The Dangerous Expectations of “The Kindergarten Teacher”
I took a mental health day from work this week and spent the day in my bed with Netflix. Scrolling through looking for something to entertain me and distract from my own head, I came across a movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I have loved since she stole the show in Mona Lisa Smile. The movie, directed by Sara Colangelo, was called The Kindergarten Teacher, and its trailer suggested a drama with a sinister feel. Perfect. But it wouldn’t be long before I found myself in tears, my ennui becoming acute angst as I related with Gyllenhaal’s Lisa, a middle-aged suburban wife, mother of teens, and, as the title suggests, a kindergarten teacher.
WARNING: This will be spoilery.
Lisa is a wannabe poet, a passionate lover of the arts, and aspires to write professionally. But at middle age, she is just a kindergarten teacher and a suburban mother to children who, she feels, hold no appreciation for culture. She laments what she calls their “lack of curiosity”. She is disappointed that they prefer their phones to books, that her son is opting for the military over a college education. Even she, in her adult ed poetry class, fails to impress with her creative endeavors.
Then one day she overhears Jimmy, a little boy in her class, reciting a poem. He tells her he made it up and she is immediately enthralled with what she believes is a child prodigy. However, she soon learns that none of the adults in Jimmy’s life are interested in or likely to cultivate his potential. Thus begins an obsession with the boy and his talent that is uncomfortable to watch. The movie does not go to the worst imaginable place, but Lisa’s interactions with Jimmy become creepy, nevertheless. I cringe when she leads him out of the classroom during nap time and takes him into the bathroom (though nothing nefarious occurs), when she programs her number into his phone and asks him to call her when he “has a poem”, and when she takes him to perform his poetry in a bar against his father’s wishes, keeping him overnight.
Things unravel for Lisa from there and by the end of the movie she has ruined her own life. But before the movie came to a disturbing place, I was very much relating to Lisa. I am roughly her age, and like Lisa, I often despair that my life is not what it could have been. I am missing out on much of what the world has to offer by virtue of where I live and my station in life. I’ve never left the continent, but I have traveled to some amazing American cities, and each time I do, it is almost insufferable to come back to the culturally unsophisticated place I call home. I wish I lived in a place where art and high culture were abundant. I wish I had become the famous author I dreamed of at one time. Like Lisa, I find myself wondering how I let my life become so ordinary.
I understand her fear that her children lack intellectual curiosity, and relate to her dismay at their rejection of her attempts to share her cultural interests with them. But by the end of the movie, it’s clear that these things are more important to her than her own family; she has lost touch with what matters in her life in pursuit of something else.
The movie is disturbing. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Lisa; her whisper-y soft voice and kind face purvey the nurturing kindergarten teacher to a T. You find yourself sympathetic to her and rooting for her until its almost too late to see what she’s actually doing; then you are horrified to realize where Lisa’s desperation has led her. Maybe her mediocre life isn’t so bad. Maybe her ordinary, disinterested children are fine, actually. Maybe it’s her own life Lisa is missing out on, not the high-culture world of her dilettante aspirations.
If I have a criticism to offer this movie, beyond its troubling effects, I would argue that the poems Jimmy recites are far too complex for even the most advanced five-year-old brain. In fact, I fully expected to find out in the end that he was simply memorizing them from somewhere else. But I reasoned that perhaps that was the point, a parallel to Lisa’s unrealistic expectations for Jimmy, for herself, and for her children.
There are a few movies that I have seen, appreciated, and never want to see again. This is one of them. Requiem for a Dream is another. Both are too-realistic depictions of their characters’ downfall via self-destruction. These kinds of movies are just too penetrating for me. I feel that desperation too acutely.
At its heart, The Kindergarten Teacher is about unfulfillment and a cautionary tale about where we look to satisfy it. I still believe there is more that I can accomplish in my life and more that I can do. Until then, I’ll keep trying to expose my children to beautiful, complicated things, and I will continue to write the grown-up version of teenage emo poetry and hide it from the world. I’ll ignore that itch I get, wistfully daydream about the streets of New Orleans or the liveliness of San Francisco, and live my small, wonderful, ordinary life.