In the movie Whiplash, is the abusive music teacher, Terence Fletcher, an exaggeration or do teachers actually behave this way?
Sadly, he’s not an exaggeration; he’s all too real.
Director, Damien Chazelle drew on his own high-school experience with a bullying music teacher in order to explore students’ experiences of fear and anxiety. He told J. K. Simmons, who played Terence Fletcher and won an Academy Award for his performance: “I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.” His directive is interesting as we tend to talk about how bullies dehumanize their victims, but here Chazelle reminds us that this kind of bullying conduct can’t be described with words associated with humanity.
I recently resigned from a school that continues to employ multiple teachers who, according to student reports, bullied them like Terence Fletcher. School administrators knew about the teachers’ conduct. Just like the universities we’ve all heard about in the last few years have had administrators aware of coaches who behave like Terence Fletcher.
When a Director of a School or a Headmaster hears from multiple parents, teachers, and students that a teacher is yelling, berating, demeaning, throwing objects, and hurting students, you would expect students to be protected, but it didn’t happen at the school I worked at. Even after a two year investigation by the Commissioner for Teacher Regulation, this teacher conduct was approved of and the Commissioner locked down his reports so that students who testified against the teachers were not allowed to read them. Comparably, despite administrative knowledge and sometimes even extensive investigations, abusive university coaches are also kept on as has been widely discussed in the news in past years . This is why Whiplash is such an interesting film. It gets to the dark heart of what some people really believe about education, performance and greatness.
The film has been critiqued for suggesting that relentless practice under abusive conditions produces greatness, but my sense is that’s not what the film’s promoting. Whiplash is holding the mirror up to a society that all to often condones educators who bully. Lots of people don’t want to look in that mirror.
The truth is that some excuse abuse in schools and universities because they believe it inspires excellence. They explain their approval of screaming, insulting, humiliating, raging teacher conduct with phrases like “tough-love” and “rigorous” or “demanding.” Even the victims repeatedly exposed to such conduct become brainwashed into believing it will make them great and that it comes from a passionate intensity for sport or music or theatre. Those who approve argue that these kinds of teachers will train soft students to toughen up for a harsh world; abuse will teach them discipline and commitment. They believe that it’s for their own good.
This kind of thinking may be why university administrators look the other way when coaches abuse players because they think the abuse gets results: the swim team has a good year or the basketball team wins a lot of games. Parents don’t pull their children from high-school music programs because their kids’ suffering is forgotten when the teacher puts on a wonderful show and gives students’ opportunities to take their art to the next level. We even get confused enough to think that the abuse probably isn’t all that bad because if the performance is great then the methods must be great too or at least good.
Whiplash offers both belief options to its audience. It puts at the core of the film the suicide of Sean Casey, one of Fletcher’s abuse victims and balances it with a spectacular drum solo by Andrew Neiman another of the bullying teacher’s targets and leaves us to decide: is it okay to destroy one student if another responds to the abuse with an exceptional performance? I mean don’t we all believe that greatness comes from blood, sweat and tears?
The hard-work that produces sweat is key to achievement in any field, but the sweat that comes from fear and anxiety have no place in a learning environment. Tears that fall from pushing oneself to a limit are meaningful, but tears that fall from humiliation or emotional and physical pain, done to a student by a teacher, have no place in education. And blood that courses through the body and brain when one trains is vital for excelling at any sport or art, but blood that seeps out of an individual being bullied is never healthy or acceptable.
Damien Chazelle has Andrew Neiman practice his drums until he bleeds.
In Vulture, Julliard’s Mark Sherman gives an insider’s point of view on Whiplash’s abusive teacher and music school. He says that if a teacher behaved that way at Julliard, they would be fired. That’s different from Director Damien Chazelle’s high-school, my former school and from multiple university athletics programs, but good to hear it’s different at Julliard. He also commented on Andrew Neiman’s blood on the drum set: “That’s unrealistic,” Sherman says. “People don’t draw blood like that, playing music. It just doesn’t happen, and if you do, you’re holding the sticks wrong. You’re screwed up technically if you’re drawing blood. I’ve never seen anyone draw blood” .
What’s fascinating about Sherman’s comment is exactly why Whiplash is so powerful in terms of making us explore bullying in education. When a student is bullied by a teacher in real life, there is no blood. The emotional wounds, the scars on the brain, can’t be seen. That’s why it so often goes unchecked and excused. We are a primitive society that needs to see blood to understand damage is being done. Movies can make us see metaphorical things so we can understand in a more complex way. When we hear that drum solo at the end, we can’t help but remember the student is bleeding. How much blood loss does it take before someone dies? How much metaphorical blood did Sean Casey leave on his instrument before he hung himself?
Julliard’s Mark Sherman takes his reaction to the student’s blood on the drum set one step farther and faults the victim: if a student leaves blood on the drum set, it’s because he’s “screwed up.” This is a classic response to bullying. Instead of holding the bully accountable, a reversal takes place and the victim suddenly becomes the one at fault: too sensitive, too weak, too soft, not a real musician, not a committed athlete and so on.
So we are left to decide and debate: does Andrew’s drum solo cancel out Sean’s suicide? Does it make it okay? I mean the student really gets good at drumming in an abusive program. Sure the bullied student hangs himself, but come on, isn’t it erased by the teacher’s love of jazz and his desire to push his students to the next level? Some people might just believe this, but Chazelle makes it difficult with the blood on the drum kit.
One final image I’d like to leave you with is violinist David France’s Roxbury Youth Orchestra .
France calls his “school” a Revolution of Hope, but just because it is grounded in hope—not despair—does not for a minute mean it isn’t rigorous. Students practice for three hoursfive days a week. Their progress is considered mind-blowing, but none of the students to date have committed suicide. They don’t bleed when they play their instruments.
 J.J. Duncan, “6 Deep Thoughts About Whiplash: From Charlie Parker to bloody drums to the most co-dependent movie relationship of the year, let’s dig in,” Beyond the Box Office, February 2015. http://www.zimbio.com/Beyond+the+Box+Office/articles/QcJ5QPAzECX/6+Deep+Thoughts+About+Whiplash
 See articles on Greg Winslow, Shann Hart, Mike Rice, Jerry Sandusky, Jae Su Chun.
 Robyn Day, “The Roxbury Youth Orchestra Brings Its Revolution Of Hope To The MFA,” The Artery, June 2014. http://artery.wbur.org/2014/06/17/revolution-of-hope