‘Summer School’ Revisited
Before summer officially runs out on September 21st, perhaps we should all take a moment to recognize a cultural milestone: twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1987, the vastly underrated Mark Harmon comedy Summer School made its theatrical debut.
For those of you who have (inexplicably) never seen it, the film recounts the wacky misadventure of Freddy Shoop (Harmon), an uninspired teacher with a crop of equally uninspired summer school students. Shoop’s been given an ultimatum: get these slouches to pass English… or lose his job. Along the way, Shoop also has to foil an Evil Vice-Principal (a requirement for 80s movies) and win the heart of the teacher next door, the prim, by-the-book Robin Bishop (played by Kirstie Alley).
Watching it again a quarter-century later, I have to say the film is quite remarkable—and not just because it allows one to chart how far its leads have come: Mark Harmon, after all, has evolved from playing goofy, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing playboys like Shoop to raking in $500,000 per episode as the super-serious Special Agent Gibbs on the top-rated NCIS; and Kirstie Alley is… well, she’s slated to reprise her role as “Self-Parodying Hasbeen” on the upcoming Dancing with the Stars: All-Stars.
No, what really makes this movie stand out is how sweet it is. Not only does film have a lot more heart than it ought to, given its premise, it’s also nowhere near as raunchy as other flicks that came out in the Porky’s-fueled 80s. (Clearly, though, the film’s marketing folks don’t want you to know that: the DVD cover shows Mark Harmon, margarita in hand, poking out from behind a sign that says “Bikini Xing.”)
Granted, the film doesn’t get everything right. As someone who has taught in the summer school trenches for twelve years, I have a few quibbles with the movie’s depiction of the venerable post-vernal (or pre-autumnal) educational institution. For example…
* Mr. Shoop is basically blackmailed into teaching summer school by aforementioned Evil Vice-Principal, after the real teacher wins the lottery and bails. In real life, teachers choose to teach summer school; believe it or not, we even get paid to do it.
* Shoop is a physical education teacher but he’s forced to teach English—a switcheroo that tends not to happen in the real world, due to this pesky thing called Teacher Certification.
* Finally, Mr. Shoop’s job is dependent on whether or not his students pass a test at the end of the summer. Now, come on: judging a teacher on how well the students do on an exam? That would never, ever happen in real life. (Uh… hmmmmm…)
Moreover, as a teacher myself, I’m a little uneasy about how close Shoop gets with the kids. A major plot point has Shoop agreeing to give the students incentives to get them to study for the final exam. Good idea… except one of the “incentives” involves allowing the kids to throw a party at his house. Not cool, Shoop.
Even less cool: he lets a fetching female student named Pam move in with him. Nothing happens between them, of course, but still… that’s some fire with which single male teachers should not be playing. (Bonus points if you recognized a young Courtney Thorne-Smith playing the part of Pam.)
All those quibbles notwithstanding, the film does an admirable job portraying its teens in a genuinely positive light. No, the students are not the most studious lot. And no one will ever accuse them of being role models: one moonlights as a male stripper, while two others almost get arrested for underage drinking. (Luckily, Mr. Shoop intervenes… and then gets arrested himself!)
Still, the teenagers in Summer School do have some redeeming qualities. When Evil Vice-Principal tries to replace Shoop, they drive out the new teacher by re-enacting scenes from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And when they realize Shoop’s job depends on their grades, they try their darnedest to step it up. In short, they care about poor Mr. Shoop.
And Shoop cares about them, too—which is another thing that makes Summer School stand out among other 80s teen-flicks: it shows adults actually having some redeeming qualities of their own. And given the shellacking adults took in 80s cinema, this is a revolutionary concept indeed.
Take, for instance, the grown-ups in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Mr. Rooney is a vengeful, monomaniacal doofus; Cameron’s dad loves cars more than his son; even Mr. and Mrs. Bueller, despite their obvious love for Ferris, are completely clueless and ineffective.
There’s more: The minister in Footlose who outlaws dancing. The parents in Sixteen Candles who forgot Molly Ringwald’s birthday. The dad in Say Anything who’s been siphoning money off his elderly clients for years. And, really, isn’t Impending Adulthood the main antagonist of St. Elmo’s Fire?
Ultimately, all these depictions just reinforce what Ally Sheedy says in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
Well, Freddy Shoop’s heart is alive and kicking, thanks. Yeah, he shouldn’t have taken the kids on that field trip to the peting zoo. And he really shouldn’t have let the kids party at his house. But he does lecture them about how drinking kills brain cells. And he goes out of his way to help the students—serving as the driving teacher for one student and the Lamaze coach for another.
And he somehow inspires them: they all do OK on their final exam. No, only a few of the kids technically pass; in fact, the kid who gets the highest grade excused himself to go the bathroom on the first day and never came back. Still, they show enough improvement that Reasonable Principal, overriding Evil Vice-Principal, allows Shoop to keep his job.
In the end, despite all its low-brow humor and general goofiness, the film teaches some pretty good lessons:
(1) Working hard pays off.
(2) Good things happen when adults and teens share a common goal.
(3) Shoop says at the end, “There’s more going on here than test scores and grades”– a truth that someone should communicate to the folks in Washington. After all, a grade on an exam rarely reflects all the valuable things going on in a classroom.
(4) And, finally, as the student who spent the entire six weeks in the bathroom reminds us… some kids improve by not coming to class. (Sadly, I’m probably not joking there…)
Bottom line: if you haven’t seen Summer School at any point in the past twenty-five years, check it out. Even if you have seen it, check it out again. Either way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Like Mark Harmon himself, the movie has aged pretty well.
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