In the 21st century, it has become apparent that one must go to college and obtain a good job in order to be successful, especially if you are a woman. Society doesn’t care what you like to do; it only cares about how much money you make. In our world, success isn’t based on happiness or self-fulfillment; it’s based on your paycheck. If you can afford a comfortable house, nice clothes, and the latest iPhone, you’re successful. But what if you have all of that and still aren’t happy?
Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher explores what happens to a person—specifically a woman—who is deprived of the chance to do what she loves. The film centers around Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal in her strongest role to date), an excellent kindergarten teacher who’s warm, kind, energetic, and patient with all of her students. She takes a poetry class in her spare time and has a loving husband at home with two children, a boy and a girl, all of whom have everything they need. On paper, Lisa has a successful life. It’s only when she discovers that one of her students, Jimmy, has a natural gift for poetry, that we see how broken she really is.
Throughout the film, Lisa takes extreme measures to feed and support Jimmy’s innate gift. This starts out with having Jimmy’s nanny write down his impromptu poems but escalates to Lisa personally calling Jimmy at home and even taking him to an underground poetry event without his parent’s permission. What Lisa does is not only unprofessional but disturbing. She is forcing herself into Jimmy’s life and taking him without his or his parents’ consent, all in the name of poetry. Why does she feel like she needs to do this?
The simple answer is that Lisa was once like Jimmy—a budding poet—but wasn’t allowed to fulfill her dream. Even though Lisa has a successful life—a great job, a nice house, insurance, two children, and a stable marriage—she isn’t allowed to do what she believes she was put on this earth to do. At the end of the day, art isn’t valued in the modern Western world. As a society, we don’t appreciate poetry or art as much as we do with law or science. If one has to pick between being an artist or having a profession, the smart choice would be the profession, even if it is not what one really wants to do. This was the choice Lisa had to make in her life—her art or stability—and she choose stability.
But like every woman, Lisa takes care of everyone in her inner circle: her husband, her children, and her students. She has spent her entire adult life taking care of other people and putting their needs in front of her own because that is what society told her to do. But in doing that, she has been living an empty life. In the perfect house with the perfect kids and the perfect husband with the perfect job, she looks in the mirror not recognizing the face looking back at her. She is a mother, a wife, a teacher, and a woman. But she is a poet; she was always a poet. A poet whose poetry hasn’t been heard.
In comes Jimmy, who, in Lisa’s eyes, is a prodigy whose family also values financial success over art. This is all too familiar to Lisa, and so she clings onto him for dear life. In the hopes of saving Jimmy from this world, she also attempts to save herself. She confides in him by sharing her poetry and knowledge of the world. Lisa even introduces him to the poetic world in the hopes of kicking off his career because no one did this for her when she was young. As an adult, she has been away from the poetry scene for so long that it is unlikely she can ever be fully accepted as a poet. Instead, she is only seen as an upper-middle-class white woman who has enough free time to take a poetry class. But Jimmy still has the opportunity to be a real poet, and Lisa will do everything in her power to make sure that Jimmy doesn’t end up like her.
Lisa’s actions are all a result of being a deprived woman in a modern society. The fact that she is deprived of self-actualization forces her to go to extreme measures to “save” Jimmy, who will most likely suffer the same fate as Lisa if she remains a bystander. Colangelo was able to depict the female experience—the mother, the wife, the teacher, the nurturer, and the forgotten—with one character. The film is a story about women who are too busy taking care of other people and making sure that everyone is happy with all of their needs meet. They are too concerned about everyone else’s happiness that they slowly become a ghost, or—as Lisa describes herself—a shadow, of the young women they once were.
In the film, Lisa says, “Talent is so fragile and rare. And our culture does everything to crush it,” and that couldn’t be more accurate. Our society conditions us to be contributing members of the community, and in order to contribute, you must be financially successful. This is why we value subjects like math and science, but neglect art: In our society, art doesn’t generate income. This is relevant today as public schools are cutting art classes while placing high values on test scores. Five-year-olds are now walking into a building to exercise their mind, but not in a creative way. The children with a passion for numbers and facts achieve success. But what happens to the young artists of the world if they aren’t allowed to engage in their passion? Do they just move on and become lawyers and doctors, or do they suffer internally? Colangelo offers one answer through Lisa, one of these deprived artists who has been slowly suffocating in a world that doesn’t value her talent. This is explicitly shown in the last scene of the film. After Jimmy is rescued, he comes up with one last poem, but no one wants to listen to it. In Jimmy’s rescue from Lisa, he re-enters a world that doesn’t have room for poetry, and the cycle starts over again.