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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Good Teachers (originally published 11/02)

One of the perennial joys of being a student is slandering your teachers. When I was in grade school, a hundred years ago, I seem to recall that we delighted in making up rude songs about our least favorite teachers. Times have changed, of course -- these days, a disgruntled student is as likely to register his grievances with gunplay as with satire - but the basic impulse remains essentially the same.

Still, most of us can also fondly recall at least one or two teachers who had a positive influence on our lives. These important teachers who touch us deeply have long been a favorite subject of filmmakers. The recent release of "The Emporer's Club" is the current example, but if you'd like to see how earlier films have treated the theme of inspiring teachers, look for these titles on home video.

"Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1939). This sentimental film is set in a British boys' school in the late 1800s. Charles Chipping, magnificently played by Robert Donat, is in many ways the dramatic prototype of the teacher who makes a positive difference in young lives. We follow him through his long career, as he molds the lives of several generations of youngsters over more than half a century. We meet him initially as a young and callow new Latin instructor, shy by nature and with no conception of how to connect with his charges on a human level. He learns that secret later, primarily from his gregarious wife, played by Greer Garson, who brings out his humane side, allowing him to make the all-important transition from tutor to mentor.

"Blackboard Jungle" (1955). Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a new high school teacher who is inevitably rechristened as "Daddy-0" by his wiseacre students. He's beginning his teaching career on very tough turf, a New York City school for boys. Confronted with a disruptive nucleus of hard core juvenile delinquents who are spoiling the learning experience for everyone, Dadier ultimately opts for a more subtle approach than direct confrontation. Recognizing that the troublesome students do not represent a unified adversary, he reasons that if he can drive a wedge among their ranks, he can undermine the ringleaders' sway over their peers. The key turns out to be an African-American student, played by Sidney Poitier, who is as resentful of the student body in-crowd as he is of the school's authority figures.

"To Sir, With Love" (1967). Speaking of Sidney Poitier, his turn on the other side of the desk came in this British film of the 1960s. As Mark Thackeray, he's an unemployed engineer who turns to a teaching position for sustenance when no engineering positions are available. The school is in London, and his students are rowdy East Enders, rough as a cob and resentful of authority figures. He receives all manner of advice on how to handle the youngsters, with recommendations ranging from cracking the whip to trying a little tenderness. Instead he decides to treat them with respect and require the same of them. He addresses them formally, and makes it clear that he expects responsible, adult behavior from them because he believes them to be capable of it. Slowly, painfully, he manages to win their respect and allegiance.

"Conrack" (1974). In the late 1960s, a young, idealistic fellow named Pat Conroy took on the job of teaching the African-American schoolchildren of an island off the coast of South Carolina. He subsequently wrote a book about the experience called "The Water is Wide," which was filmed as "Conrack," with Jon Voight as Conroy. This same Pat Conroy would later go on to great success as a novelist with works such as "The Prince of Tides." Back in the '60s, however, as the film shows us, he had his hands quite full enough with the challenge of bringing the joy of learning to Yamacraw Island. These kids, he quickly learned, had been taught only one thing: that they weren't worthy of being educated. Against opposition from all sides, he poured all of his considerable energy into undermining the lie that had crippled the self-image of these children.

The bottom line for teachers seems to be that there are those who care only about their assignments and those who care about their students. Apparently, it all comes down to whether you'd rather be the subject of a scurrilous song or a major motion picture.

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