My final semester of high school, four years ago, I came down with a really bad case of viral pneumonia. My parents pointed fingers in every which direction as to who gave me the pneumonia, from the ladies at my Zumba class at the local JCC to my friend Joseph (who, at the time, had infected half my math class, including our teacher, with bronchitis).
However, trying to find a culprit was pointless. Regardless of who was responsible, I was out of school for six weeks and bedridden for most of them. There were a few joys, like the fact I was allowed to drop calculus, but it was mostly terrible. There were nights when I felt like I was drowning, the things that tasted great before felt inedible, including my favorite rugelach from the local bakery, and I missed out on an unusually tame Toronto winter.
Though many of the things that had previously brought me comfort failed when faced with pneumonia, one thing worked: Richard Linklater’s 2003 masterpiece School of Rock. Laying on the makeshift bed I had fashioned on my couch, I watched School of Rock over and over and over again. Credits would begin to roll to the tune of Jack Black and co. singing ACDC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” and I would make my first movement in hours — reaching over to grab the remote — to go back to the DVD menu page and play the movie again.
For the uninitiated: School of Rock is a 2003 film starring Jack Black as Dewey Finn, an aspiring rock star turned prestigious prep school substitute teacher who galvanizes his fifth grade class to form a rock band in secret. The school’s principal, Roz Mullins (Joan Cusack!), feels pressure from the students’ parents to transform the school’s pupils into prodigies, and the students and the staff view her as an uptight ruler. In one of many memorable scenes, Dewey takes Roz to a bar to try to convince her to allow the students to participate in a battle of the bands; a drunk Roz agrees, while singing along to Stevie Nicks. And so rock music flows in the vein of every person in the movie: Dewey, the students, and even the initially sour Roz.
Though I had seen the movie plenty of times before, watching it a couple of months before I was set to graduate from high school, it became something more than just a feel-good movie about a teacher and his students jamming out to rock’n’roll. School of Rock became the perfect middle finger to academia. The rock star sensibilities of the students struck a chord with me, as I hoped to follow in the footsteps of the moppy-haired Strokes and the monochrome Jack and Meg White. The idea of ditching math and science class to focus on translating carnal rage and frustration into electric guitar riffs and drum solos deeply appealed to me. At the time, I saw the world as a series of binaries, and the polar opposite of sitting in a classroom and learning a monotonous lesson was playing rock music.
Flash forward four years later, and I’m watching School of Rock on repeat again. I’m three months into a strict quarantine and only a year away from finishing my undergrad, but I find that I no longer resonate with Dewey and his motley crew of prep school students. Rather, I now watch for Joan Cusack’s Roz.
Though I am a university student and not an uptight principal, Roz’s anxieties and concerns now make sense to me. Whereas before, I related to the binary of structure versus rebellion, four years in university have opened my eyes to another pairing — that of substance versus expectations. Roz is a closeted Stevie Nicks fan and confides in Dewey that she fears the faculty see her as a “bitch” because the stress of maintaining prestige for the prep school has turned her uptight. Her main worry isn’t about what students are learning, but rather, about the way in which the lessons are perceived by the parents.
It’s a dichotomy I’ve encountered many times while attending a prestigious Canadian university. Encountering professors who make classes purposefully dense so as to maintain my university’s reputation of being “difficult” has made me question both the future of my academic studies and what role I play in the overall system. As a student — someone at the very bottom of the power hierarchy — how much autonomy do I really have?
It’s a thought that has been bothering me all quarantine.
So, is rock’n’roll the antidote to the stressful bureaucracy of academia? Not quite.
School of Rock’s main argument isn’t that traditional academia is a thing of the past and that the only subject worth studying is something ideologically erratic and destructive like rock music. Rather, the film and its cast of characters stand as proof that mixing the traditional with the contemporary only serves to move us forward. Katie (Rebecca Julia Brown) knowing how to play the cello is what allows her to conquer the bass; Zack’s (Joey Gaydos Jr.) status as a classical guitar maestro is why he is able to take the lead with the electric guitar; Lawrence’s (Robert Tsai) prowess as a piano player is what transforms him into a prolific keyboardist.
Similarly, what results in the band’s ultimate success is Dewey using traditional teaching methods when instructing his class: Though he initially denounces pedagogy, he turns into a stereotypical teacher, relying on lessons on the chalkboard, practice sessions, and strict schedules. Dewey even puts emphasis on teaching theory and history — granted, it is all in the rock-sphere.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the montage where Dewey is teaching his class about rock history, pointing to a chart where folk rock leads to new wave which leads to grunge. The chart is written in chalk on a blackboard and the students take rigorous notes, as if they are studying human anatomy or some kind of mathematical formula. Art and the classroom, it seems, are not as incongruous as we may have initially believed.
In the same vain, thinking about the positive aspects of my university experience, the professors who have made me feel like they value me as an individual, and not a nameless entity lost in a sea of faceless students, are also those who encourage the class to find creative ways of expressing ourselves and solving problems. Some don’t use textbooks at all; others urge us to look to our own personal experiences, cultures, and identities when researching a subject so as to expand an otherwise monoscopic topic to fit into a vibrant and diverse world.
As I enter my final year of university, and decide where to pursue my master’s, it’s comforting to be reminded that ultimately, it is possible to strike a balance between traditional academia and contemporary creativity. Watching School of Rock over and over again, as I’m doing now, I see it less as a “rage against the machine” film, and instead, a reminder of the fact that passion prevails, not with the rejection of traditionalism, but for the sake of progress.
How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.