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Faith in Vermont: Disagreeing With Maggie Gyllenhaal

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Posted on February 19, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



One night at the end of December, I attended a film screening and discussion at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. This is not how I typically spend my evenings, and I would have missed the event completely were it not for a friend who invited me as part of her birthday celebration.

The film being shown was The Kindergarten Teacher, about which I knew nothing in advance. I assumed it would be a charming, lighthearted depiction of the agony and ecstasy involved in shepherding children through their first year of formal schooling (something I know a bit about, as I’m in the midst of homeschooling my kindergartener.) 

The big draw for me was that the film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, would be present for a question-and-answer session with her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. I have admired the talent of both of these actors in their past films -- and I admired the calm, quiet way in which I witnessed them navigate The Vermont Book Store with their two daughters a couple of years ago. (Although when I returned home from that shopping trip, a little star-struck, to report my celebrity sighting – in Vermont! – the 23-year-old Middlebury College graduate who was living with us at the time looked at me blankly before saying, “Maggie Gyllenhaal…? Wait – is she related to Jake Gyllenhaal?”)

The Kindergarten Teacher was not a charming, lighthearted film. True to its title, it was the story of a kindergarten teacher, but this kindergarten teacher – a 40-something woman in the Manhattan suburbs – harbors an unfulfilled longing for poetry and culture. She’s taking continuing education poetry classes, but her poems receive lukewarm responses. Her husband is supportive but seems baffled by her longings; her two teenaged children barely look up from their devices to speak to her. So, when she discovers that one of her kindergarten students is a poet prodigy, she’s determined to nurture his talent – a goal that turns increasingly dark: In the film’s climax, she kidnaps her student in a perverse attempt to keep the little boy artistically pure. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal acts beautifully in the title role, building sympathy with her audience so that we wince when she begins making horrible decisions. The Kindergarten Teacher is not an easy film to watch, but I’m glad that I did: It was well made and thought provoking. 

And the discussion that followed the film was perhaps more thought provoking than the film itself.

“This is a film about what happens when women are silenced,” Maggie Gyllenhaal declared in her opening comments. 

And although I admire her talent and her parenting, I thought, “Huh?!?”

She went on to say – multiple times – that the kindergarten teacher’s problem was that “her creativity had been starved.”

I thought and I thought, all the rest of that weekend. And after careful consideration, I believed that the kindergarten teacher’s problem was that she was seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

By all means, kindergarten teacher, keep taking those continuing education classes; keep writing poetry, I wanted to tell her. But also: Spend some more time with your family. Get involved in your community; make a nice group of friends. Realize that your job – introducing children to education – is crucial and creative in its own right. But don’t tell me that you’re being “silenced” or “starved;” when you kidnap a five-year-old to protect his talent, it’s a sign that your perspective is very, very off. 

Then I second-guessed my judgment. Maybe this particular film pushed my buttons; maybe my reaction was really defensiveness about my own life choices. After all, I’m hardly pursuing a life of unbridled creativity; I’ve made decisions that put my own career and creative pursuits in second place to raising my children.

I discussed the film with friends, most of whom seemed to agree with my assessment. “Wait, the idea is that if a women are frustrated creatively, they’ll run around kidnapping children? That’s kind of insulting,” a particularly astute friend observed.

So, it’s official: I disagree with Maggie Gyllenhaal. 

On second thought, “disagree” may be too strong a word; it may be more accurate to say that Maggie Gyllenhaal and I told ourselves two different stories about this film. This is something that I’m trying to teach my daughters: The way in which you experience life has everything to do with the story you tell yourself. 

For example, my daughter approaches her math workbook with a grimace and a cry of, “I HATE MATH!” But I point out, as gently as possible, that she could tell herself another story; she could say, “Math isn’t my favorite, but I’m smart and if I put in my best effort, I’ll probably finish my work sooner. Maybe I’ll even find something to enjoy in it.”

See? Both stories are correct, in their way; my daughter is not required to love math. But the way she frames the narrative for herself will determine how she experiences it. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal and I experienced the same movie, about a woman whose creative frustration leads her into catastrophic choices. But it wasn’t really the same movie: Maggie saw the film through a socio-political lens, as a fable about female oppression; I saw it as the tragic story of one woman who placed her happiness in an unrealistic dream, instead of looking for it right under her nose. 

Both stories are correct, but they cause you to see the world differently. Maggie’s story may inspire you to attend protest rallies and write to your Congresspeople; my story may inspire you to take a casserole to your neighbor. 

Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m more of a casserole baker than a protestor (in the metaphorical sense – I’ve rarely baked a casserole in real life.) Take this column, for instance: I could be writing more about the weighty socio-political issues of our times – the things that break my heart in the news every day. Instead, I tend to fill this space with family anecdotes and descriptions of Vermont seasons. It can feel a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

But if I take the advice I’m giving my daughters, I realize that I’m writing my story; to attempt to do otherwise would be inauthentic, like Jane Austen trying to write a Stephen King novel. 

In the end, I figure, the world needs both the protesters and the casserole bakers. And it needs us to share our stories with each other. I think Maggie and I would agree on that.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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