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School Teachers

     It's another damned September, and I'm back in school, writhing and kicking like many of you, but on the other side of the desk. I'm a teacher, the one with the chalky crumpled sports jacket, the nostalgic-for-1967 haircut and jeans, and the by-rote explanation of my get-tough grading policy. Is there verity to the stereotype of teachers as geeky, grumpy, and oblivious to fashion, clinging to pre-computer era standards? Sure, I say, peeking in a mirror (though rarely) at my professor self.

     And what about teaching because you can't do real work? Or because you are too eccentric to succeed among adults?

     All the above are often true in my calling, and they've been true, and will stay so. Whenever Frederick Wiseman shows High School(1968), his wry documentary of student-faculty life at a Philadelphia public school, people come up to him and exclaim, "That's my high school! I had those weird teachers!" They've been saying that for 33 years.

     I'm the first to enjoy a satiric poke at the teaching profession--we deserve it!--and the movies, of course, run rife with them. Who didn't suffer public humiliation from someone like the tart-tongued Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)? Who didn't encounter a teacher, smug with tenure, snoring in class behind a newspaper, the way of the cadaverous pedant (Royal Dano) in Teachers (1984)? Who didn't have a well-meaning liberal like the art teacher (Illeanna Douglas) in the current Ghost World, whose mushy, middle-brow vantage means that the students encouraged for art careers are never the marginal ones?

     However, when movies do the opposite, show you a teacher to emulate, someone above satire, I often balk. I've never admired Harvard Law professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) in The Paper Chase, whose tyrannical ways supposedly bring academic results. There's no need to be such a haughty S.O.B. Even at Harvard. And what about the immortal Mr. Chipping (Oscar winner, Robert Donat), Hollywood's beloved teacher of generation upon generation of English preps in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)? Sorry, but he's a servile, dottering old fool.

     And the worst: Robin Williams's "seize the day" English teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989). He obnoxiously skampers up on his desk and begs to be loved, while mocking any student who doesn't agree with his pronouncements. He's the faux bohemian teacher who requires absolute conformity of opinion and worship from those in his class. The students fall in line with their leader, and the film fascistically endorses their subservience.

     What teachers in classic films do I favor?

     The anarchist (Jean Daste)in Zero de Conduite (1930) who does Chaplin imitations for his students, and plays silly games with them on the playground but, unlike egomaniac Robin Williams, demands nothing in return for befriending them.

     The earnest white liberal, Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford) in the 50s classic, Blackboard Jungle (1955), who struggles to get his juvenile delinquent-heavy class to care about learning. This was the first Hollywood film to deal with classroom multiculturalism. In a startling moment for Hollywood, Dadier must confront his buried racism when he starts to attack his uncooperative African-American student, "Why you black..."

     Sidney Poitier's dignified black teacher from the islands assigned to a white working-class London school in To Sir, With Love (1967). This is England, so there's no hope that these students from the wrong side of town will ever go to Eton or work for the BBC. Nevertheless, Poitier gets them to care, and their class trip is a thing of beauty and discovery, buoyed by Lulu's super-great theme song. As for the slow dance toward the end between Poitier and mini-skirted teenager Judy Geeson, it's moviedom's finest moment of catching the eroticism that passes between teacher and student, acknowledged without words on both sides, and which cannot ever be acted on.

     Francois Truffaut's Dr. Itard in The Wild Child (1970), the true story of the early 19th century home education of an illiterate, unsocialized boy found in nature. Sometimes humane, sometimes harsh and firm, Itard determines to teach the boy to read and write, wear clothes, have table manners. The film is a philophical investigation: is Itard's pedantry improving the boy or ruining him? Truffaut as director endorses the anti-Rousseau character he plays in the movie. The filmmaker vividly remembers his own "wild child" boyhood, lost on the Paris streets, until he was rescued by his adopted unofficial parent (and teacher), film critic Andre Bazin.

(September, 2001)


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