(UPDATE November 2019: This post served as the core of a paper I published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing on Halloween. It’s a great theme issue on “Curriculum of the Monstrous” — free access, check it out!)
I love horror films more than anything, and vampire and zombie horror most of all. Horror is a fever dream of possibility, an opportunity to try on the most extreme iterations of story and see what they might refract back upon the everyday humdrum. And vampires and zombies are such different tropes, but they have in common the opportunity to consider anew what it is to be human, or not, and what the space in-between might constitute.
That’s why The Girl With All the Gifts is consuming me right now. It is that rare horror movie that is about school, sort of. But it is also about how we choose to respond to a moment of apocalypse: how our deepest instincts for defense and self-preservation might actually hasten our end, and prevent our inevitable evolution.
If you think we are fin-de-siecle in public ed right now — well, you might want to have a look at it. You probably haven’t seen it, so some exposition is in order.
The movie opens with a bizarre school-morning ritual. Melanie, about thirteen, sits on her bed counting on her fingers. Suddenly the lights come up, revealing her to be dressed in orange institutional wear and living in a prison cell. She hides the two photos she’d tacked to the wall – a kitten, a forest – and pushes a wheelchair outfitted with wrist, ankle, and head straps into place before the door. Through which door come two fierce leathernecks, in full gear and pointing assault weapons at her. She cheerfully greets them, by name; one keeps the rifle trained on her head while the other locks her into the chair, and we see her wheeled in a line with twenty other similarly-secured children into a windowless, poorly-lit room, where their chairs are secured in rows facing a teacher’s desk. Class is about to start.
We learn subsequently, in a series of expert reveals, that Melanie is outside London, twenty years after a rampant fungal infection has transformed most of the population into lightning-fast, savage “hungries” whose only volition is to prowl the countryside for flesh to sustain them. Melanie, and her classmates, are also “hungries,” but a second-generation strain. They seem to retain human personalities — capacity for interaction and cognition — but also transform into ravenous monsters when they smell human flesh or wait too long between feedings. They are being subjected to research in a heavily-fortified military bunker by Dr. Caldwell, who believes their hybrid nature makes them a promising source for a cure. But her research requires their vivisection, and the reduction of their brains and spinal cords into a vaccine.
“School,” then, is nothing more than presentation and demanded recall of a series of “data pairs, just names and numbers. Content is not really relevant, is it?” It’s a probe into their minds to discover who and what they are by their capacity to respond. According to some obscure logic, their school performance relates to when and if they’ll be selected for slaughter.
The primary teacher for these sessions is Miss Gustineau. Another soldier, but young, pretty, compassionate. To see her interact with these students, to see her choose to offer them stories instead of the periodic table, is to hear echoes of a hundred “hero teacher” movies, where an ingenue armed only with love and energy enters a blackboard jungle and eventually transforms it, but not before she is punished by the old guard for her heresy. We feel like we’ve seen this movie before.
But we haven’t. Because even though Gustineau’s relationship with Melanie seems like warmed-over “Dead Poet’s Society”-style essentialism at first, the mystery of Melanie’s motivations won’t let it be. Yes, Melanie melts at Miss Gustineau’s loving hand on her head; yes, Melanie spins her own story about how she might protect Gustineau and spirit her away to a safe place far from here. (Gustineau reads the students the myth of Pandora – the way the gods, who “never forget,” unleash a curious woman on the world, who opens the box that unleashes all the evils and pains on the world that humankind endures. But Pandora also releases hope: the energy to persist in the face of annihilation. Which of “all the gifts” Melanie will ultimately embody is what we watch to discover.)
Gustineau loves Melanie. But she also comes to learn the essential ambivalence of what she is encountering in Melanie. In a midnight conversation with Parks (the leader of the soldiers), she confesses that she knows Melanie loves her as well, but that it was her fault for “not getting out of the way in time,” as one might a wild animal lunging to bite. She pulls on the scavenged liquor bottle and hands it back — weary, compromised, as in-between and damned as anyone else in this story.
Gustineau’s pedagogic liberties are deeply troubling to the ruling paradigm about “hungries.” Central to Dr. Caldwell’s understanding is that they are nothing but evolving parasites — capable of “exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors,” but still not people.
But she isn’t sure. She doesn’t know if she’s witnessing the devolution of humanity or its transformation in Melanie and her classmates (and therefore also doesn’t know if slaughtering them for research is murder or harvest). And Melanie, unique among the characters, seems aware that she lives on the cusp of something new.
That’s why Melanie prods Caldwell into this exchange:
I don’t want to be a hungry.
But that’s what you are. In dissection, it’s very clear. The fungus is wrapped around your brain like ivy around an oak tree.
But I can talk. I’m like you.
You’re not like anything that’s ever existed before.
Tellingly, she quizzes Melanie, the brightest among the children, with logic puzzles, including Schrodinger’s Cat. How those in-between worlds wish to belong to both. But they cannot be both. No one can.
From the jump then, the film is about the in-between places. Melanie, the doctor, everyone, has left one identity behind but has not yet fully assumed another. How each character deals with “something not like anything that has existed before” will be the crux of what plays out going forward. “All the gifts” will mean some that are agonizing to receive.
Girl is a different kind of zombie story. So much energy in this genre is usually spent on the horror of realization that former life is over, and detailing the gory forms that the transformation assumes. Zombie stories usually end with victory over the pathogen, or complete absorption of one world by the next. It’s a minority of films that try to explore what happens during the evolution of society that endures a zombie insult, let alone feint toward any hybridity in what will take its place. (Note that the 28 Days Later series has, as its second film, 28 WEEKS Later — though even that conceit of aftermath reveals itself to be a sequel in the truest form. They’re BAAAAACK…). How people understand the moment they are in — what struggles are still to be decided, and which are long since settled, and who knows — that’s the drama that unfolds.
The endgame of humanity is already in motion, we come to realize, and has been from the start. It’s crucial that the zombie infection in Girl is fungal, not viral: it seeks symbiosis with its human host, not annihilation and domination. While Girl, like so many zombie stories, is a little fuzzy on when humans are attacked for food and when they are colonized for transformation, none of the humans we come to know die of the pandemic itself. Dr. Caldwell has been the walking dead since five minutes after we met her: she sustains a deep cut on her hand when her lab is overrun early on, which leads eventually to the sepsis that as good as kills her. (We also discover at the end that another of Melanie’s skills is her capacity to hold her breath. That’s what the counting was at the beginning; that’s what enables her to survive Caldwell’s last-ditch effort to subdue her for science.) Parks is also infected at the end, but chooses death by pistol over transformation. The other humans are red-shirts, dispatched uninterestingly in the uneven second act.
So maybe there is a way to survive into the new reality — as long as you are willing to accept survival on different terms than may have occurred to you heretofore. Only Miss Gustineau survives, in her human form, into the new epoch. And she does so as a specimen in an aquarium (the airlock mobile lab where Dr. Caldwell planned to make a last attempt to find a cure). She is locked in carefully and deliberately by Melanie, to ensure she survives the spore release that infects the entire world.
But she is not silenced. Melanie rallies the feral second-gen children, including many from her first class, to sit on the ground in front of the class door as Miss Gustineau puts up a whiteboard and begins class over the loudspeaker. “We’re going to continue getting the new kids up to speed,” she says, as Melanie snarls at stragglers to sit and be still. “Everyone else, if you can just be patient while they catch up with us, okay?” “Can we have stories?” asks Melanie, from the back of the crowd. “Later, “ she answers — like Scheherazade spinning tales to ensure her own survival, like Peter Pan’s Wendy trapped to tell stories to the Lost Boys. “There’s time.”
“There will be lots of time,” agrees Melanie, smiling. fin. It’s an ending that is “startlingly humane, particularly for a film focused on the decidedly inhuman.”
But we are definitely left wondering which part of Melanie calculated to keep Miss Gustineau. Is she a pet? Or a future experiment, the tables turned? Or is she a human connection, an insistence on Melanie’s part to maintain her humanity through the love she feels for a dear teacher? The film leaves us fumbling; Melanie’s final smile is enigmatic, and bottomless.
— — —
Perhaps public school is dying. Perhaps it was mortally wounded by a cut sustained early in the struggle.
The Nation at Risk report, maybe, when the national psyche most vividly realized how easy and productive it was to punch down at schools for whatever ailed it. Or maybe it was NCLB in 2002, and the grinding fifteen-year war of attrition it waged on public schools by both defining what their success looked like and ensuring that they never could achieve it. Or maybe it was Waiting for Superman, which cemented in the public mind through top-notch production values and rhetorical massage that big public schools were money vampires that sought to pad teacher pensions at the expense of students, and that the only stake to drive through its heart were charter schools.
Last night my college screened Backpack Full of Cash, a terrific new documentary that landed powerful punches about the privatization of public school. It was a ripsnorter. People were *fired up.* But I couldn’t help think it was a seven-year-late rejoinder to Superman: the first counterpunch I’d seen that matched it pound for pound, but the crowd had already left the building.
And I feared that maybe the fight for hearts and minds has been over for years. The rhetoric of competition and meritocracy was too strong; the picture of fat-cat unions on the pubic teat too indelible, by now. Even as I small-group-discussed the film’s valid, factual points, and even as I plan to teach my future teachers next month about privatization and neoliberalism and vouchers and the whole megillah, I wondered in the back of my mind if we are not already dead. If we have not already sustained the cut that has killed us.
And so I watch The Girl With All the Gifts, and find myself asking difficult questions for a champion of public school. Especially one who believes in the promise of direct action; of the arc of justice bending; of the innate wholeness of our culture:
- If public school is dead, what might its evolution look like?
- Does holding on to old ideas about what victory must entail doom us to die by our own hand?
- Is it worth surviving in a fishbowl, cut off from what we grew to expect as our future?
- If that also means we get to keep the megaphone on, and get to keep teaching?
I don’t think this is accommodationist talk. I welcomed Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny into my classroom this month, and required attendance at his campus address. I believe that history holds lessons, and that we can resist and maintain a true relation to the elements of democracy that doublespeak and fascist muscle have historically obscured and eventually dismantled. I do.
But I also wonder if we’re sacrificing ourselves on our the altar of our own paucity of imagination about what a future might look like. If we are inevitably moving toward a hybridity – “something that’s not like anything that’s existed before” — are we well-served to pretend we are not? Or are we — especially we teacher educators — only preparing folks who, when the change comes, will elect their own death (burnout, walking wounded, attrition) over staying and thriving in the new reality, on its terms?
In that same conversation where Caldwell tells Melanie about the ivy wrapped around her brain, she also shares her horrific origin story:
Dr. Caldwell, what am I?
We don’t really have a term for it.
But…you know where I came from? Tell me, please.
Where all babies come from, but by a slightly eccentric route… (You and the other children) were found in a maternity hospital. The mothers were there too. They were empty. Cored. All their organs devoured. from the inside. the mothers were probably all infected at once in a single incident, then the embryos were infected as well. Through the placenta. They ate their way out.
Not the first chestburster to be described (though not depicted, mercifully) in film, but a wholly different one. This time it’s a human cycle interrupted and requisitioned to other ends. This time a sacrificed host is consumed on the very terms that it negotiated with its offspring since sexual reproduction began (“I will feed you with and through my body”). The violation, then, is one of degree and not of kind: the evolution requires one moment of disequilibrium in its growth cycle, in which a first-generation host is sacrificed so that the second-gen may leap into being more than anything before or since has ever been. Broken eggs to make an omelette.
I wonder if we, uniquely, are that generation. Those whose work, whose energy, whose very substance will ultimately be consumed on the way to our kind becoming something else. If we’re not part of a larger metabolism that demands all our victories be pyrrhic, in order to establish rich ground for something else to grow and thrive.
This is becoming even more fin-de-siecle than I had expected. I apologize. I hope it does not land as nihilistic.
But all the humans in Girl, save one, essentially perish from a lack of imagination. Dr. Caldwell breaks herself upon the single-minded, modernist quest for a cure. Parks breaks himself against an unwillingness to consider mutation as a viable option for survival. The only one who does come through, intact, is one who allows herself to imagine into the possibilities of connection with something (a hungry) that everyone else insisted was inhuman (a ‘friggin abortion,’ in the guards’ parlance).
One whose connection was tentative and filled with doubt, but who sustained it nonetheless; who read the stories to the children, even if it meant her own punishment. The one who held out hope that her unique voice and way of being in this strange and horrifying new world would be sufficient, in the last reckoning, is the only one for whom it was.
All Gustineau is afforded in this new balance is her voice, tremulous over a loudspeaker. Her voice, and an assembly of children who, to varying degrees, will attend to what she has to say. This isn’t the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, with a literal standing ovation for a life in service to other people’s children. It’s the obverse, the bizarro. The teacher is rewarded for her teaching by the surgical excision of all aspects of her life except…her teaching.
And yet she will persist, and thrive, by all accounts. The last scene opens with her asleep on the floor. She wakes to Melanie’s knocking on the window — this is clearly not the first morning of the new regime. A tear trickles down her cheek.
What does she mourn? That which is lost and past on the way to becoming found, now? To quote another imagining of a cruel future, where we persist in different form:
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
And yet she does not die. Like the million teachers before her she gets up and pulls herself together, and goes out to meet her students. Class is always about to start.
Perhaps, then, we shall die. We who cry repentance at the end of times; we who champion the public and the pluralistic in a moment obsessed with privatization and fragmentation.
Or perhaps we will not — if and only if we can hold to what has brought us this far, while releasing so much else. Perhaps we are diminished in the terms of our survival, almost unrecognizably.
But we will still be around. And we will still raise a voice, to teach.