When I was fresh out of college in 1999, teen television shows and movies were experiencing a renaissance. American Pie was one the biggest hits of that summer’s box office and Dawson’s Creek was still going pretty strong on the WB. Having seen this success, television networks did what they always do when a concept is successful: copy it and hope that it works. That fall, we were treated to teen aliens in Roswell, inter-clique fighting with Popular, and the angst of Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway on Get Real. But my favorite show out of the teen explosion–well, the only one I actually watched–was Freaks and Geeks.
Set at McKinley High School in Michigan in the 1980-1981 school year, Freaks and Geeks follows a brother and sister, Sam and Lindsay Weir, through the travails of going to McKinley. When the series opens, Sam is the geek, finding himself tortured by a bully and having a hopeless crush on a cheerleader; conversely, Lindsay has thrown aside her geek friends and is hanging out with the stoners and burnouts who make up the “freaks” of the title. NBC cancelled the show in the middle of its season due to terrible ratings (it was on at 8:00 on Saturday night, losing in the ratings to COPS and Early Edition), although fans poured enough effort into a “save the show” campaign that three more episodes were aired in July 2000 (I contributed myself and have a T-shirt to prove it).
The men responsible for getting this show off the ground were Judd Apatow (he of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up fame) and Paul Feig (who recently directed Bridesmaids). Feig is credited as the show’s creator and in 2002, he published a collection of autobiographical essays entitled Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence. The stories about torture at the hands of bullies and ineptitude around the opposite sex (something he would further document in Superstud) are clearly the inspiration for a number of the storylines on Freaks and Geeks, as Feig is brutally honest about the ridiculousness of his formative years while at the same time being hilarious enough to not have a pity party. It’s kind of like he found the correct way to answer that torturous standardized test writing prompt, “What is your most embarrassing moment?” and answered it enough times for an entire book.
Now, the downside of the book is that while the experiences are honest and relatable, especially to a teenage audience, quite a lot of the language is realistic as well. One of the best essays in the collection (and the basis for one of the best scenes in <em>Freaks and Geeks</em> pilot episode), “The Gym Class Archipelago I: The Worst Game in the World” is a moment-by-moment breakdown of a nerd being put through the ringer in dodge ball (the old-school dodge ball with those now-illegal red rubber playground balls), and Feig’s comedic timing is amazingly on point; however, the fact that the bullies in the class call him “Paul Fag” and the story’s climax–when it looks like he’s going to be pummeled to death by dodge balls and the guys scream “KILL THE FAG!” he loudly responds, “YEAH? WELL FUCK YOU ALL, YOU FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGSSSS!” and promptly gets written up for swearing–might not go over too well with parents and administrators who don’t expect literature to have foul language. And honestly, you have to have a mature group of students who can handle seeing the f-bomb in an essay without running around the building telling everyone everywhere that the f-bomb was in something they read.
But there are a couple of essays that I do use as great examples of personal essays because they have a protagonist that is a kid/teenager and feature situations that students can relate to (I mean, I love high-minded literary essays as much as the next person, but I also like stuff that entertains without forcing deeper meaning down my throat, yunno?), and I don’t have to worry about hearing how the c-word made it into my class (as in “Hail to the Bus Driver” about how a group of freak girls tortured various bus drivers). The first is “Growing Up Throwing Up,” wherein Feig begins with a description of a kid throwing up in class and the janitor coming to save the day with red sawdust, then leads to a story of how, when he was in the second grade, he brought in a fire truck at show-and-tell and wound up loaning it to a kid who puked all over it. When we read it, I point out the imagery in all its disgusting glory, Feig’s use of onomatopoeia (SPLAT!), and the way the description of the janitor sweeping the puke away at the beginning foreshadows the more-detailed incident at the end (Chekov’s Barf?).
Similarly, “Can Buy Me Love,” where a junior high-aged Feig tries to impress a girl by giving her an ugly necklace, provides an excellent example of a solid introduction (something that I always find myself working on because every year I get the “I am going to tell you about …” intro) and one of the best descriptions of a moment that I have ever read. Paul wants this girl to be his girlfriend but he’s way too shy to actually talk to her so he has the necklace (which his mom picked out for him) delivered by a friend, and while he watches the necklace get delivered, things go slow motion:
What would I do when our eyes met? Should I wave? Smile? Act cool? Pucker up? Throw up? My brain was spinning. Maybe I’ll just run out of the room. No time. Her eyes were almost at mine. And what if she’s so happy about the necklace that she runs across the room and kisses me right here? That would be great. Everyone would see it and it would secure my place in the Junior High Hall of Fame. But I’ve never kissed a girl before. And now maybe I’d have to do it right in front of Mr. Parks and everybody. It was all happening too fast. I should have thought this through more. Oh, God. She’s gonna know I exist now. Somebody help me. The moment of truth was here. Her eyes hit mine. My body went numb. She gave me a puzzled look that said “Who the hell are you?”
I mean, this is brilliant, and whenever we read this, I go back and read this aloud to the class and say, “Guys, this is an essay.” We then go on to looking at how he boils the story down to a moment or two and a person or two and gives us every detail vividly, plus transitions from paragraph to paragraph without feeling like he has to say “first” or “second” or “third.” Then we break out some writing prompts or brainstorm some essay topics and try to write personal essays that try some of the techniques that he uses. The results are mixed–aren’t they always?–but it’s at least a nice departure from the heavy “important” stuff that populates the heavy “important” textbook.