(SHOULD I READ IT OR WATCH IT?)
It might sound goofy, but many teachers, especially grade school teachers―though I’ve see it happen to teachers at every level―have experienced that strange moment of encounter with a student outside of the confines of school: the student’s stunned recognition at the shopping mall, or the cinema, or even the doctor’s waiting room; the spontaneous smile (thank goodness for that!) and then the: “Hey! Hi Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So!”; as though this is the most incongruous situation in the world, as though teachers don’t exist beyond their classrooms, as though they’re larger than life.
Well, maybe not show business (or else I wouldn’t be teaching), but definitely theatrical. Oh yes. I know this because I experience it every time I enter a room full of students. Teaching is performance. It’s drama: it’s about bringing to life the story you’re telling, holding your students’ attention, captivating them, engaging them, drawing them into the world of knowledge and mind expansion that you’re trying to create; and it’s about breaking that fourth wall and grabbing them by the collar if need be.
No surprise then, that so many great characters on stage, in books and in movies, have been teachers. Teachers come in so many incarnations! There’s the Mentor, the Guide, the Genius, the Dictator, the Disciplinarian, the Charismatic Leader, the Seducer, the Oppressor, the Bully, the Misfit, the Nerd, the Friend, the Clown, the Confidante, the Comedian, the Eccentric, the Hero, the Incompetent, the Unforgettable, the Traditionalist, the Sage, the Ideologue, the Burnout, the Sadist and lastly, the Life Changer.
I can think of examples of all of these in life, as in fiction, and the Library’s collection is full of books and movies that cover the entire rogues’ gallery.
Best to start at the top, I suppose, which means in such places as English boarding schools like Brookefield grammar school; or Marcia Blaine, a conservative girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland; or across the Atlantic, at Welton Academy, a posh prep school for boys in the North East. Though none of these may ring a bell, it’s within their walls that Mr. Chips, Miss Jean Brody, and English teacher John Keating changed the lives of so many of their students.
In Goodbye Mr. Chips, the novella by James Hilton (published in 1934), it’s Mr. Chipping (Mr. Chips, for short), who wins his students’ loyalty and eventually their hearts, by gradually evolving from traditionalist disciplinarian to quiet mentor, guide and sage. The story is such a classic, that it has been adapted several times for the big screen and also for television.
But neither Miss Jean Brody, nor John Keating, are willing to leave well enough alone, or to effect change patiently, and their careers end suddenly, and tragically. Of the two, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, adapted both for the stage and film (featuring the luminous Maggie Smith in the lead role) is the far more disturbing story. Brody is not so much a teacher as she is a destructive egotist. Calling her students “la crème de la crème”, Brody alternates between the roles of eccentric, charismatic leader, confidante, mentor and seducer of young minds, while dabbling in love affairs and flirting with fascism.
Most of us will remember Robin Williams as John Keating, the English teacher whose career ends in disaster, in Dead Poets Society (written for the screen by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter Weir).
Dead Poets Society is a memorable film: it’s heartbreaking to watch a young, idealistic, charismatic, friendly, passionate, inspiring, well-intentioned Keating leading his students toward a tragedy. But some would say that the vision of literature and poetry that Keating wants so badly to impart to his students is both deeply seductive, and completely misleading.
It might be worth taking a fresh look at the film, if only to see Robin Williams in a moving performance.
But not all stories about teachers take place in grand old schools with ivy-covered walls. In fiction as in real life, schools are mostly post-war buildings that have seen better days, and there really are teachers who seem to be part crusader-warrior and part missionary, though they would probably just say they love their jobs and love their students.
In a 2007 New York Times review, critic Manohla Dargis wrote that:
“As a cinematic subspecies, films about teachers working with throwaway kids tend to follow a predictable arc involving conflict and resolution, smooth beats and bitter tears. Sometimes, as with “Dangerous Minds,” the 1995 film in which Michelle Pfeiffer uses her cheekbones to disarm high school toughs, the results are risible. Sometimes, as with the egregiously offensive “187” (1997), wherein Samuel L. Jackson makes like Charles Bronson with some bad students, it’s an argument for universal home schooling.”
HAHAHA! Well, she has a point. Still, there are some pretty great books and movies out there that aren’t in the least bit cloying or manipulative, and in which cheekbones play no known role.
In England, wanting to share his experiences as a black teacher in the secondary school classrooms of London’s tough East End, Edwardo Ricardo (E.R.) Braithwaite wrote an autobiographical novel titled To Sir, with Love (1959). Sidney Poitier came to star in the film version in 1967, playing the part of Mark Thackeray (as Brathwaite), with his usual understatement and grace. Sadly, the book has been somewhat overlooked, but there’s a copy of it at the Library!
On this side of The Pond, there have been some extraordinary stories written and later translated to the screen about real, impassioned teachers; stories that have educated a public still largely ignorant about the structural inequality of educational systems around the world, and elevated the lives of at least some of the teachers and students who inspired them. Here are a few of the best:
– The movie Stand and Deliver is the story of teacher Jaime Escalante, who astonished everyone when his “troubled students” in East Los Angeles took and passed an advanced placement test in Calculus. Though Escalante died in 2010 at the age of 80, he remains unforgettable, in part thanks to Edward James Olmos’ dignified performance.
– In the same area of Los Angeles, in the early 1990’s, a young English teacher named Erin Gruwell realized that the best way to engage her students was to hand them journals and ask them to write about their own lives. What emerged was a collection of poignant personal essays that were eventually published as The Freedom Writers Diary. Gruwell’s experiences were brought to the big screen with the movie Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank as Gruwell, which, happily, is available at the Library.
-Here on the East Coast, it’s another teacher, known simply as Sapphire since the publication of her novel Push (in 1996), who stated in an NPR interview that:
“[…]she began the book in 1993, just as she was about to leave her job as a remedial reading teacher in Harlem to attend Brooklyn College’s MFA program: “I had the intense feeling that if I didn’t write this book no one else would.”
You may not recognize the novel’s title, but you’ve probably heard of the film Precious, adapted from the novel. I haven’t seen the movie. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know whether I can accompany the character Precious (played by Gabourey Sidibe who blew everyone away in the role) through the extreme dysfunction of her life. But I’m so happy that her story was written and shared with the world.
Have you seen it?
There are many more rich and gripping stories about teachers and their students waiting to move us, to inform is, to make us laugh, and to jolt us awake. Here is a brief list of my favourites:
Teacher Man, by Frank Mc Court (2005)
Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman (1965)
Children of my Heart, a memoir by Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy (1977)
Up the Down Staircase (1967)
Les Petits Géants (2009) : Beautiful little documentary shot right here, in Little Burgundy. A personal favourite
To Be and to Have (original title: Être et Avoir) (2003) : A very sweet and melancholy documentary shot in France, which I loved.
Waiting for Superman (2011) : A must-see documentary. An indictment of the American public school system and of the Charter school’s lottery system.
The School of Rock (2006): A comedy, starring Jack Black. Because school should be a place of laughter and joy.