Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who is Julius Scissorhands?

(Caesar and Calpurnia practice in Hartenstein's classroom)

I’ve got this kid named Tonya who has this twin called Saul. The brother’s one of the cool kids in class. He carries his ping-pong paddles in a special leather case with his name engraved above a golden zipper and has this orange utility belt that holds the thin plastic balls like bullets in a gunslinger hip holster. Not kidding! It’s sweet. I mean, if you’re a thirteen –year-old Taiwanese boy and the only foreign movie, restaurant, or person you can name is Transformers, McDonalds, and Jeremy Linn, then a ping-pong ball utility belt makes you the Steve McQueen of your generation.
(Xian helps out with painting the Scissorhand molds before school)

You see, Tonya is toxic. She’s overweight with brown teeth and this half-retarded mouth breather stare like she licked too many paint chips as a kid. Saul is constantly laying into her. How she’s fat, and farts, and how she’s ugly and stupid and when she reads the boys make cow sounds and when she walks by they throw garbage at her, and basically she is the class punching bag.
(The fickle mom prepares to enter...they simultaneously love and revile Scissorhands)

I keep pulling Saul aside and telling him to lay off. That Tonya is his sister, that he needs to stick up for her, to defend her honor, to help make her shine, that’s what big brothers do, but Saul says she was born first and that she's on her own. Besides, look at her. He points in the corner where she is standing at the chalkboard drawing a rainbow with one hand and rubbing her bulging gluttonous belly with the other. Her hair is gnarled and pulled back into a smiley face scrunchy, and her mouth is agape. Saul says, “If she was your sister, you’d be ashamed.”
He’s right, of course. Tonya is not my sister. She’s not my daughter either. She’s my student. My responsibility to her lies in a different direction.
(Of course, I read the play to my daughters... and show them this awesome BBC cartoon serious... they get it.. but don't like it when Scissorhands gets stabbed... that's why I made the senators all have ping-pong paddles for hands)

I see this a lot in schools, not just Taiwan. School is supposed to be this safe place but instead it becomes a battleground. The weak, the weird, the wacky, all get washed away in this collective pummeling. There's no voice for them, nobody to even wave a white flag.
Of course... that got me thinking.
(The choice for all the other characters to have ping-pong paddles for hands, originally came out of my distaste for the total reverence that hobby has in Asia. How Taiwanese boys often think of nothing else)

It was Christmas time about two years ago and we had returned to America, back to Colton to the family farm for carols around the fire, my mom's amazing pies, and all the gifts wrapped up perfectly around a fresh smelling Douglas Fir my dad had cut out of the back yard. It was magic, really.
Sacked out on the sofa curled up with my three daughters twisted and contorted and pinning me down in one of those moments where you dare not move or somebody will awake and so mercifully a family member wraps an afghan around you and leaves you alone. When, wouldn't you know it, the 1990 Tim Burton movie, Edward Scissorhands came the TV.
Damn you, Johnny Depp.
(Hartenstein gets into the act, painting props in the early morning before any student has arrived)

I... Love...Edward Scissorhands!
I love everything about it. I love that he squeaks and rusts and creaks and barely moves else he cuts the room to shreds. I love that people are so afraid of him but yet his own face is covered with slices and scars. He's perfect. Laying there, unable to move, my arms and legs going numb under the weight of my daughters...I hatched out a plan to use Edward as a Shakespeare character, and Julius Scissorhands was born.
(Practicing after school and at lunch... the students assemble.  None of them have ever been in a play before)

But the thing is...I really thought I was kind of alone. I had no idea of the mass appeal of this movie. I mean, you start to think of all the cool Johnny Depp characters... Cross dressing Ed Wood, murderous barber Sweeny Todd, cocaine smuggling George Jung, wise cracking Donnie Brasco, bank robbing John Dillinger, and Peter Pan writer James Barrie... not to mention Willy Wonka, Ichabod Crane, Don Juan, Gilbert Grape, the Mad Hatter and...oh yeah...that pirate guy... Johnny Depp is basically the Steve McQueen of my generation.
(I know, it may not look like much... but it's a start)

Which makes him, of course, perfect to poke fun at... or at the very least someone who I can use to show how others get poked and prodded and made to look like fools.
(I want the students and my daughters to know how much goes into a performance like this...how much thought and work...how much thought goes into a classroom.  Hopefully they see that)

So that's kind of the message of Julius Scissorhands. Yes, it's a Shakespeare adaption, but really it's about engaging the kids in a larger conversation about this beloved character that gets murdered in jealousy and rage for nothing other than... he's different.  A Tonya of the world.

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