“You know the Vale of Shadows?” says the kid.
Typically, at this point in a show—especially in a show that takes place in a small, Midwestern town in 1983—the adult would either sputter in confusion or give a blank stare until someone offered the proper exposition. But in Stranger Things, Netflix 2016 summer smash hit, without missing a beat, Hawkins Middle School’s science teacher and AV Club sponsor Scott Clarke replies, “An echo of the Material Plane, where necrotic and shadow magic…” He would have gone on but Dungeon Master Mike stops him. Clarke has already proven he knows the reference.
Watching this scene, I laugh. Of course Mr. Clarke knows Vale of Shadows. He probably plays Dungeons & Dragons during school breaks with his own friends. No wonder this band of misfits goes to him for information. He’s essentially—
And then the true implication of who Mr. Clarke is and what he really brings to the world of Stranger Things hits me. For the target audience of the Netflix original series, Randall P. Havens’s nerdy science teacher is as much, if not more, of a hero than Millie Bobby Brown’s superheroic Eleven or even the tragic everywoman figure of Barb (Shannon Purser), simply because he makes no apology for who he is.
Which is bold of him. The modern Rise of the Geek didn’t really kick off until the tail end of 2001, not long after the release of both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, to roaring success. Before that, the lack of a full-fledged Internet through which to seek out like-minded individuals made navigating adolescence tricky. If you weren’t careful, you were ostracized, and if you ran into the wrong people first, you were shamed. Essentially, much like the world of 1983 Hawkins, if you were—as Principal Coleman so painfully remarks—one of the “Non-Athletics,” it could become not only isolating, but also dangerous, and fast.
But it’s not just a matter of being ostracized from your peers. The films to which the Duffer Brothers pay homage—E.T. for example—emphasize that the World of Kids and the World of Adults are spheres that barely intersect. In these films, the World of Kids is almost devoid of an adult presence, and when an adult does manage to wander in, he or she is just an (often clueless) obstacle for the kids to overcome.
But Clarke subverts this trope, serving as a bridge between the two opposing worlds. Of all of the adults in Stranger Things, he is the least oblivious and most respectful, interacting with the kids as if they are equals, which, given their predisposition for knowledge, they are.
Knowledge has its own kind of power. Consider the seemingly innocuous date scene between Clarke and the lady on his couch, Jen. It’s almost a Sixteen Candles-esque fantasy in which the geeky character improbably snags a hot date. As the two watch a melting severed head from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Clarke leans close to his squeamish date and tells her the effect was created with melted plastic and microwaved bubble gum. It is perhaps the nerdiest thing a person can say in that situation, and it works. Behold not only the power of knowledge, but also the sex appeal of intelligence.
These days, words like “geek” and “fandom” are synonymous with passion, but the mainstream popularity of the things we’re passionate about means geeks face less risk for cutting loose and showing that passion. To quote Irene Adler, from the BBC’s Sherlock, “Brainy is the new sexy.” When I was growing up, however, I would never have believed I could save a date from the brink of disaster using movie magic trivia. But of course it isn’t just the factoid that impressed Clarke’s date; it’s his confidence.
Stranger Things shows us a world where almost every character is an outcast, but Mr. Clarke is truly comfortable in his own skin, and that’s the real source of his power. Clarke demonstrates that one does not have to be one of his principal’s elite “Athletics” in order to be successful: one just has to be. He’s the proof so many of us longed for, during those long stretches of school, that life could and would get better. He isn’t the cautionary tale that so many pop-culture geeks suffered: he is well-adjusted, without a scarring backstory. And he embraces the interests of the boys with virtually no questions. Clarke becomes a figure that many of us could only dream about.
Ultimately, his confidence makes him a better teacher, and this fact taps into part of the Stranger Things nostalgia engine that doesn’t get much attention: nostalgia for either the teacher we wished we had or the one we were fortunate enough to have; that one teacher who broke through the monotony of mundane academia and opened our eyes and imagination to something beyond the school’s four walls and graphite-filled Scantron bubbles.
Mr. Clarke then becomes the true hero of the series, embodying what educators should be, what the good ones try to be. Today, as an educator myself, I’ve learned that my greatest joys come from exposing a student to a new experience—a new book, a play, or even a television series—and then watching the excitement of their discovery.
He’s the teacher who encourages questions beyond the class assessment, who always gets his students to open the “Curiosity Door.” More importantly, he places the kids and their interests above his own desires. And even if between 1983 and the present we’ve expanded our horizons beyond the primacy of only those who can throw a game-winning touchdown pass, there’s something else about Stranger Things that leaves us feeling nostalgic. Namely, teachers used to have more time.
In a 2015 piece for the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton reported: “A typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade.” This is according to a Council of Great City School study, with the burden falling on middle-schoolers, particularly eighth graders, “who spend an average of 25.3 hours during the school year taking standardized tests, uniform exams required of all students in a particular grade or course of study.” The implication is that the many state and national tests, along with the teacher evaluations based on test scores, squeeze teachers’ freedom, and so constrain their students. Ultimately, the growing emphasis on standardized tests, state assessments, and state-approved curricula has translated to less time spent on exploration and creativity in the classroom and more time spent on planning and being under administrative review.
It is nearly unheard of for students to contact their teachers outside the classroom, the way Dustin does with Mr. Clarke in Stranger Things, unless it is for clarification on a homework assignment. The focus on grading has created a rift in the teacher/student relationship, which reduces teachers to grade-distributors. Some educational systems have even corporatized their language, referring to students as stakeholders and principals as CEOs. The system is becoming so concerned with numbers that we are forgetting the true reason for the jobs we do.
Mr. Clarke isn’t just a hero teacher to the kids who needed him when everyone else wondered why they couldn’t be normal; he’s also a hero to teachers who want to believe they can inspire their students beyond the confines of the standardized test.
In the first episode, the adults of Hawkins scour the woods searching for Will, the missing kid who kicks the show off. Will has literally vanished from the World of Adults, and these adults have banded together to bring him back. Amid the cries of “Will Byers!” Clarke sidles up to Hopper to say Will isn’t just a “good kid,” but a great one. Introducing himself as the school’s science teacher, he is almost immediately shot down. Hopper says, “I always had a distaste for science.” Undeterred, Clarke simply responds, “Well, maybe you had a bad teacher.” He did: “Mrs. Ratliff.” The two men share a bitter laugh.
There it is: A teacher who doesn’t sound like the sort to prop open the “Curiosity Door” has ultimately slammed Hopper’s shut. But it’s telling where Clarke and Hopper’s conversation goes: to Hopper’s daughter, who at this point we don’t yet know has died, and specifically to Hopper’s unrestrainable delight over his daughter’s sense of wonder.
If only for a moment, Clarke manages to rebuild the bridge, this time between a broken man and the World of Kids represented by the daughter he lost and the experiences, as a student, he never got to have. Perhaps that is the biggest lesson Mr. Clarke gives us: the Curiosity Door will always be unlocked—if we would only choose to open it.