It was the tenth week into the semester. The students had just settled into their seats and I was marking down attendance. One student was absent. I looked at his empty seat and a hopeful feeling crept over me. I thought, perhaps this would be the day that we finally got through an entire session without any distractions. I even fantasized that he might have dropped the class and we would be able to catch up to where we should have been according to the syllabus. This fantasy, however, ended abruptly as Eric entered the classroom.
“I finally saw that shitty movie,” Eric said, sliding into the empty seat.
“What shitty movie is that?” asked Lisa, the girl who sat beside him.
“Language, guys,” I said, but was promptly ignored.
“The King's Speech,” answered Eric. “I hated that movie.”
I looked up and reminded Eric, “Hate is a strong word.”
“Hate is a strong word,” Eric repeated. “I HATED it.”
I took my notes for the day's lecture out of my bag and spread them across the table. The notes were unnecessary. It was my fifth year teaching Intro To Screenwriting and I had memorized every lesson well before I had ever set foot in my own classroom. I was once a promising up-and-coming screenwriter, in a past life. In addition to holding a B.A. in Screenwriting and an MA in Literature, I had taken every workshop and read every book on screenwriting that I could find. Even though my notes had long become a mere accessory, I greeted the task of organizing them as a welcome distraction from the argument that Eric was obviously trying to start. As a junior college instructor, I'm not supposed to engage in this kind of unproductive debate, but sometimes I do.
“Why didn't you like it?” asked Lisa.
This was the moment Eric was waiting for. He relished tearing apart films, especially well-regarded ones. In the past few weeks, he made it known to everyone that he was watching all of the Academy Award's Best Picture nominees. The more respected the film, the more scorn he would give. Lisa pretended to be offended, but I could tell she found Eric's irreverence to be charming and hilarious. She would exclaim“That's so wrong,” or “I can't believe you said that!” but always with a delighted snicker. As a junior college instructor, I'm not supposed to wonder whether or not they're sleeping together, but sometimes I do.
“Because who cares?” Eric asked. “Who cares about the King of England overcoming a speech impediment during World War Two?”
“I care,” I said under my breath, intending to be ignored, which I was.
“Do you know how many people died during World War Two?” asked Eric.
“Sixty million. Think about that. Sixty million people who were tried and tested to the absolute limits of their humanity. Sixty million. And that's just the ones who died. That doesn't even count the people who survived and lived on, permanently changed by what happened to them and the choices they had to make during that whole episode in world history.”
“Eric, what is your point?” I asked.
“My point is, sixty million people died during that event and every single one of them would have made a better, more compelling, more profound, and more important of a film than some rich white asshole overcoming a stutter.”
I wanted to remind Eric that no matter how much disdain he had in his voice while saying “rich white asshole,” it did not change him from being any less of another “rich white asshole” himself, but I managed to hold my tongue. Nevertheless, I could not pretend to organize my notes any further. Eric and Lisa's antics were threatening to eat up yet another session and, after all, I had a job to do.
“Okay,” I said, “now that we've heard Eric's opinion about The King's Speech – and really, thank God for that – how about we get down to business? Today we're going to talk about a screenplay's Inciting Incident.”
“He overcame more than just a stutter,” said a student in the third row whose name, I'm ashamed to admit, I do not remember.
“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed Eric. “His mother was distant. And his nanny would poke him and withhold food. I'm sure no one in a Death Camp would ever want to trade places with the King of England in those horrible circumstances.”
“Oh! That's so wrong,” said Lisa, snickering.
The class was starting to unwind. It's a common problem in junior college. The students are mostly in their late teens and early twenties. This means they're old enough to have strong opinions, but still too young to know that they should probably keep those opinions to themselves. As their instructor, I have a duty to keep the students focused on the material at hand and not succumb to the wild emotional flights of the room. This time, however, I failed spectacularly.
“Eric,” I said, “I'm not going to let you do this again.”
“Do what?” he asked.
“We're ten weeks into the semester and we still haven't gotten passed the Inciting Incident.”
“And that's my fault?”
“Obviously, yes. You get us off track every week with these fruitless debates. I just want to have a normal session where we cover the material at hand. Is that okay with you?”
“Sure thing, Professor,” he said.
“Great,” I said, then turned to the black board. “An Inciting Incident is an event that happens at some point in the first third of the story that disrupts your hero's life and—”
“Just one more thing about The King's Speech,” Eric interrupted.
“No,” I said, raising my voice.
“Real quick,” he insisted.
It came out much louder than I had intended. Some of the students jumped a little in their seats. I took a deep breath and continued in a voice as calm as I could muster. “It appears you would rather criticize films than learn how to write them. Perhaps you'd be happier in a film criticism class instead.”
“Are you kicking me out, Professor?” Eric asked.
“I'm not kicking you out, but you have to understand, no one paid for this class to listen to you systematically tear apart every beloved film that you've deemed overrated.”
The student in the third row whose name I don't remember said, “Here-here!”
“But isn't discussing films an important part of learning the craft of screenwriting?”
“Yes,” I said, “but first you have to know what you're talking about.”
There was a short pause.
“And I don't?” he asked.
I leaned into it. I wanted to say it. I liked saying it.
“No. You don't.”
Some of the students chuckled. Eric was naturally offended.
“But you do?” he asked.
“Remind me again . . . what films have you written?”
I tried to keep calm. I knew where this was going.
“Like I told you on the first day, I've been writing screenplays for over ten years. I've made over a dozen short films and I've had two features optioned.”
“But nothing sold,” said Eric. “Because, honestly, if you got even one movie made, you probably wouldn't be teaching this class, right?”
I clenched my jaw. He was right. I hated that.
Just to be clear, many teachers, perhaps even most teachers, choose their profession out of a deep passion they have for teaching. They do not view it as a sad last resort when they realize their real dream isn't going to come true. I believe this is the case for many teachers, but to be perfectly honest, it simply is not the case for me.
Eric was correct. If I had sold any of the screenplays I had written, I would never have taken a day job as a screenwriting teacher at this rowdy junior college. My days would have been spent meeting with producers and directors, not students and fellow faculty. I would have been doing research for my next project, not pretending to be reading my notes for my Inciting Incident lecture. I would have been happy. At least as happy as someone like me is allowed to get. In any event, I wouldn't have found myself trembling before a roomful of students fresh out of puberty because I knew myself to be every bit of a fraud and a failure that Eric had insinuated.
“You're right, Eric,” I replied, “I wouldn't be here right now. If you think that means I don't have anything to teach you about the craft of screenwriting—“
“I do,” Eric interrupted.
“Then you have every right to ask for a refund for this course. But if you're only here to disrupt others from learning, then yes, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”
“What's wrong with having an opinion?” Eric asked.
“Nothing,” I said, “but you have to remember that this class is called Intro To Screenwriting, not Intro To Eric's Worthless Opinion.”
The rest of the students said, “Ooh!”
Lisa said, “I can't believe you said that,” but without an accompanying delighted snicker.
“My opinions are not worthless,” Eric said.
I am well-aware that college instructors should not attempt to emotionally destroy one of their students. I probably should have back-peddled my comment. I should have apologized immediately. Looking back, I should have done many things differently. I was simply not in the right mind to do any of those things. Eric's words had cut me deep – much deeper than they would have if I were at all secure in my ability as a writer or satisfied with my status as a teacher. I was out of control. Angry. Violent. Dizzy. It was that particular brand of dizziness that is strictly reserved for those sleepless nights when you realize that your potential has petered out, that what you could have been has given way to what you are, and that you are not – and likely will never grow into – the talent that you always imagined yourself to be. Professionalism? Diplomacy? Retreat? These things were no longer options.
“Your opinions are worthless, Eric,” I declared. “You criticized The King's Speech for not being quite as good as the sixty million imaginary movies you've got floating around somewhere inside your head. Let me ask you, though, if you're so brilliant, if you're such a great writer, where's your screenplay, Eric? Where's your masterpiece that will knock the world on its ass and usher in a new era of filmmaking? No one's stopping you. The world is aching for your brilliant, original voice. So, where is it?”
“That's why I'm taking this class; to become a good writer someday.”
“No!” I shouted. I was shouting now. “You took this class to show off how smart you are and how refined your tastes are. And I don't blame you, Eric. It's a much easier life, isn't it? I mean, why be vulnerable enough to sincerely create a piece of art to share with the judgmental world when you can just consume the art other people make and turn it into shit? Why risk being an artist when you can just be a parasite?”
Eric stood up and stepped toward me. I thought he was going to take a swing at me, but instead he just started chuckling.
“You wouldn't hate critics so much if you ever got even one piece of positive feedback from any of them. But you haven't. Because you suck,” he said, poking me hard in the chest.
It hurt, in more ways than one. But I didn't budge. I didn't do the adult, professional thing and acknowledge the fact that this had evolved into a full fledged altercation with ample opportunity to become seriously physical. We were no longer student and teacher. The fact that I was fifteen years older than him and his teacher and during class time all became minor details as trivial as the kinds of socks I happened to be wearing that day and the name of that guy in the third row. We were two children on the playground, each defending some prized territory, doing and saying whatever we could to cause the other a maximum amount of pain and humiliation.
“You know you suck,” Eric continued. “And just because I haven't gotten around to finishing a screenplay that's better than yours yet doesn't change the fact that you write bullshit. Then you come in here and regurgitate the same bullshit to all of us, because that's all you know how to do.”
He walked around me and approached the table where I had spread my lecture notes and pawed through them. “You don't know how to make yourself into a good writer, so how the hell can you pretend like you know how to turn us into good writers? You don't see how dumb and irrelevant all these movies like The King's Speech really are, because you to, at your core, are dumb and irrelevant.”
He tossed my notes back down on the table. We were standing close now. I reached my hand out and touched Eric on the shoulder, gentle but stern, like a father-figure. He did not appreciate this and immediately jerked away, yelling, “Don't touch me!”
I grabbed him again by both shoulders, firmer this time so he couldn't jerk away.
“Listen to me, Eric. This is important.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Even if you're right; even if every critique you make is absolutely true; all you've done is talk someone out of enjoying something that once made them happy--”
“--Because they're stupid,” Eric interrupted, gesturing behind him at the class.
There was another collective “ooh.” I held Eric tighter and pulled him in closer by the shoulders.
“All you know how to do is reduce the amount of joy on this planet,” I said, digging my fingers deep into his shoulders. This was payback for him poking me in the chest a moment ago. It's crazy how reasonable it felt to do in the moment.
Get your goddamn hands off me, man!” he yelled, grasping and pulling at my sweater, but I did not hear him.
“But then you don't even have the courage to try to replace it with something better!”
We continued to wrestle and yell and spit. Many of the students had stood up from their desks but were afraid to approach us to break it up. It was then that I realized that I had a huge size advantage over Eric. He was only nineteen or twenty, after all, and even though you wouldn't be able to tell by my actions, I am a full grown man of sizable girth. This girth came in handy when I then decided to use this leverage to pick Eric up into the air and throw him down on the table.
His back hit the table with a hard whack. A look of utter shock and fear froze across his face, which was framed on all sides by a halo of my scattered lecture notes. I had plainly gone too far, but something inside me felt as though I had not gone quite far enough. This was the first time I had Eric's full attention. He was not smiling his smug little smile. He was not raking his bottom lip across his teeth while I was talking, just salivating for his next opportunity to hear himself speak. He was completely open. Completely receptive. For better or worse, I felt as though this were my first, and likely, my last chance, to actually be a teacher.
“The world doesn't need any more cynicism,” I said. “It needs beauty. And insight. And originality. It doesn't need you."
I let him go, then looked out at the class. They were all on their feet and terrified. I looked down at my hands, suddenly so alien to me. Then I cleared my throat and cheerfully proclaimed, “Okay, now for the Inciting Incident.”
Everyone found their seats in a daze. Even Eric. I actually continued with my lecture. I had said it so many times that I could perform the entire thing from memory, on auto-pilot. This was helpful because I spent the remainder of class periodically glancing over at Eric to see how he was handling what had just happened. I expected him to get up and rush out at any moment. God knows I would have if I were in his position. But Eric just sat at his desk, hiding behind his notebook the whole time.
At one point, Lisa touched Eric's shoulder and whispered, “Are you okay?” but he shuddered away. I caught a glance of his face and saw that his cheeks were red and swollen.
Class ended and most of the students left in hurry. Eric stayed. A few students hovered around my table to catch Round Two, but I shooed them out and closed the door behind them.
“I owe you an apology,” I said.
“You think?” he said.
“I'm sorry. As your teacher, I should have been more professional. A lot more professional”
“Are you saying that because you don't want me to get you fired?”
“Are you kidding?” I said, “I fucking hate this job.”
Eric looked at the desk and chuckled. Then he finally said, “Language, professor.”
He gathered up his notebook and put it in his backpack, which he slung over his shoulder. He looked at me with a little less resentment than I would have expected.
“So, what's next?” I asked.
“I don't know.”
“Do you still want me to be your teacher?” I asked.
Eric thought about it for a moment.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “You're an okay teacher.”
“Thanks,” I replied, “You're an okay student.”
I walked him through the door.
“I got an idea for a movie,” he said.
“It's about this really belligerent community college professor who goes way over the line.”
I locked the door behind us and continued walking with him down the hallway.
“Sounds great,” I said.
“Kind of like Dead Poets Society meets Scent Of A Woman,” he said, then added, “Except, you know, not shitty.”
I chuckled and shook my head. Goddamn Eric.
“I can't wait to read it,” I said.
“I'll bring in the first draft next week.”
“A whole screenplay in one week, huh?”
I shook my head and let out my own delighted little snicker.
"Okay. Deal," I said.
“Deal,” he replied.