Cast of Thousands, Chapter 28
Then the bell rang, and it was time for her to jam her books and papers back into her backpack and jam herself into the crowds of students heading to class. Somewhere to her right, she heard another student commenting, "Hard test, huh," and her heart rose; maybe her terrible work would just blend in with that of students who had skipped the assignment on purpose, or likewise forgotten it, or who didn't understand the text. But someone else replied, "Not really. But I think I finished first," and even though all those possibilities remained, she trudged to her next class with her head down, despondently.
Then Jess stopped, in the middle of the hallway, causing three students behind her to run into each other.
What had she been doing in English? Where had German class gone?
A cold wet knot formed in her stomach. Had she skipped class and gone to the wrong session of seventh-grade English? Maybe that explained why they had had a test on a chapter she hadn't read. But surely Mr. Bunting would have noticed she was with the wrong group of students - but maybe all the kids blended together for him, eventually.
But a clock in a nearby classroom showed that it was 10:53, time for her to run to Social Studies. She stood nervously for a moment longer, until a tall ninth-grader took her by the shoulders and moved her to one side, away from the crowd; then, yelping, she ran.
She took refuge in the familiar faces and classroom and early hunger pangs, trying to bury her confusion with the lesson on Nepal. Today they were watching a short National Geographic movie on women's lives in Nepal and India. Jessica privately doubted whether half an hour could be enough to tell them anything real about the lives of women across such a huge area. She was right, too, and her feet did a tiny smug dance under her desk.
"All right, everyone wake up," Ms. Woods said, turning off the television and rewinding the tape. "Are there any questions about the movie?"
Jess raised her hand, alone out of all her classmates.
Jess took a deep breath, looking around at the brightly decorated walls to avoid the teacher's eyes. "Was that movie made by a woman from India? Or Nepal?"
Ms. Woods hit the stop button. "That's an excellent question, class," she announced, sounding a little surprised. "Let's find out." She pressed fast forward, turned the television back on, and pressed play, slowly moving forward the rest of the way to the credits. "All right, now, everyone watch to see if you can find out who made the film."
They all stared at the screen, trying to read fast enough to see all the words moving across it. Murmurs of "Negative cutter!" and "What's a gaffer?" bubbled across the room. Ms. Woods had to play the credits again before they found it.
"There." She paused the tape. "The director was Norman Kauffman of the National Geographic Institute, and the executive producer was Cindy Alvarez. We can't say for sure about Ms. Alvarez, but it looks like the answer might be no. Can anyone tell me why this might make a difference?"
"Um.... because a guy wouldn't know what it's like to be a woman in India but..." A red-haired girl in the front began, but trailed off. Ms. Woods smiled at her. "That's a very good start, Tara. How does this affect our experience of the film? Or does it?"
There was general silence. In the back of the room, some poking and whispering began. Ms. Woods jumped on it. "Do you have some insight to share with the class, Lea? Brian?"
"I was just telling her... I thought it was a good movie," said Brian, obviously pleased with this as a last-minute save.
"I'm glad to hear it. Does it make a difference to you whether it was made by a man or a woman, or where the people involved were from?"
"No?" Brian guessed.
"Why not?" Ms. Woods pressed him.
"Because I think guys make better movies?"
This was greeted with a good number of gasps and angry hisses, but Ms. Woods simply asked, "Why is that, Brian?"
"Uh... Because most directors are guys, so they must be better at it?" Brian looked desperate.
"So, then, wouldn't that mean it does matter and you are in favor of a male director for this movie?"
"I guess so," Brian said, rocking back in his seat with relief when she moved on.
Half the class had been waving their arms to offer an opinion. Ms. Woods finally turned to them and chose one. "Tamlin? Do you have an opinion on this subject?"
Tamlin threw her arm back down and asserted, "I think that's totally sexist! Guys do not make better movies than girls! There's no, like, better-movie-making gene that only guys have!"
Ms. Woods remained calm. She practiced yoga five times a week. "All right, that's also an excellent point. But let's stay focused on the original issue here. The question as I see it isn't whether men or women make the best movies, but whether there is something important about having the director of a movie like this be from a specific cultural and gendered background." Ms. Woods watched the hands slowly go back down as the students mulled this new question over.
A tiny boy in the front of the room raised his hand. "Yes, Zach?" she said encouragingly.
"I was going to say something about what Tara said...." he began cautiously, and receiving a nod from Ms. Woods, went on. "Well like... like a lot of the time when people talk about how good a movie is they only say stuff about what kind of stuff the director does. Or like they'll talk about a director and all his movies and how you can totally tell a movie is his cause he... like... it's like when you can recognize someone's handwriting or a picture they drew or something."
This was a long speech for anyone, especially Zach. Mrs. Woods was impressed. She mentally noted that movies were the way to reach the small white boy, and nodded at him to continue.
"So I was thinking, maybe, the director is really the person who decides what a movie looks like and what it's going to say and stuff? So maybe if the movie is about women in India and places and what it's like to be them, it has to be made by someone who knows what that's like or else they can't really, really show you it?"
This was met by total silence from the class. Mrs. Woods said, enthusiastically, "That's a very good point, Zach! I think you may have nailed the question!"
"Wait a minute," Brian objected. "Isn't he just saying that a white guy couldn't make a movie about Indian people? Isn't that totally racist?"
"Ooo," Lea remarked.
For her part, Jess was mesmerized by the charged discussion. Ms. Woods suddenly rounded on her, again ignoring all the raised hands. "What do you think about that, Jessica? You raised the original question, after all."
Jess gulped. "I guess... I think... that it's not really racist to say that people should get to tell the stories about their lives themselves?" For once she was glad of her parents', and their friends', heated political debates over the evening news.
Brian seemed to be baffled into silence by this new point. But a new hand was up - Harley's hand. Jess realized that she barely even knew who was in her classes, and - in her confused state - resolved to start walking from German to Social Studies with Harley.
Without quite waiting to be called on, Harley burst out, "But then if that's true, then why did you show us that movie in the first place? I mean how do we even know that all the stuff we just saw is what women there even really do? Or how they really feel?"
The bell rang, much to Ms. Woods' relief. "Great discussion today, class, but I'm afraid we don't have time for any more. We can resume this later. Don't forget, chapter five and all the questions for tomorrow!" she called after them all.