The ABCs of a granny in jail
Regular readers will know me as the Sunday Star-Times’ film reviewer, but here I’m also writing in my other capacities as someone who has recently become a high school English teacher who teaches film analysis, and as someone who qualified as a lawyer nearly 20 years ago and holds a strong sympathy for the accused/defendant in criminal cases.
So this recent case of the “58-year old grandmother sentenced to 3 months’ jail just for showing a movie!” interests me on all levels. It also makes me totally wild – but not for my usual reasons.
Curiously, I don’t feel that Sheila Kearns’ case is as outrageous or as cut and dried as Ant Timpson (proud producer of the internationally-made film in question and instigator of a crowd sourced appeal fund for the defendant) might have us believe. My own internal jury is still out on whether a jail sentence is appropriate (even three months – arguably not that big a deal in a medium security women’s prison, though the point has been well-made that imprisonment rarely serves a positive purpose for any convict), and given I generally hold the view that jail is wrong for virtually everybody, I probably agree with Timpson on that one aspect – but I feel impelled to argue the toss on a couple of issues that have been raised, erroneously, by her NZ-based, social-mediafied defence team.
Leaving aside whether the judge overreacted in sentencing, it can’t be overlooked that the relief teacher was negligent in showing ANY students the movie – let alone showing it on five separate occasions before she was found out – and the laughable defence of “Oh, I had my back to the screen and hadn’t prewatched it” does not exonerate her. I teach film and I also run the Film Club at my low-decile high school, and it is my professional duty to ensure I only show films that are appropriately rated. It’s not a question of “the kids watch this stuff in their own time” or “they should harden up” – the reality is that as teachers we are responsible for our students when they are at school in our care, and while this also means seeking to expand their minds and worldview, it does not mean showing them scenes of gore, sexual depravity, etc etc. That is our grown-up arena, but not ours for the teaching. If Kearns taught students like mine, she’d be dealing with predominantly Pasifika kids for whom explicit sex and bad language is deeply distressing, and whose capacity for being upset or offended is pretty big.
But one has to wonder about Kearns’ motivation, and since I can only see blatant stupidity or some sort of twisted malice, the spectre of jail time doesn’t outrage me as it might otherwise.
But quite aside from this – even if she was showing 18-year olds who “should be able to handle it” (and in fact she showed The ABCs of Death to children as young as 14), I cannot defend Kearns and the fact that (as Timpson has put it) “her teaching career is over”, as frankly that is probably the bigger win here. For a career relief teacher of Spanish to not speak or teach Spanish is admittedly a massive failing of the school district which employed her but it is also a disgrace for every child who suffered a wasted period at school when she was sat up the front with her back to the board. It is frowned upon for relievers to “just show movies” but if she’d at least put on one of myriad Spanish language movies that might have been OK – but there is NO justification for playing something with the pretty transparent title “THE ABCS OF DEATH” – and given the overarching content of the film (a series of shorts which essentially demonstrate 26 different ways to die), there’s no way I can conjure the conscience to defend her actions, let alone contribute to her appeal. I hardly have the energy to even begin to argue that there are so many more significant miscarriages of justice around the world (and in our own country) which deserve our support and money, over this fatuous case of negligence.
I thought long and hard before even expressing my view because I am well aware of how I risk being positioned in this argument and maligned by those supporters of the cause who don’t understand the very real issues or empathize with parents who may not want their kids shown such a movie. But I feel particularly strongly in this case that while I will fight hard for most miscarriages of justice and the victims of society’s idiotic knee-jerk reactions, this situation is one at risk of being misunderstood and heralded as some Big Deal – when really it’s just a shitty situation caused by a shitty teacher showing a shitty movie.
Jail time? Probably not. But a squawking Kiwi rallying cry and some dollars? Nah.