As I pushed the book I wanted to purchase across the checkout counter, the cashier frowned as if it were a bowl of rotten fish.
"Oh, that (expletive) movie is so full of (expletive)," the young woman muttered.
"Waiting for 'Superman,'" said the book's title. It is the companion guide to the documentary by Davis Guggenheim that's stirring up as much debate about public education as his earlier "An Inconvenient Truth" whipped up about climate change.
Geoffrey Canada, founder of New York's Harlem Children's Zone, provided the title. He recalls in the film how he dreamed as a child of being rescued from his bad-off school and neighborhood by the Man of Steel. Instead, he had to become another kind of "Superman," a schoolteacher.
Never miss a local story.
As I guessed, my bookstore clerk was a schoolteacher. Some teachers unfortunately call the movie "anti-teacher." It's not. It's only anti-bad teachers.
Guggenheim's film focuses mainly on five bright, highly motivated children, including a teenager, in different states. They pin their hopes on lotteries to let them into high-performing charter schools, instead of the local "dropout academies" to which they otherwise will be assigned.
The lottery provides riveting, edge-of-seat suspense as a metaphor for America's educational tragedy: The quest for good schools is a game of chance.
And if we Americans think only poor kids are penalized, the film notes, we're fooling ourselves. The United States ranks 25th among developed countries in math and 21st in science, the movie reports, and if you count only the top-performing 5 percent of students, we rank last.
There's plenty more in this film to make your blood boil. There's hidden-camera video that a student took of his teacher snoozing or reading a newspaper while students in the back of the room play with dice.
There's the "lemon dance," an administrative game in various states in which bad teachers are transferred from school to school, as each school hopes the new teacher at least will not be as bad as the old one was.
The villain is tenure, a cherished job-protection benefit won by teachers' unions. Too often tenure protects mediocrity and punishes excellence.
In one climactic scene, District of Columbia teachers refuse to even allow a vote on a proposal to double the salaries of teachers who agree to give up tenure and become more accountable. D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee comes off as a school reform hero and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a way that makes Cruella de Vil, the bad lady from "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," look like a sweetheart.
But the long-running saga of teacher accountability didn't end where the movie does. Even before the film's release, the national pace of change in education policy was overtaking much of its story.
District teachers ratified a new contract in June that dramatically expands Rhee's ability to remove poor-performing educators and make classroom results, not seniority, the standard by which teachers are paid. A growing list of cities and states are replacing seniority with classroom results-oriented accountability.
Much of this change has been encouraged by the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" competition for a slice of the $3.4 billion it offers as incentives to states that address these issues.
In short, the moviemakers probably sell more popcorn with video of dozing schoolteachers, but there is more hope for public schools than "Waiting for 'Superman'" portrays. There are no easy answers, although the movie does raise the right questions.
This is not a job for Superman. It's up to teachers, parents, principals and the rest of us to rescue the nation's schools.