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Poetry and snark blogger who also has a creative side (who knew?)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Childhood Movies That Left Me Traumatized

"What you want for Christmas, child?"
"I want me this cat I found."


Anyone remember those lines? They're from the movie "JT," a 1969 production from the Children's Television Workshop and written by Jane Wagner. As I understand it, "JT" was shown as a Christmas movie for many years, but I remember it from elementary school. It seemed that at least once every year from the time I was in first grade, the teachers would gather all the classes together, sit us on the floor, crank up the projector, and have us watch "JT." There was never any introduction to the movie or discussion afterward. Basically, I think they did it to give themselves an hour break.

naively expecting a happy movie
That movie traumatized me for the rest of my life! A quick summary: JT, a pre-teen African American boy, living with his overworked single mom in a ghetto in New York, is on his way to becoming a liar and thief. He is constantly terrorized by two older boys who are trying to take a radio JT has stolen from a car. Then JT finds and befriends an stray cat and begins taking care of it, demonstrating love and care for this scraggly creature. However, the two thugs find the cat, taunt JT with it, and drop it in the street to its death. JT's family and neighbors finally come together and bring him a kitten to help him in his mourning.

starting to worry about  movie

God, how I HATED when the teachers made us watch that movie! Looking back as an adult, I can see that it is an excellent film that touches on many difficult subjects, such as poverty, bullying, honesty, charity, and love.  But as a small child, the message I got from "JT" was that there were big, mean kids lurking around in alleyways who would chase you and kill your pets! I also didn't understand that the cat in the movie wasn't really dead, so I was always crying my eyes out at the end of the movie and then trying to hide it so other kids wouldn't
trauma complete
make fun of me. What the hell were teachers thinking back in the 60's and 70's?!! My guess now is that they were all in some back room  smoking pot and congratulating themselves on exposing us suburban kids to the hip urban ghetto scene.

If "JT" weren't enough for my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis, then the movie "The Red Balloon," another teacher favorite, sealed the deal.

This was a 1956 French movie by Pascal Lamorisse. There was practically no dialogue, which was good because it was in French. Synopsis of "The Red Balloon": Lonely little boy finds sentient, red balloon that follows him everywhere. They become friends. Adults and peers are either disapproving or jealous of the relationship between the boy and his balloon and attempt to disrupt it.  Story ends when a group of horrible boys stone the balloon "to death" as the lonely little boy watches in dismay. Then balloons from all over the city converge on the boy and lift him up into the air and away.

Again, UGH! What was it with our teachers and their movies about packs of antisocial thugs who prey on vulnerable children and destroy the things they care most about? What lesson were we, as first, second, third graders, supposed to take home from this? (Would it even be allowed in school today with the religious imagery and allusions that we all, of course, totally missed as kids?) My take-home lesson from "The Red Balloon" was that lonely, sensitive children will be taunted and when they finally find solace, it will be ripped away from them. I also remember fretting about where the balloons were taking the boy, how he would eventually get down, and whether he would get in trouble for his balloon ride over the city. This movie also contributed to my confusion about whether inanimate objects actually had feelings but just couldn't speak of them. I remember being disconsolate after a friend angrily broke several pencils at my house, taping them back together after she left and apologizing to them.  I blame "The Red Balloon" for this neurotic behavior.

Worst of all, was the "death" scene that was seared into my brain from so many viewings as a young, impressionable child.  The red balloon gets pelted with a rock, slowly deflates and drops to the ground. Its surface becomes bumpy and sick looking as it loses more and more air.  Then, one of the heathens stomps on it with his boot and flattens it. It was, in some perverse way, more graphically violent than the blood and guts we see in today's horrorfests. I will NEVER get that vividly distressing image out of my head, thank you very much Montgomery County, Maryland teachers!

Now, I don't advocate pablum for our kids in the classroom. Purple dinosaurs and happy, multicultural singing children make me want to retch. I think kids are able to and should be exposed to difficult subject matter and made to think.  My problem with what was done to me in school was that there was never any preparation for or discussion about these films afterward. It was like expecting to go for an ice cream and ending up at the doctor for shots without ever being told why. How about some debriefing for those sensitive souls who, to this day, can't see a red balloon or a stray cat without at least a small reminder of childhood trauma? Do you think the Montgomery County Public Schools would pay my therapy bill?


  1. My have become quite the prolific artist.

    Now..that's some talent you have there.

    I tried to figure some of stuff out and barely could draw a straight line.
    My art looked like Paint thrown on a canvass. :0)

  2. I've never heard of JT. But I have heard of The Red Balloon and kind of want to see it. As for showing those movies in school? Yikes! I can only show my students G ratd movies and (as I am often reminded by email memos)it must be instructionally relevant.
    I'm gonna see if i can instant watch The Red Balloon on Netflix though.

  3. To f, Isyn: Thanks for the compliments! I actually had to have my daughter draw the heart for me-my attempts were total fails! If I can draw right handed with a mouse as a leftie, you can do it too!

    To M.A.S.: I wholeheartedly recommend both of these movies. My complaint was the age at which we saw them and that they were never spoken of afterward. I think they'd make great discussion fodder for a small group of kids with adult guidance. How often does that get to happen at school now?


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