I Thought You Didn’t Believe in Grades

School of Rock (2003)

illustration by Vanessa McKee

One of my most fiercely held takes is that Joan Cusack should have won an Oscar for her work as tightly-wound prep school principal and noted Stevie Nicks stan Rosalie Mullins in School of Rock. Uptight but not icy, Cusack transcends the not-quite-cringe-enough awkwardness most charismatic actors default to when they’re working hard to be unappealing. Instead, she embodies a living, breathing human nerd who’s somehow stumbled into a people-facing career, always a little too earnest or not quite earnest enough for the situation at hand. But I know, deep down, that it’s perfect that Joan Cusack wasn’t nominated for a single award for School of Rock, a movie about children of various ages growing to accept that the notion of meritocracy is a giant scam.

Not Richard Linklater’s best movie—but my personal favorite of his filmography—School of Rock stars Jack Black as Dewey Finn, an aspiring rockstar fresh off the indignity of being kicked out of his band mere weeks before the Battle of the Bands. Cut off from paying gigs and unable to pay his long-overdue share of the rent, Dewey takes to “temping,” which in this scenario means “impersonating his roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay) in order to accept a substitute teaching offer at Horace Green, a prestigious private grade school.”

Predictably, Dewey does not meet basic substitute teaching expectations, such as not showing up hungover on the first day and teaching age-appropriate lessons that align with the established curriculum, nor does he vibe with the staid old-money energy of Horace Green. But he becomes an excellent teacher nonetheless. Constitutionally indisposed to lectures and rote memorization, Dewey fosters his students’ passions and personality quirks. After he witnesses the depth and breadth of his high-achieving charges’ musical talents and funnels their gifts into a new band, social studies and math lessons are replaced by jam sessions and deep dives into the history of rock. Less musically gifted students hone their skills in stage production and costume design. The class’s ability to transmute individual talents into collective effort gets them through every obstacle standing between them the Battle of the Bands—which they lose to Dewey’s ex-band, despite an impeccable, spirited performance as The School of Rock.

In a way, Dewey isn’t wrong when, early in his substitute tenure, still reeling from his professional breakup, he advises the class, “Give up, just quit, because in this life, you can’t win. Yeah, you can try. But in the end, you’re just gonna lose, because the world is run by The Man.” If anyone but Jack Black delivered this monologue, it would be preposterous for these students to abandon their deference to authority so quickly or be influenced by someone so unintimidating, but they’re justifiably enraptured by his passion and charisma. Not old enough yet to learn about hegemony, the children ask for examples of The Man, and Dewey rattles off a list: the president, Principal Mullins, corporate polluters, SeaWorld, MTV, any force encouraging compliance with restrictive social norms, anyone too limited to appreciate “anything cool, or pure, or awesome.”

He’s right that most artists—most people, honestly—don’t get the amount and type of validation they deserve. As the always wise Fiona Apple said at the 1997 Video Music Awards and in my third-most-used gif,1 “This world is bullshit.” But he’s wrong that recognition getting allocated to the undeserving means you shouldn’t try at all, and he’s lucky that his students don’t take his advice seriously. While the music itself is fun, keeping The School of Rock in the competition is a genuine struggle, and the students throw all their persistence, intelligence, and ambition into it. On multiple occasions, the band narrowly avoids getting busted by parents or the dreaded Principal Mullins, in spite of Dewey’s valiant attempts to negotiate some rule-bending by seizing on the deep desperation to be liked that structures Cusack’s performance. When they manage to sneak out of class to audition for the contest, they’re late to their performance slot, and only make the bill after inspiring pity in the organizers by pretending they’re all suffering from a terminal disease called “stickittothemaneosis.” Cheating to stay in the race shouldn’t really function as character growth in a story about learning to be motivated by something deeper than just winning, but these little dorks need to learn to break the rules so badly that it works.

There are smaller, individual-level roadblocks, too; the journey to loving creative expression for its own sake takes on different contours for different characters. Keyboardist Lawrence (Robert Tsai) and backup vocalist Tomika (Maryam Hassan) both tend toward shyness, and grow to stop caring how others will evaluate them so they can fully flaunt their musical talents. Zack (Joey Gaydos Jr.), a technically gifted but emotionally reserved guitarist, unlocks genuine passion in his performances by rejecting his habitual people-pleasing and deference to his father. Though he’s far less straight-laced than most of the class, drummer Freddy (Kevin Clark) is not immune from worrying about what others think of him, and moves beyond putting up a too-cool front to start actually caring about music.

But none of the students need to learn the film’s fundamental lesson as hard as Summer Hathaway (Miranda Cosgrove). So goal-oriented that her teachers’ pet status has been cemented with the formal title of “class factotum,” Summer evolves from a whiny grade-grubber to an absolutely ruthless band manager. When people describe a woman in public life as a Tracy Flick—if they don’t simply mean that she’s blonde—what they believe her to be is a Summer: raised so wealthy that she doesn’t need a third of the ambition she’s been saddled with to become a success; the ultimate rule-following pain in the ass; oblivious to likeability, but desperate for external validation nonetheless.2 On the surface, Summer is Dewey’s diametric opposite. She’s prissy where he’s schlubby, and a goody two-shoes where he refuses to adhere to expectations; she attends a $15,000/year elementary school, while he can’t make rent.

But they, like all satisfying foils, operate from the same deeply unchill heart: Dewey is as obsessed with winning the Battle of the Bands as Summer is with racking up the most gold stars. For all his anti-establishment fervor, the logic of capitalism has leached into Dewey. He strives to be rewarded and recognized as the best at what he does, and that striving is taken on entirely on his own terms. He refuses to compromise his standards or his vision, which is admirable but only up to the point where he fails to collaborate in any meaningful way. (While his old bandmates appear to suck extremely hard, you can also understand why they were over his bullshit.) He, just like Summer, needs to have his wild individualism and appetite for formal recognition knocked out of him so that he can enjoy music as a collaborative venture and a creative outlet. 

I oversimplified a little bit when I said that The School of Rock loses the Battle of the Bands. They don’t win the prize—a plot point I hate due to being a petty, competitive bitch who wants to watch Dewey’s old band suffer, though I understand its thematic and narrative utility—but they achieve their goal, breaking all the rules to get the band together for their big performance after Dewey is outed as an identity thief and fired. And they don’t go unrecognized, really: the audience (correctly) loves them, calling them out for a post-awards ceremony encore. 

But the real reward is that they get to keep playing beyond the Battle of the Bands. A credits scene shows Dewey running a music-based after-school program, still jamming with his new bandmates, all of them still having so much fun, just doing what they love together because they love doing it, not because they want a prize or need external validation. It’s not the triumphant ending the movie primes us to want and expect, but it’s the happiest ending I can imagine. When you’re immersed in a culture that values striving and winning above all else, learning how to deprioritize others’ judgments and learning how to have fun are intertwined lessons that most of us struggle to internalize fully—but the joy of not taking something you love all that seriously is deeper and more sustainable than any award or resume line.

  1. The other two are the Lucille Bluth “good for her” gif and the Gone Girl “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead” gif, which should give you an idea of how things are going for my group chats lately.
  2. The fact that Summer came from the same writer that brought us Amy Jellicoe is delightful but unsurprising. Mike White’s mind!