8 a.m.: Room 321
Inside a raucous L.A. public high school classroom that will soon be brimming with a cultural, racial, and ethnic amalgam of 11th graders. The handful of bright, talented kids sprinkled throughout the class is greatly overshadowed by the majority of their academically troubled peers.
The underachievers engage in a variety of unscholarly activities. Some text away on smart phones; others watch or listen to iPods while cavorting with neighbors or sleep with their heads planted on their desks. One student self-consciously cloisters himself between his spaced-out resource aid and a wall.
Having perfected the art of subtlety, the ambitious ones wait poised (but not too poised) and ready to learn, with notebooks open and pens at the ready. These kids possess the uncanny ability to skim notes or read passages without appearing as though they care too much.
The first-period late bell blares as stragglers file in. Half the desks in class are devoid of students; in 20 minutes, there won't be enough seats to accommodate them all.
The sound of bending, twisting metal pierces through the ambient clamor. It comes from outside; all activity freezes as students turn to the commotion.
A beefed-up mountain of a man, clad in red cape, matching boots, and a bright blue uni-tard, emblazoned with the letter "S" across the chest, pries open the bars on the classroom window. With a flick of his fingers, he smashes through the windowpane, squeezes his body through the widened bars, and glides deftly and safely onto the classroom floor.
For the moment, the students of Room 321 sit in rapt silence. They realize this man is no mere mortal: This... is Superman. With one elegant swipe, the storied Man of Steel dusts himself free of glass chards, chipped paint and asbestos shavings, then swaggers to the front of the class.
Superman: Greetings, youngsters!
The great Superman pauses for a fawning reception, which never materializes.
SM: How did you all get in here?
Stephanie Rolls her eyes and then checks her phone for an incoming text.
Stephanie: The door. Custodian opened it.
Superman: Ah, mortals. Always taking the easy way!
Superman forces an awkward smile. Seconds removed from his grand entrance, most students have already lost interest. Several even fall back to sleep. The clackety-clack of texting resumes, followed by the hum of teenage voices.
SM: So word has it you've all been "waiting" for me.
Superman emits a booming superhero chuckle, which is all but ignored by his new charges.
SM: But no -- seriously...
Undeterred, Superman presses on with his trademark good-natured aplomb. He breaks down into an athletic crouch.
SM: Okay! So who's ready to learn, Justice League-style?
Two boys shuffle in and obliviously cut in front of the greatest superhero of all time. One of them flops down into his seat and immediately falls asleep; the other exchanges sleepy fist-bumps with his cronies, en route to his seat. A bemused Superman turns to the fist-bumper.
SM: Excuse me: young man?
A girl -- Tanya -- raises her hand but doesn't wait to be called on.
Tanya: Why are you wearing a leotard, Mister?
SM: This is no leotard, young lady. It's a two-billion-thread-count impermeable sheath, manufactured on the planet Krypton and blessed by the high priestess Tiarlactra. It's amalgamated from 80,000 different materials, only a fraction of which are found on earth.
Arman reaches over and pinches out an inch of fabric.
Arman: It's a leotard.
Somebody's cell ring tone activates, to the tune of Lil Wayne's "Got Money."
SM: Sorry, but I'm going to have to ask each of you to please disable all cordless communications devices, as well as any personal radios.
Ignoring the directive, Angel casually answers his cell phone.
SM: (to Angel) Excuse me, young man? Young man! I just got finished --
Angel: (Into his phone) Hold up. (to Superman) Sorry, I gotta get this.
SM: No, sir, You most certainly do not.
Superman reaches to confiscate the phone; Angel recoils.
SM: Young man!
Angel indignantly stashes the phone inside his knapsack.
Angel: There! Happy? Damn!
Angel "mad-dogs" the once unsinkable Man of Steel, who struggles to regain his composure.
SM: Now then: Let's get down to work, shall we? It says here your assignment for today was to compose a one-page critique of F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing style for the first three chapters of The Great Gatsby. So let me have everyone's paper, and then we can get started with the business of some California Standards Test preparation.
Only a smattering of students produce their homework. They're clearly nervous about standing out among their underachieving classmates.
SM: Go ahead and pass your papers to the front of the class. Don't be shy now.
Several papers, in various stages of decimation, trickle to the front of the class.
SM: Looks like we're missing some compositions here...
Sleeping at the back of the classroom, Moises lifts his head long enough to say:
Moises: The Great Gatsby sucks.
SM: It's a classic piece of American literature.
Moises: (putting head back down) And it sucks.
Nearby, DeShaun and Jesus pause from their GT Racing battle on DeShaun's iPhone.
DeShaun: It's boring as hell.
Jesus: Yeah, I don't get it.
SM: (turning to Jesus) Hmm. What exactly don't you get about it, son?
Jesus: All of it.
SM: Could you be more specific?
SM: Well, then here's what we'll do: let's take out our books, and we'll figure it out together. Everyone go ahead and turn to page... 42.
Superman thumbs through his copy of Gatsby.
SM: Ah! OK: I think I can see what might be the problem here. So in this section...
Superman glances up to see that only a handful of students have their books out and open; the rest have resumed their pre-class activities. The noise level spikes.
SM: Ladies and gentlemen? Ladies and gentlemen!
Superman's voice is barely audible above the din. The most omnipotent superhero in the universe is rapidly losing control of his class. He surveys the landscape, searching for a way to employ his superpowers and salvage his legacy. Out of options, he unleashes a surprisingly high-pitched scream.
SM: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Please take out your copies of The Great Gatsby... NOW!
Silence, followed by a sea of empty stares. Taking a respite from gazing into her makeup compact, Brenda raises her hand.
Brenda: Can't we just have a free day?
SM: Absolutely not. The semester's already half over, so there's no time to waste. Everyone who doesn't have a book, look on with a neighbor. Those of you with a book, turn to page 42, and we'll read aloud together. So who wants to get us started?
Superman scans the room for anyone half-willing to read aloud, but somehow all 40-plus students avert eye contact -- except for Garrett, who sheepishly raises his hand.
Garrett: I'll read.
Eyes roll, heads plummet. These kids know something Superman doesn't: While Garrett likes to read, he does so at a third-grade level.
SM: Great! Please, go ahead.
Garrett: The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eck...Uh...
SM: Eckleburg. That's important -- remember that name, kids. Keep reading, son.
Garrett: Um... are blue and juh... juh...
SM: Gigantic. They are blue and they are gigantic. Excellent. Keep going.
Some students groan; others mutter to themselves or shift restlessly in their seats.
DeShaun: Can't we just do test prep?
Jesus: Dude, you hate that shit.
DeShaun: (to Jesus) Would you rather fake-bubble the rest of the period, or talk about some T.J. Eckleheimer fool?
Jesus: Neither. I'd rather watch the rest of Blindside. Where's that other sub at?
SM: (to Garrett) Keep going, son. You're doing just fine.
But before Garrett can proceed, the school fire alarm activates -- at a volume and pitch that might best be described as "agonizing." Students instinctively cover their ears and pop out of their seats. Once again, class grinds to a halt.
SM: SIT DOWN!
Miraculously, everyone listens to Superman and returns to their seats. He shouts at peak volume to be heard above the racket.
SM: DON'T PANIC! EVERYONE GRAB YOUR THINGS AND FOLLOW ME!
The alarm stops. A crackling adult voice chimes in over the intercom.
Intercom Voice: Teachers: please disregard the fire alarm. I repeat, please disregard the fire alarm. And students: take note that anyone who knowingly triggers a false alarm will be given one full week of campus beautification. Thank you.
Garrett raises his hand.
Garrett: Can I keep reading?
Robert stirs restlessly in the back of class.
Robert: Oh, no!
SM: Actually, why don't we give someone else a chance...
Superman turns to Robert and cracks a wry smile.
SM: All right, son. Sounds like you're hankering to showcase your reading skills. Go right ahead.
Robert: Heeeells no! And I ain't your son.
SM: So let me get this straight: Even though you won't try, you find that it's okay to critique others?
Robert: What's critique mean?
Arturo lurches forward in his seat, his face barely popping through an XXXL hoodie.
Arturo: Yeah, why do you gotta keep using all these big words. Just talk normal.
Superman unwittingly commits his first teacherly sin: The patented eye roll.
SM: When you critique, you're giving your opinions on something you've analyzed.
Robert: Then I critique this class to be boring and stupid.
SM: Fine. If it's such a waste of your time, you can leave.
Robert: For real?
SM: If you think that's the wisest choice for your future, sure.
Calling his new teacher's bluff, Robert gets up and exits. Superman struggles to mask his consternation.
Garrett: Now can I read?
SM: Uh... sure. Please continue.
Garrett: ...Their ret... ret...
Anonymous Kid: Retards!
SM: Who said that? Don't say that!
It's impossible to identify the culprit. Several students break out into hyena-like laughter.
SM: The word is retinas. It's part of the surface of the eye. Keep going, son. Doing just fine.
Garrett: ... retinas... are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of...e normous yellow spec... spectacles.
SM: Good! So what are we looking at here? What might this image represent in the story? In other words, why would the author take all this time to describe this creepy, old billboard? Why? Come on, even if you haven't read this part yet -- think.
While a few more casualties of boredom and apathy plop their heads on their desks, several students look as though they might be poised to volunteer possible answers. One kid even begins to raise his hand -- but he's interrupted by yet another frazzled intercom announcement.
Intercom: Teachers and students: we have an important message for all girls frosh-soph cheer candidates. Girls' JV cheer tryouts have been rescheduled from this coming Tuesday to this coming Wednesday on the main field near the big gym. Please adjust your schedules accordingly. Thank you.
SM: (nonplused) OK, so again: Why does Fitzgerald want us to care about the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg?
Diana shoots up her hand.
SM: Yes! The young lady in the light blue blouse!
Diana: Can I go to the bathroom?
SM: Is it an emergency?
SM: Then no.
Arpine raises her hand.
Arpine: Can we have our old teacher back?
Arpine looks two seats over at Arman for affirmation.
Arman: Yeah, we want Ms. Hamlisch.
Tanya: (to Arman) Damn, you don't have to be rude about it.
SM: Thank you young lady, but I think it's time I leveled with you kids. The district brought me in because they said your test scores were poor and that you lacked motivation. Then they told me your teachers were also mailing it in and that this school had become a dropout factory. They said you needed someone who could come in and bring up your test scores immediately, that you needed someone better than a teacher.
Arturo: But you can't even figure out how to use a door.
Arturo's snap elicits a wave of "oohs" and "ahhs" from his classmates.
SM: Fine. I get it. None of you likes me.
Angel: You got that right.
Stephanie: Speak for yourself, dummy.
SM: The point is, we all have a job to do, right here and now. You know what? Forget Gatsby. Instead, go home tonight and find a newspaper article that interests you. Read it in its entirety, then write a one-page response. In your paper, give your reactions to everything that's going on in that article -- the good, the bad, and how it makes you feel overall.
Jesus: Can it be sports?
SM: Sports, world affairs, local, politics, entertainment, whatever. As long as it's published in a legitimate newspaper, it's fair game.
Moises: Does it have to be in English?
SM: Preferably, yes.
Diana: Can it be from the TV news?
SM: No. I want you to read something.
Garrett: What if you don't get the newspaper?
SM: Access one online. Just Google Search the name of the newspaper. OK, then...
The bell rings. In one big, amorphous mass, the class gets up to leave. But Tanya lags behind.
SM: It's Superman. What can I do for you, young lady?
Tanya: Yeah, um, I don't get the newspaper. And I don't have Internet.
With his super-cognition, Superman can discern that Tanya's telling the honest truth. He tries to hide his sadness.
SM: Uh... then how about you do a write-up of the last book you read?
Tanya: I've never read a full-on book -- all the way 'till the end, I mean. I read most of Goosebumps, but that was like in sixth grade.
SM: Well, then... what was the last movie you watched?
Tanya: Hostel 2.
SM: Doesn't quite ring a bell... Oh, what the hay: just go ahead and write up your reaction to that then -- like a film review. Have you ever read a film review?
SM: Basically, just explain whether or not you thought the movie was entertaining and interesting, or if it was disappointing or boring -- or perhaps even both. OK?
Tanya nods unconvincingly. She leaves right as a new wave of students rumble in for the start of second period. Superman's virtually unaware of the incoming group. Instead, he stares forlornly out the door, watching Tanya disappear into a sea of her peers. And the reality hits him: She won't do it.