There's The Rub
After writing that column on teachers last week, I tried to recall some of the movies I’d seen that had to do with teachers and teaching. I was astonished to be able to list down quite a number of them.
I’ve always been in awe of teachers, and hold their profession in the highest regard. I never thought to become one simply because I realized early on that the profession did not just entail knowledge or learning, it entailed some degree of oratorical skill and/or theatrical flair. I can churn out a speech as well as the best of them (I don’t mind being immodest in that respect) but, as I said in the preface to “Tongues on Fire,” I’ve never been able to do justice to it by my delivery (I wish I could be equally immodest in that respect, too, but reality knocks too loudly on my door). As to theatrical skill, well, I had Rolando Tinio for a teacher, which is why I know that teaching at its best requires that, too. He was an awesome teacher, quite apart from being an awesome artist, combining learning, oratorical prowess and dramatic flair. And, man, did he inspire.
But to go back: You want the country’s best and brightest to consider teaching as a profession, or vocation, you’ve got to inspire them. It’s the appeal to idealism, or more precisely (and perversely), the poetry of near-certain impoverishment, that’s more likely to do the trick than the promise of untold riches and fame. And one of the best ways to inspire is to show them movies about teachers and teaching. The ones below are some of my favorites:
“The Blackboard Jungle” / “To Sir with Love.” I saw “To Sir With Love” (1967) first, while in high school, though “The Blackboard Jungle” came much earlier (1955). I’ve put them together because they have a lot of things in common. One is that they both produced smash hits. Lulu’s song of the same title went to top the charts while Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” helped spawn the monster called “rock and roll.” Two, both movies deal with a teacher who confronted juvenile delinquents in an inner city school. Specifically, both movies deal with a teacher who is terrorized by one exceptionally anti-social thug, whose conversion becomes the key to salvation of the entire class. And three, both movies have Sidney Poitier in them -- in “To Sir With Love” as the teacher, in the “Blackboard Jungle” as the thug. The first is the more hugely popular, but I’ve always liked the second better.
“Goodbye Mr. Chips.” I haven’t seen the 1939 version; I’ve seen the 1969 one. You can always read the book if you want. Like the movies above, the Peter O’Toole version also produced some smash hits, notably “Fill the World With Love.” The critics didn’t particularly like it, particularly in comparison with the Robert Donat version, but I saw it early in my college years and fell in love with it. The movie tells the story of a classics teacher who seemed to have become an irrelevancy over time, with a harsher, meaner, world coming in to take the place of a kinder, more peaceable one. The harshness and meanness particularly taking the form of World War I. In the end, he shows that he in fact is the most relevant person for those times. “We did teach them to be more polite to each other” (or words to that effect), he recollects with a friend in the twilight of his life. Ah, but if only the world had listened.
“Lean On Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers.” Roughly the same theme, a teacher who rescues a bunch of black and Latino kids given up for lost by everyone, including themselves, from a future of misery and death and turns them into veritable achievers. “Dangerous Minds” I remember for Michelle Pfeiffer explaining Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” to his class, specifically how Dylan, given the censorship in his time, had to disguise smoking pot with that magical metaphor. The most inspiring of the lot is “Stand and Deliver,” with Edward James Olmos as the math teacher of a rough East LA school who, despite the derision of his peers (“You can’t teach math to illiterates”), almost miraculously gets his kids to pass the AP Calculus Exam. His advice to his kids is something we can relate to, not least because he uses the same word for it: “gana.” You have to have gana, or enthusiasm.
“Dead Poets Society”; “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” I suspect the first did a lot more to spark interest in poetry among the kids than a bunch of lectures on it. Certainly it made the phrase “carpe diem” (seize the day) the motto of a generation. The second is a much older movie, which thrust Maggie Smith into the limelight as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, who demands from her students that they embrace the extraordinary life. Like “Dead Poets,” this is a far more complex movie than the others, and not the kind to get audiences off their seats to cheer. Like “Dead Poets,” it shows as well the tragedy as much as the glory of exploding truth and/or illusion in dangerous and/or impressionable minds.
“Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The one I like best as far as teaching goes, if not as movies go. Richard Dreyfuss is a composer who settles for a job teaching music in a small high school to pay the rent while he struggles to compose his masterpiece. He never gets to do the latter while he ends up doing the former for 35 years. In the end, frustrated and not a little bitter at having wasted his life, he attends one last school function before he goes. The function turns out to be a surprise party for him by all the students he had taught and whose lives he had changed forever. Not unlike James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” That is Mr. Holland’s masterpiece, that is his magnum opus.
You don’t get inspired by all this, you deserve to be a politician.Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.