Story Grammar Synopsis

Click here to download the screenplay.

A dictionary falls and a student dies; a dusty book room becomes a crypt for a teacher and her box of worksheets; a plagiarist's erasure of himself is finalized by his obliteration in a dumpster fire.

In Dexter Matherson's English class, a student whose emaciated language figuratively starves him to death could become literally dead when willful ignorance compounds academic backwardness. Story Grammar, a dark comedy named for the irreversible laws of fiction that reward the virtuous and crush evildoers, sends up teen slasher flicks and earnest, do-good teacher movies. Its anti-hero Dex will do anything to demonstrate the liberating powers of language, including taking a chainsaw to class or tinkering with base forces to effect a death by faulty plumbing.

Matherson's Gatling-gun delivery transfixes inner-city juniors at Rockland High, a Philadelphia public school. A stubborn provincialism imposed by poverty and cultivated by the figment of racial difference weakens his students' connection to a broader culture. Frustrated, Dex espouses the universal humanity found in their assigned texts, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Frederick Douglass' slave Narrative. A series of gruesome accidents befall obstinate students and an ineffective colleague. Dex's part in these is ambiguous: Is the manic-depressive teacher suffering a psychotic break? Is he stoking a cold-pill induced rampage? Or is he the innocent witness to ghostly forces haunting Rockland, intent on defending the virtue of free and universal public education?

Like To Sir With Love, the screenplay of Story Grammar depends on an incandescent teacher presence to inspire bored and disinterested students. And like Prom Night and its bloody ilk, Story Grammar features a putative killer whose goofy pathology infuses every one-on-one, teacher-and-student encounter with excruciating tension. Dex's classroom style is a combination of unfailingly high expectations, biting sarcasm, and a penchant for low culture references to pop icons like Bullwinkle, Popeye, and Adam West's Batman. Effortlessly appealing to "all the various intelligences kids have today, your kinetic intelligence, your spatial intelligence, your finger-up-your-bum intelligence," Dex teaches the authenticating force of language with masks, un-fuzzy marionettes, cartoons, and stand-on-the-desk theatrics. But his bright side coexists with his dark: Dex "gripping up" a kid for insolence; Dex spiking the warm cola in his Foghorn Leghorn mug with some foul elixir he's hidden in his bottom desk drawer.

Can anyone stop this madman before more teens die--or learn Standard English? Maybe Cathy, Dex's black, estranged wife, will do it. Her lawyerly composure plays against his manic unrestraint. (Their mixed marriage was wracked by inevitable cultural differences: Cathy grew up with money and Dex didn't.) She knows Dex's bipolar disorder is unhinging him and that his amped-up teaching style only makes it worse, but she can't pull him down from the rafters without pulling him too close. Conventional story grammar dictates love will prevail, but in a real world that refuses to educate its neediest children, the bleak certainty is that "Ignorance is Death." Dex's knowing madness conspires with lowly accident to make a noble metaphor literally true.

2009, Drew Zimmerman & Estella Elesh: Contact the authors

The original 2005 novel Story Grammar available in electronic Kindle version