I was inspired to write this having seen a review of all the musical performers who went on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with a focus on performers from Great Britain. So, what does this have to do with teachers, you ask? In 1967, the singer Lulu came on the show to sing the title song from “To Sir, with love” a song that lives beyond its boundaries. The movie by the same name is one of my four favorite movies about teachers.
“To Sir, with love” was set in the 1960s in a working class area. Sidney Poitier played the role of “Sir” which was what the male teachers were called. After much angst of trying to teach these high school seniors, he realized that they were about to go into the real world, so he decided to teach them about life. I must confess I get chills writing this, as he taught them how to act toward each other; he taught them about race relations and human dignity; he taught them the beautiful things in the world and showed them opportunity. And, he taught them that the world was not going to give you anything, so you better work hard. If you have not seen the movie, I will not spoil the ending.
The next three were hard to pick from, but I went with “Dead Poet’s Society” perhaps Robin Williams’ best movie filmed in 1989. Williams’ character Mr. Keating returned to a prep school for boys that he had attended. The boys had been taught to conform and toe the line, but Keating taught them poetry and passion. He taught them about carpe diem. And, they called him “Oh Captain, my Captain.” The best moment in the movie is when he teaches Ethan Hawke’s character how to improvise a poem, since he was having so much trouble writing one. After he does so, Keating whispers in his ear, “don’t you ever forget this.”
“Stand and Deliver” with Edward James Olmos made in 1988 is a about a math teacher who decided to teach Calculus to Latin American high school students in an impoverished neighborhood. He is ridiculed and laughed at by the other math teachers and principal. He drafts kids who work over the summer on pre-calculus material, to be prepared for the even harder stuff in the fall. Lou Diamond Phillips plays one of his students and Andy Garcia plays a testing official with the Advanced Placement organization. These kids fight an uphill battle with Olmos’ coaching, teaching and coercing. And, just when they succeed, they get slapped down and have to do it again. It is an inspiring true story about what blood, sweat and tears mixed with some passion and intellect can do.
The final member of my quartet is “Mr. Holland’s Opus” made in 1995 with Richard Dreyfus as Mr. Holland, the music and band teacher. Take a lot of tissue to the couch if you watch this one. Mr. Holland worked on his opus for years, but found out later that his real opus was the kids he taught. Along the way, he had a challenge he needed to overcome and that was when his son was born deaf. But, his son being deaf was not the biggest obstacle, it was him finding the way to show his son his passion and bring him into his world and becoming more a part of his son’s. Being the father of band students over the years, with my oldest being in the marching and jazz bands, this show has extra meaning for me. Hats off to Jay Thomas as Holland’s friend and the school’s athletic coach. And, Bill H. Macy and Olympia Dukakis play important roles, although you will not care for Macy’s character at all.
I think movies about great teachers have a special place in our hearts. We all have been inspired by one or more teachers. And, just like these inspirational teachers, there are other excellent movies about teachers – “Dangerous Minds,” with Michelle Pfeiffer, “Teachers” with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington and “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman to name a few. I would love to hear about your favorites. Did I miss one that I should have highlighted. Have you seen the above? What teacher did you have that made a difference in your life?