I pinch hit for an English class the other day, an emergency taking the teacher out of the room and leaving me with some time to fill. It was an honors English class, and I had the opportunity of discussing the world of the 1940s with a group of intelligent young teens who had just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank. We talked about the causes of World War II, the black market, and the resistance movement in France. We read an excerpt from a story about a soldier told with first person immediacy, spoke about the stress the war put on everyone, soldier and civilian. And then we watched the end of Casablanca.
Now I dig old movies, The Third Man may be my favorite film, and I’d never pass up a screening of The Maltese Falcon, or Citizen Kane. So when I saw Bogie and Ingrid Bergman were on the agenda I was excited. I was also pretty dubious that a movie made in 1943 would play well with the kids.
As they started watching, my preconception looked like it would play out. A couple of boys shifted seats so they could whisper. I moved across the room and let my burliness quiet them. A girl in the third row began to braid the girl in the second row’s hair. They kept their eyes on the screen, but I wasn’t convinced that they were all that concerned about Laszlo’s fate or Ilsa’s heart.
Many, however, did seem interested. Those stolen letters of transit, Sam at the piano, dueling anthems sung at each other in Rick’s Café Américain, all the notes that captivated these kids’ parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents seemed to resonate with some of them too.
It’s something magical about teaching, seeing your students engage with a text that you connected with when you were in school. English teachers get it a lot: students surprised at first meeting Boo Radley, longing and loving with Juliet, and feeling their hearts break when Travis puts an end to Old Yeller. One of my own favorite experiences as an English teacher was having the privilege of introducing my students to Hamlet. “It’s the first time you’ll read this,” I’d tell them. “Enjoy it. And next time you read or see it, think about some of the things we’ve talked about, and dig deeper for even more. They’re there.”
Texts, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose (or even film) have the potential to spark thoughtful and meaningful discussion. Great texts can prompt students to think about the world a little differently. They ask kids to think and feel, and then be able to support their opinions using evidence from what they’ve read or seen. With some texts this is easy; they’re stories that strike a chord with the students right away. Some are tougher sells, antiquated language or stilted characters getting in the way of student connections.
Watching the kids watch Humphrey Bogart, who would be 116 years old today, I wondered which Casablanca might be.
And then we got to the end of the film. Rick shot Major Strasser, and before Louis could tell his lackey to round up the usual suspects, one of the boys I’d moved closer to earlier turned to his buddy and said: “I told you someone was going to get shot!”
The class heard Rick tell Ilsa about that hill of beans, shake the impassive Laszlo’s hand, and offer to Louis that they were at the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I noticed that the kids, all the kids, were really watching.
Really? I thought. They really liked this?
So I thought I’d kick the tires of that possibility. Maybe I’d been wrong; maybe a 72 year old film could resonate with today’s youth. I took a deep breath and asked that age old question: “Should Ilsa have stayed with Rick or gotten on the plane with Laszlo?”
I figured they’d all cite something like “true love” and we’d be done with it in a couple of minutes. I’d be able to leave the room with my misconceptions mostly intact, and they’d go on with their day, visions of that airplane disappearing into the fog left far behind.
I asked them to write down some arguments for each choice, and then talk with someone sitting next to them to see if they’d overlooked something of consequence. That done I went with the well worn hands in the air approach. And the vote split.
Curious, I broke them into sides of the room and invited them to talk about why they felt the way they did. Fifteen minutes later the class was engaged in a lively debate about Ilsa’s right choice.
One girl switched sides.
The class was thoughtful, articulate, and opinionated. They used examples from the film to make their points, and even seemed a little interested when I suggested that if they asked their parents or grandparents what they thought Ilsa should have done, they’d stand a good chance of hearing an opinion.
Did the kids really connect with Casablanca? Did they understand the human condition better, or really relate to these adult characters from the middle of the last century? Did they really get the film?
Pushed to give an answer, based on what I saw in class that day, I’d say they will get it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.