To Sir, With Love
Let me begin by saying that their children’s education was the most important thing in my parents’ life. Although there are so many things that could be taken away from black children in America, an educated mind was not one of them, they said. Having an education could lift us above much of the desperation and desolation with which so many of us – black, white, whatever – have to endure. How it broadens our range of choices and capabilities, thereby expanding our horizons and future possibilities. And they were right – and I thank them every day for insisting that we learn how to learn.
As you probably know from reading my previous postings, I grew up in a white neighborhood in The Bronx, New York City. In elementary school, I was the only black kid in my classes. My first black classmates were in Junior High School, and many of them traveled by subway and then bus from Harlem to attend school in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Riverdale. And while none of my black schoolmates showed any signs of malignant hostility, I knew that they came from neighborhoods where violence and thievery went with the territory. I knew this because these were the neighborhoods where my father worked as a podiatrist and where my parents owned a dry cleaning store – which, incidentally, was in the same block on West 116th Street where I spent the first 17 months of my life. So, I was always aware that there were children that didn’t have the “educational advantage” that I did. And that is why I have always been attracted to films about educating – excuse the political correctness – “at-risk” kids.
The three films I will talk about in this posting – The Blackboard Jungle (released in 1955 in black and white), To Sir, With Love (1967, color) and Dangerous Minds (1995, color) – all have a lot in common. The stories are about people who are all novice teachers whose first assignments involve unruly students. They also use unorthodox teaching methods to connect with their students. And, they also decide they aren’t cut out for classroom work, but then decide to keep teaching after being encouraged to do so by their students. In The Blackboard Jungle and Dangerous Minds, the teachers – Richard Dadier and Louanne Johnson, respectively – have military backgrounds and plan on making teaching their profession. Mark Thackeray of To Sir, With Love is an out-of-work engineer who takes the job while he looks for work in his previous field.
Although Mr. Dadier is assured by his principal that his all-male school in New York City doesn’t have any disciplinary problems, he finds out differently as soon as he walks into the classroom. Among his trials and tribulations are being tagged with the moniker “Daddy-O” by gang leader Artie West; being turned down when he asks an apparently bright black student, Gregory Miller, to help him get the other students to behave in class; coming to the defense of a teacher who is almost raped by severely beating the assailant; getting severely beaten himself by Artie and his gang while on his way home; and being charged as a bigot after he tries to explain to his class that words like “spic, mick and nigger” are not appropriate language whether in the classroom or in the outside world.
Mr. Dadier also has problems at home. His wife gets it into her head that her pregnancy is making her unattractive to her husband and is worried that she will have another miscarriage. Then on top of that, she begins receiving anonymous letters accusing her husband of being unfaithful.
But Mr. Dadier manages to persevere and begins connecting with his students by taking over the production of the school’s Christmas pageant and using cartoons as an educational tool. But he faces one more threat. After being caught cheating on a test, Artie pulls a knife and calls on the rest of his gang to attack Mr. Dadier. But only one of the gang members responds and after a skirmish in which the teacher is helped by Gregory, Mr. Dadier takes the two rebels to the principal’s office.
In another rare reference to the actors involved in the films that are examined, I just wanted to note that Sidney Poitier, who portrays Gregory Miller in the previous movie, also portrays Mr. Thackeray in To Sir, With Love – the story of a black teacher with a mostly white class in London.
After a very shaky start and then managing to gain a superficial semblance of order with his classroom hooligans, Mr. Thackeray loses his temper when he finds that what I assume is a used feminine napkin in the classroom’s heater. He decides that the regular school curriculum is a waste of time and begins teaching them about life, beginning with his demand that the students address each other in a respectful manner – and calling him either Mr. Thackeray or “Sir.” The class is allowed to discuss anything they want, including sex. He arranges for the girls to get lessons in the application of makeup and in taking care of their hair. He takes his students to a museum. He gives them cooking lessons. And he tries to get them to understand that they need to try and understand viewpoints other than their own. This object lesson is magnified by an incident in the boys’ gym.
The gym instructor obviously has a thing about punishing one of the heavier kids in the class who is known as Fats. The gym instructor forces Fats to take his turn jumping over the vault despite the warnings by the students that the vault is too high. When Fats tries to comply, the vault breaks and Fats gets hurt as he lands on top of the instructor. The other boys are furious and one of them, a boy named Potter, threatens the instructor with one of the vault’s broken legs. Another student rushes off to fetch Mr. Thackeray, who arrives just in time to prevent Potter from cracking the instructor’s head open with the weapon. Back in the classroom, Mr. Thackeray tells the would-be attacker that he should apologize to the gym instructor. Potter wants to know why the instructor isn’t asked to apologize to Fats. Mr. Thackeray explains that he is not responsible for the actions of the gym instructor. Denham, who is the leader of classroom delinquents, tells Potter to apologize or Mr. Thackeray won’t provide a good reference when he graduates and starts looking for a job. To which Mr. Thackeray replies that Potter should not apologize because he is afraid of the consequences of his hoodlum-like behavior but rather because admitting his is wrong is the proper thing for a man to do.
Later, when Mr. Thackeray becomes the gym instructor, Denham challenges him to a boxing match. Although he tries to refuse, he feels he must comply. Denham then proceeds to pummel Mr. Thackeray, who merely defends himself without throwing a punch – that is until Denham’s onslaught finally goes too far and Sir hits him with a hard right to the stomach that stops Denham cold, taking the wind out of him. Afterwards, Denham waits for Sir and asks how many times his teacher hit him. He then asks why Sir didn’t continue to pound him after he had the advantage. Mr. Thackeray replies by offering to help Denham get hired as the school’s boxing instructor after he graduates.
Sir also has to deal with a crush on him by one of his students, a white girl named Pamela Dare, who hates her mother because of her parents’ divorce and because her mother has brought her boyfriends home for intimate relations. Then there’s his black male student named Seales, who hates his father and says he mistreated his white mother. When Sir asks him how his mother was mistreated, Seales replies, “He married her, didn’t he?”
Race is brought up twice more in the movie. As Sir is talking with his students on the steps of the school before classes begin, some kids playing hockey almost hit Pamela with the can they are using. But Sir reaches out and catches the can, which cuts his hand. One of the students jokes that Sir has red blood just like everyone else. Sir just gives a smile and walks into the building. Although most of the students laughed at the “joke,” Pamela scolds Denham, who throughout the film refers to Sir as “Old Chimneysweep,” but not to his face. Then she lays into Seales for not saying anything in defense of Sir. Although Seales doesn’t offer a good excuse, he does admit that he wishes he could be like Sir. And for his part, although he keeps using the term “Old Chimneysweep,” it is obvious that Denham comes to not only respect Sir but also develops real affection for his teacher.
The other incident involves the death of Seales’ mother. The class is taking up a collection to pay for a wreath and Sir asks to be included. He then learns that none of the girls are willing to take the wreath to the family. “You don’t know what people would say if one of us went into a black home,” Pamela informs him. And Denham says none of the boys would take it either. This was before the boxing incident. On the day of the funeral, which is after the boxing incident, Sir is walking to the Seales home and turns the corner to find his entire class there waiting for him.
I also found it interesting that both his student’s parents and his colleagues at the school show Mr. Thackeray a kind of deference that mirrors his students, which borders on worship. Also interesting is that when Sir finally gets an acceptance letter for an engineering job and plans on leaving the school, he allows his mind to be changed by a couple of toughs – one male, one female – who express their distain for the man who will be their teacher next semester.
And one last thought specific to this movie. Mr. Thackeray is one of the worst dancing black men I’ve ever seen. But despite that, the film had been my favorite movie about education until I saw Dangerous Minds, which is based on a true story.
Louanne Johnson accepts a position at a California school before she learns that her class is filled with a raucous group of unruly teenagers – something for which she was unprepared. After being called “White Bread” by the students and taunted by Emilio, the apparent class leader, she walks out of the classroom on her first day and confronts Hal Griffith, her longtime friend who also teaches at the school and helped her get the job, about not being warned about her students. Griffith advises her to figure out a way to get the kids attention. Her idea, use the karate training she learned in the Marine Corps to engage the kids by telling them she will give them lessons in the martial art. However, the school’s principal, a black man who insists that people knock on his door before entering his office, quashes the martial arts instruction, pointing out safety and legal ramifications. But the tactic has worked and the class becomes manageable.
Ms. Johnson’s next tactics further disarm her students: She tells them they all will start out with an “A” and will keep it as long as they put an honest effort into their work; she gives candy bars to students who provide the right answer to her academic questions; and she promises to take the kids to an amusement park using funds from the school board. When class ends, one of her male students warns her that she better be for real and a female student suggests that if she wins over Emilio, the rest of the class with follow suit. The class eventually goes to the amusement park, but it is Ms. Johnson who foots the bill.
But for me, the best part of the story is her use of poetry (I like to think of myself as a poet). She begins with Bob Dylan and shows the students how to translate what Dylan is actually saying with his song that begins, “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me.” (If you don’t know, watch the movie.) The kids see that they can relate to the poem and their learning takes off. She then challenges the students to find a poem by Dylan Thomas that says the same thing as a poem by Bob Dylan – and she will take the winners of the contest to dinner at a very expensive restaurant. This assignment shocks the school librarians, who are stunned to see these particular students studying in their facility.
Ms. Johnson’s progress with her class also has a non-academic side. She stops a fight between Emilio and two other boys who she unintentionally disses. She gets the boys to agree that they won’t fight, but they break their promise and wind up getting suspended. When she asks why they broke their word, one of the boys explains how she dissed him, which made it necessary for him to fight. But the boy also acknowledges that he knows Ms. Johnson was trying to help. Then, the teacher visits the homes of the two suspended boys and tells their parents that they were not to blame for their suspensions and – to the surprise of their parents – that the boys are wonderful students doing great work. The next day, Emilio tells Ms. Johnson that he heard that she had visited the homes of his two classmates. When she confirms the news, he says, “Cool.” Now, everyone is onboard.
But Ms. Johnson does experience some setbacks. Two of her students, one of which had won the dinner but didn’t show up, are taken out of school by their mother, who doesn’t want her boys taught by some do-gooder white woman. And Callie, another student who won the dinner but had to work that night, tells Ms. Johnson that she will be attending another school because she is going to have a baby. Although Ms. Johnson tells her that she can stay at her school if she wants, Callie refuses to change her mind. Additionally, the other student who won the contest shows up at the restaurant in a new leather jacket. During dinner he explains that he will miss a few weeks of school while he works to pay for the jacket, which he got from a street thug who probably stole it, and that his life depended on coming up with the money. Ms. Johnson offers to pay for the jacket but the boy doesn’t want to take the money. They eventually agree that the $200 will be a loan that the boy will pay back after he graduates.
The biggest setback, however, involves Emilio, who is threatened by a thug who does not go to the school. The thug says he is going to kill Emilio for taking his girl away while he was in prison. The girl, who also is in Ms. Johnson’s class, tells the teacher about it and begs her to do something to help. Ms. Johnson agrees to allow Emilio stay at her place over night, where he will be safe and where she convinces him to take his problem to the principal. The next morning, Emilio has left by the time Ms. Johnson wakes up. She rushes frantically to the school and the principal’s office to inquire if he has seen Emilio. The principal says he has, but refused to talk to him because Emilio hadn’t knocked on the door before entering the office. A half an hour later and three blocks from the school, Emilio is found dead. This proves to be too much for Ms. Johnson to bear and she decides that she will leave the school after the semester ends. Her class is very disheartened by the news and tries to talk her out of it – to no avail.
The next day, which is the last day of classes, Callie returns to add her voice to those of her former classmates in trying to convince Ms. Johnson to return next school year. Finally, they bribe her with a candy bar and tell her that she is the light that Dylan Thomas talks about in his poetry – the light that guides their way through life. It proves to be a convincing argument.
Recently, President Obama told our children that by dropping out of school they were doing a disservice to their country, their families and themselves. He also said he was committed to seeing that American kids got the best education in the world. These goals only will be achieved by parents who support their children’s academic endeavors and by teachers like the ones presented here. Teachers who find a way to show kids that getting an education can lead to a better life for all of us – and learning how to learn can be easy, fun and personally satisfying.