Oh, Miss Pomeroy. We’ve all had those days. Those days when the mindlessness of rules and bureaucracy just becomes too much; when pettifogging restrictions and other people’s small-mindedness make you want to snap. If all teachers have moments when we’re telling our students to keep their wits about them while we’re talking about scree, we all have our Miss Pomeroy moments, too: moments when we want to step out of our classrooms and scream.
Miss Pomeroy, played by Drew Barrymore, is the English teacher in the cult film Donnie Darko, whose plot – involving time-travel, teenage rebellion and a giant demonic rabbit called Frank – has spawned endless theorizing in various corners of the internet. If you haven’t watched Donnie Darko, you really should. It has a cracking soundtrack – Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division – and lots of extremely quotable lines. If anyone ever tells you that sometimes they doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion, you’ll know that they’re a Donnie Darko obsessive.
The film is set in the run-up to the 1988 US presidential election, and focuses on Donnie, a troubled teenager who believes that he knows when the world is going to end. The school he attends is middle-class and deeply conservative, but Miss Pomeroy is something of a rebel. She is young and cool and beautifully cutting. She is also extremely deadpan: no Dead Poet’s Society-style exhortations to seize the day, no impassioned speeches that set the world on fire. The text that she chooses for Donnie’s English class is Graham Greene’s short story ‘The Destructors’. It focuses on a group of boys – the Wormsley Common Gang – who, led by a mysterious newcomer called T., systematically destroy a beautiful old house by taking it apart from the inside out. They rip out the skirting-boards, prise up the parquet from the floors, saw through joists and scrape the mortar from between the bricks: they are organised and meticulous. Their actions could be interpreted as nihilistic, but Donnie explains that destruction can be seen as a form of creation, with its own strange beauty. ‘They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart,’ offers Donnie. ‘They want to change things.’
So far, so straightforward. Except that Donnie’s school is suffering its own acts of destruction. An axe has been embedded in the head of a statue, daubed with the slogan ‘THEY MADE ME DO IT’. A water pipe has been vandalised, flooding the hallway. Another teacher, a fundamentalist Christian, blames Miss Pomeroy’s teaching of ‘The Destructors’ and denounces the story as ‘filth’ and ‘garbage’. The school’s principal calls Miss Pomeroy to his office to tell her that her methods are inappropriate. She argues her corner. She tells the principal that he doesn’t have a clue how to communicate with his students. Her words will ring true with just about every teacher who has ever railed against the restrictiveness of the curriculum and its failure to meet the needs of today’s teenagers: ‘We are losing them to apathy … to this prescribed nonsense. They are slipping away.’
Miss Pomeroy’s fight is all in vain. The forces of conservatism and narrow-minded orthodoxy prevail: she’s allowed to finish out the week, and that’s that. And Miss Pomeroy does what many a teacher has wanted to do. She steps outside the principal’s office, and, with all the breath in her lungs, shouts ‘FUUUUUCK!’
I’m imagining Miss Pomeroy coping with fronted adverbials, target grades and assessment objectives. I’m wondering what she’d say to Michael Gove about the utter travesty that is the current incarnation of GCSE. I’m not sure she’d have a ready supply of tissues and digestives, like Mrs Lintott, but I bet she’s got several decent bottles of gin at home, waiting for those days when she needs to rage against the machine. Because sometimes, we all want to tear the world apart and shout ‘FUUUUUCK!’ at the top of our voices at the stupidity of it all; and sometimes, we are all Miss Pomeroy.