The Shapiro Files

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Filmstrips and Inherited Personality

Anyone my age will recall that before DVDs, Powerpoint presentations, and even VCR players, teachers had two multimedia options for classroom usage: movie projectors and filmstrips. If your grade school experiences were anything like mine, movie viewing was a very rare event that usually involved a beleaguered teacher schlepping a classroom of giddy children to the cafeteria/auditorium hybrid affectionately known as the cafetorium to be treated to aging scratch-filled short films on topics as diverse as the Gray Whale and the Dewey Decimal System.

But if a teacher wanted to stay within the four walls of their own classroom, their only option was using a filmstrip-based audio/projector system. If you're younger than me and have no idea what I'm talking about, the following excerpts from this Wikipedia entry should get you up to speed:
The filmstrip was a spooled strip of 35 mm positive film with approximately 30-50 images arranged sequentially. Typically a filmstrip's running time was between 10 and 20 minutes. Depending on how they were narrated or produced, filmstrips (which often came with an Instructor's Guide) were flexible enough to be used in both self-paced learning formats or in a full classroom.

The instructor would turn on a film projector that would show the first frame (image) of the filmstrip. The instructor then turned on a 33 RPM record or cassette tape containing the audio material for the filmstrip, which included narration. At the appropriate point, a tone would sound, signaling the instructor (or a student volunteer) to turn a knob, advancing to the next frame.

So why this sudden burst of nostalgia for yet another technical marvel that has been lost to the ravages of time? Well, it just occurred to me that there's a connection between my filmstrip memories and my daughter Melody's unique personality characteristics.

Let me explain.

From the day Melody was born, I have always felt that there is something something unmistakably familiar about her--more than just the fact that she has taken on some of my physical traits. In fact, the very first thought I had when I saw her for the first time was, "I know her."

As Melody transitioned from baby to a full-fledged human being, I've come to realized that her personality has come to eerily resemble mine as a child. I was always a little out of step with my peers, had a tendency toward self-reflexivity at an unusually early age, and was even frequently melancholy. I had an excellent attention span and could focus on a single book or activity for extended periods of time. I wasn't always all that verbally articulate, but was an active listener and understood more than people (adults especially) probably realized. At the same time, I adored silly things that made me laugh--especially made-up words and funny songs.

I see all these things in Melody. She definitely marches to her own drum. It just happens to be a drum that's remarkably similar to one of my childhood.

I also had one other distinct quirk that is also very prominent in Melody: I was extremely particular (read: anal) and regrettably, still am. Everything had to be "just so." For example, we had a routine in my Kindergarten class in which every child had to provide one pack of cookies as a part of a school-sanctioned cookie snacktime activity (this was the 70s after all). When you brought in your contribution, the teacher would place it at the bottom of a large stack of cookie packages. She would then draw each day's selections from the top of the stack so we'd go through the cookie packs in the order in which they came. Just the fact that I still remember this exact cookie dissemination system probably says something about the kind of kid I was.

For each cookie time activity, the teacher would select three packages and everyone in the class would get one cookie from each pack. I was very methodical about how I ate my cookies. I spent a fair amount of time assessing the characteristics of each cookie and determining a ranking of the three cookies--from least desirable to most.

You see, I noticed that most of my classmates immediately attacked their favorite cookie and then had to trudge through the remaining cookies with less enthusiasm. So I always made a point of eating my cookies in the reverse order--saving the best one for last. I actually remember getting grief from my classmates for eating the "yucky" cookie first. This always bothered me because I felt they weren't comprehending that I had a nobler, more long-term goal in mind--namely, by the time they had reached their third and most decidedly "yucky" cookie, I was very slowly savoring the most desirable cookie. Why my classmates never admitted the superiority of my approach is beyond me. But what's even more important here is that I had a very clear plan of attack when it came to cookie time. I followed it to letter every time and I never deviated from it--even when it subjected me to the ridicule of others.

I was just as particular during my filmstrip viewing experiences.

The teachers I had almost never controlled the filmstrip machine themselves, instead electing to select a student volunteer to do the honors. I always raised my hand when they asked for volunteers but was only selected once in all those years. Go figure.

So instead of being given the opportunity to provide the class with a professional, seamless filmstrip experience, I had to deal with some lame classmate who inevitably missed a cue even though the filmstrip-advancing tone on the audio tape was clear as can be! This drove me absolutely crazy. I could not stand my filmstrip being out of sync with the narration. Without exception, I was always dissatisfied by those who operated the filmstrip machine and vowed that I would be the most perfect filmstrip operator known to humankind...if only the teacher would have the wisdom to select me for once!

It still makes my blood boil.

So this is what I think about when I think about filmstrips. Not their quaintness or they're education/entertainment value. Nope, I think about the incompetence of those who couldn't performing the simple task of turning a knob every time you hear a beep. I mean, how is that difficult? Beep, turn. Beep, turn. Grrrr...

In all events, this leads back to Melody. Like me as a child, she can be quite angst-ridden at times. Just the simplest things make her crazy. If she's lining up toys in a very particular way and accidentally bumps one piece out of place, or--horror of horrors--Julianne comes by and takes a piece away, we know we're in for a firestorm.

Or if we're sitting on the couch, she has to be to the left of Julianne, not to the right. She's usually agreeable to my sitting between the two of them, but if I sit to her left and thus cause her to effectively be in the middle, she won't have it.

We see the same behaviors when it comes to her washing her hands, putting on clothes, how high the zipper can go on her jackets, and on and on.

Naturally, being your typically involved parents, Marcie and I frequently worry that there's something of a disturbingly problematic nature behind this excessive anal and anxious behavior. It's only natural.

But then, I think about all the years of frustration filmstrips in school cased me and I realize that more than anything else, Melody's anxiety is most likely the result of an unfortunate collection of genes she has inherited. The types of things that drive her to such extremes of unhappiness seem far too familiar to me to be a coincidence. Oh, and did I mention that Marcie was a decidedly "Type A" child herself? You put us together and you get one very particular, anxiety-ridden child.

Don't get me wrong. I still think that Melody and Julianne are the two greatest human beings in the history of the universe. But I also suspect that for better or worse, Melody is in for years of quizzical looks and misunderstanding by others, hyper-self-awareness and unexplainable sentimentality, and most of all, frustration with the shortcomings of her peers. But at least she has something I never had: someone (me) who knows exactly where she's coming from. She might be wired up a little differently than others, but at least it's a schema I share and even understand.


  • Though I volunteered many times, I never got to run the filmstrip machine. One time in 4th grade I was sitting directly to the left of it as another kid was operating it. During the show some big plastic piece of it fell off and hit me in the shoulder. The teacher yelled at me in front of the entire class about how I shouldn't touch it. But I didn't touch it, and she wouldn't believe me. This is the type of things that teachers do that people carry around with them for 30 years.

    By Anonymous David Scott, at 5/01/2009 12:36 PM  

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