warm, weird fuzzies in the house with a clock in its walls

Necessary Backstory:
In the 4th grade, Jared Thompson’s dad came to visit him at school, and he ate lunch with us in the cafeteria.

I remember it well, because it was my favorite elementary school lunch day: Pizza and Mashed Potato Day.

See, I liked to spread my mashed potatoes over the top of my pizza. If you’ve never topped elementary school pizza with elementary school mashed potatoes, you are missing out on a heck of a culinary experience. The grainy texture of those undoubtedly instant mashed potatoes combining with that gluey cheese? Exceptional.

Mr. Thompson didn’t think so.

“We don’t put mashed potatoes on pizza, Dani,” he informed me.

Oh, fuck. Not “we.”

In the 5th grade, Mr. Thompson was a chaperone on our big overnight field trip to Rock Eagle. This field trip was the biggest deal in the 5th grade. I mean, an OVERNIGHT field trip? We would be kings.

Now, Harry Potter had just started to become a thing, and it remains the only fad to which I have ever been on the ground floor. I was an all-in Potterhead, and was doing my best to infect all of my friends with my sweet, sweet nerd sickness. Sometimes we even played Harry Potter on the playground during recess.

So, while getting ready for some orienteering, I made the mistake of calling Jared Thompson “Ron.” Mr. Thompson wanted to know what that was about, and I told the truth.

“Ron’s a character from Harry Potter!”

Mr. Thompson liked this even less than he liked mashed potato pizza.

“We don’t play Harry Potter,” he said with every bit of classic “Harry Potter is devil worship” self-importance that he could muster.

This was about the time that I started to suspect that I didn’t want to belong to the primary “We.”

Fortunately, I wasn’t far off from finding out about all the other kinds of “we’s” there are out there…

Where This is All Going:

Last weekend, I saw The House With a Clock In Its Walls. I liked it a lot! I had fun! Mostly, I can’t stop reading articles about it. I’m kind of torn between two different reviews I’ve read. On the one hand, I agree with Tasha Robinson’s The Verge article that alleges “There’s a clear studio expectation that all children’s movies should be loud, garish, and impatient, with a lot of action and a few big, bold scares. And the predictability and artificiality of that model is killing the chance for children to experience more than one kind of onscreen story.” I agree. Beat for beat, House definitely feels like a movie I’ve seen before, and we should expect more diversity –tonally and otherwise– from children’s entertainment.

But I also side with the A.V. Club’s solid B review: “The result is a high-end version of one of those direct-to-video kids’ movies that play on the Disney Channel all throughout October, all cobwebbed tombstones behind iron cemetery gates and dead leaves crunching underfoot.” You had me at Disney Channel Original Movie, A.V. Club.

I think what really sold me on House is my fondness for the main character. Lewis Barnavelt is total weirdo. He never takes off the goggles that he wears in homage to his favorite television serial character, Captain Midnight. He gets picked last for basketball during gym class. When he experiences one of his first moments of spellcasting, he goes into what I can only describe as a dork fugue state.

Is there anything better than an all out kids’ lit weirdo? I mean, Luna Lovegood, you are my queen. One of my earliest favorites was Ramona Quimby. In fact, there’s definitely a dinner scene in Beezus and Ramona wherein Ramona gets in trouble for swirling jelly into her mashed potatoes. WHAT IS IT WITH ADULTS AND MASHED POTATO ETIQUETTE? GET OFF OF MY GODDAMN CLOUD.

Lewis isn’t weird because he’s an up and coming warlock. He’s just weird. He gets off of that bus in the first scene, already a fully fleshed weirdo with his Magic 8 Ball and his goggles. Like Luna and Ramona and so many others, Lewis’ wears his weird heart on his argyle sleeve for the world to see. But for a brief moment of bully-inspired, goggle-related doubt, Lewis is who he is, and he doesn’t have to compromise himself in order to save the day or to connect with a new family.

Discovering fellow weirdos in books was my first clue that there had to be others out there. I got lucky. I did find my own weirdos in elementary school. Before The Phantom Menace came out, we played Jedi training during recess, and I administered a weekly trivia quiz to make sure that my Padawans were all up to snuff. All the way through high school, our ideal Friday nights were spent eating microwavable frozen chicken sandwiches and watching old Disney movies. We memorized the birthdays and favorite colors of the members of The Lord of the Rings cast, and then wore the right color on the right birthday. And, yeah, we got made fun of, but it didn’t matter because we were together.

I especially remember how much it meant to me when I first met adults that shared in my particular brand of weirdness. (Thanks, Renaissance Festival!) It’s those feelings of camaraderie and confidence that send me back to Dragon Con every year as a so-called grown-up. It’s still such a relief to know and reaffirm that adulthood doesn’t have to look like Mr. Thompson and his hatred of fun and exciting flavor combinations.

So, Lewis finding a new family with his Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, never change!) gives me all sorts of warm, weird fuzzies. I hope that oddball kids see this movie, and know that there are places and “we’s” out there for them even if they currently have Mr. Thompsons telling them that how they roll is wrong. If a kid putting mashed potatoes on top of pizza isn’t hurting anyone and it clearly makes her happy, maybe just sit back and let it happen? I don’t have kids, but I teach, and it’s really important to me to create a safe space for my students to let their freak flags fly. And just like I don’t want the drama kids to feel left out when it’s time to pick basketball teams, I don’t want the basketball kids to feel out of place if they come audition for the school play.

If you’re looking for some charming spookiness this season, I definitely recommend checking out The House With a Clock In Its Walls. I especially recommend it for weirdos old and young, as a friendly, cobweb-strewn reminder that your people are out there and they love you for you. To quote Petrana Radulovic’s review in Polygon, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls follows in this grand tradition of spoopy movies, giving just enough taste of horror to genuinely scare, but with the heartwarming message of embracing weirdness, of finding those who will embrace it with you.”

Let’s dress up like our favorite television serial characters and get into some nonsense.

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