. I agonize about it. I take it seriously. I become upset, frustrated, angry, and afraid. What does it mean? It confuses me too. I simply don’t know what to make of it. I can only assume it’s not learning that she hates, but school. But, school is supposed to be about learning… if she hates it, that must not be what’s going on there. Or, she really doesn’t like learning? How can that be? How does that happen? And what does it mean? It scares the bejesus out of me.
I took my kids to see Captain Fantastic because I knew it was my kind of movie. After deciding I couldn’t really homeschool my kids because my partner was not really able to keep a job predictably or for very long, I considered Waldorf. I visited the local school and was excited about Waldorf. I loved how the kids batted around math facts as a word game in the air, how they learned how to unicycle, build chicken coops, and play to their hearts’ content.
We couldn’t do that either, however. The private school tuition was out of the question, and the school was too far away.
We did the traditional route — the local elementary school, the local middle school, the local high schools. I got off my high horse and accepted the situation and made the best of it and decided it was fine, it was good.
I remember though, and wince as I do so, how I used to talk to moms who, when asked about their children’s schools, would say, “It’s fine.”
I would rail against them in my head. I’d say, “Huh? Fine? What kind of word is that? That’s an insipid word that shows me too clearly that it’s not ‘fine’ at all.”
And then, years later, there I was, saying, “Oh, my children’s school? It’s… fine. It’s fine.”
I hear myself saying it now, too. About my daughter’s current school. I hesitate. I consider. I say, “You know, it’s fine. It’s good. It’s, it’s just… fine.”
Then, she proclaims again, “I hate school,” and I panic.
What kind of mother lets her daughter remain at a school she hates?
But then pragmatism enters the picture. I think, maybe all kids hate school. Maybe they just say that. Maybe she’s lazy. I let her get lazy; it’s not her fault. Maybe she’s spoiled.
When I heard about Captain Fantastic, I knew I wanted to see it. It was my kind of movie, about a radical family that chooses to live off the grid and that manages to educate their children not only in the most incredible classic literature library, but also in extreme physical fitness and horticulture and debate and politics and philosophy… They’re pure as the driven snow, with no TVs, computers, devices, video games.
As I expected, the movie portrayed this. The eldest son applies to the top universities on the sly and is admitted easily to them all: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Duke, MIT, Brown. The youngest, at eight years old, describes three or four ways what the Bill of Rights is and what it’s good for to a couple of laconic “normal” teens leaning in the doorway of a kitchen as they deride him.
When we left the theatre, my son and daughter said they didn’t like the movie because it didn’t show people of color.
I was dumb-founded.
Unfortunately, I was not like the brilliant Philosopher-Hunter dad in the movie, able to calmly discuss their positions and try to discover what they meant and why they felt that way. I was unable to accept their comment in the first place, let alone ask them to defend it. I was unable to say calmly why it upset me.
I lost my temper and my patience quickly. I felt weirdly like my kids had been absconded with.
It seemed to me that the problem they had with the movie had nothing to do with the movie itself. It annoyed me highly that while watching this movie of this family, my kids (especially my 18 year old son) were literally or almost literally counting people of color, and they came up short. Or nil. And that upset them.
Is this a good thing? They hated the movie because there seemed to be no people of color and because there was “cultural appropriation” because the family hunted with bows and arrows and erected a teepee on their compound.
I was infuriated (that’s the right word, sadly) that they were literally unable to see the movie clearly or take it on its own terms as a movie about a particular family, living off the grid in some beautiful, remote forest and visiting a city in New Mexico.
I said in frustration, “But, it’s not about that! It’s not about color, racism, or anything the sort!”
I wanted to talk about the movie. Was it a good idea that the dad took them away, or not? Were they jealous of those kids? Was it cool or not that they were in top, Ninja-like physical condition? Was the dad crazy, or wise? Were the kids enlightened, amazing, or pitiful?
Unfortunately, we couldn’t talk about any of this because my kids summarily rejected the movie out of hand because they saw no people of color and because cultural appropriation was going down.
Is this a good, a promising development, that my teens care about this, that they’re watching for it? Or a stunningly bizarre one, that my kids are filtering everything, and I mean everything, through this lens?
I don’t know. What do you think?