Bet it’s not in “The Simpsons”

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Yes, even there!

by Reg Harris

(While this article, written in 2003, is about an experience I had in my classroom in 2002 that focused on The Simpsons, you need to remember that all “stories,” from cartoons to Shakespeare, contain elements of the Hero’s Journey. You can use the same tactic I used here with virtually any program appropriate for your class.)

The Hero’s Journey challenge

Each year for about seven years now, I challenge my classes to show me a story (book, short story, film) which does not have elements of the Hero’s Journey pattern in it. Of course, because the Hero’s Journey is the pattern of human experience of any type, this challenge will never be met. Last year, however, an interesting situation presented itself and resulted is a wonderful teaching opportunity.

“Not in the Simpsons”

Last fall, when I issued the challenge to my ninth graders, one of them, Jeff Martinez, raised his hand and said, “I bet it’s not in The Simpsons.” Several other students immediately supported Jeff, and then they issued a counter challenge: tape an episode of The Simpsons and analyze it in class.

Honestly, I had never watched more than a minute or two of The Simpsons, so I had no idea about the series. However, I agreed that if Jeff wanted to tape an episode, we would take a look at it in class.

“They’re on tonight,” Jeff said. “Can we watch it tomorrow?”

I agreed. Everyone was excited.

Bart Visits my Class

The next day, Thursday, Jeff brought in Wednesday night’s episode of The Simpsons. I briefly reviewed key elements in the Hero’s Journey and we started the tape.

Within minutes several elements of the journey appeared. In this particular episode, Bart is held in after school because of misbehavior. He is cleaning his teacher’s desk and finds a magazine in which his teacher had placed an advertisement looking for male companionship. (She had been recently divorced and seemed to be suffering from a battered self-image.)

Bart decides to have some fun and begins writing to his teacher, pretending to be an adult. The teacher falls for her “pen pal” and her self-esteem grows again. When she wants to meet the man, Bart (in his next letter) proposes they meet for dinner at a nice restaurant. Bart thinks it will be fun to watch his teacher be disappointed because she is “stood up.”

The evening of their dinner, the teacher goes to the restaurant, and Bart stands outside, secretly looking in at the teacher. He sees how disappointed she is at yet another blow to her self-image. He sees the tears in her eyes and he realizes what he has done. He wants to make amends, but he does not know how.

He goes to his parents for help, works out a plan in which he writes the teacher a “Dear Jane” letter, but one which makes a noble excuse for missing dinner, builds up the teacher’s self-worth, and ends the relationship.

The letter works like a charm. The teacher, rather than being shattered by another rejection, feels strengthened and enriched by the “relationship.” Bart is genuinely happy that he was able to end the relationship without further problems and to help his teacher through a difficult time.

(As a little sub-plot, Bart’s father, Homer, is challenged by his neighbor to stop cursing.)

Three journeys in one

By the time we had finished watching the episode, all of the students agreed that there were at least two hero’s journeys in the plot. The teacher is called to the adventure of rebuilding her life after a divorce, and Bart is called to the adventure of helping someone he had originally set out to hurt and ridicule (maturing and learning compassion in the process). Homer, too, goes through a small journey as he learns to control his temper.

The students were surprised to find the journey pattern even in The Simpsons. I reminded them, however, that the Hero’s Journey archetype is the pattern of virtually all human experience, so any story which deals with human experience will contain elements of the journey, even stories about Bart Simpson.

Bart in your class?

The “Simpson Challenge” was a valuable activity because it was spontaneous, student-initiated and a lot of fun. As the students watched the story, they searched intently for the elements of the journey pattern, and when they found them, they were pleased and surprised.

Can you make a similar challenge in your classroom? You probably can―after you have developed a firm understanding of the journey pattern. Once you feel comfortable with the stages of the journey and their characteristics, you can issue a standing, open challenge, like I did. Then you will be ready, when the opportunity presents itself, to use a class period to meet a response. Kids love this spontaneous deviation from the curriculum (they think they are getting a “free day”), and the change can be energizing and bonding.

Another approach might be to issue the challenge, and (when the students reject the idea) you can offer extra credit for anyone who can outline or explain the journey patterns they find in their own favorite films or television programs.

There are probably other approaches you can try, but if you decide to issue a journey challenge, be ready to interrupt your plans for a day to meet a response. This activity will show your students that the Hero’s Journey pattern, the cycle of challenge and growth, is the foundation of life and is reflected everywhere. What’s more, using the journey as a common thread, you will probably discover that you can relate the material the students bring in to the curriculum you are studying, making your current study even more powerful.

No matter how you choose to work with the “Simpson Challenge,” you will find that it can be both rewarding and a whole lot of fun.

Copyright © 2003-2012 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Except for properly cited quotes and excerpts, this article may not be copied, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author. For permission to use, contact Reg Harris.