Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Drop Dead Mr. Chips: Teacher Flix 101
From the very first moving images on celluloid, popular film has revealed much about our relationship to that oldest profession of all, teaching, creating a rich sub-genre that is both socially relevant and disturbing. We've been taken from a sunny/funny past of wholesome classroom values to a dark urban legend-scape populated by chalk-wielding freaks and monsters. The interesting thing, of course, is how we got from there to here.
Let's start with the iconic "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1939). Robert Donat stars as the emblematic instructor who stumbles by chance into the schoolroom and discovers he loves it. Dedicated and humble, with the help of a trusty pipe and a good woman he surmounts his shortcomings and dodders down the Halls of Academe to old age for the heart-warming benefit of his "dear boys." At the same time in his shy befuddlement and passivity, he seems a pathetic loser, a schmuck who simply goes along with whatever happens.
Icon-wise, this is as good as it gets, the archetype we see repeated as in "Stand and Deliver" (1987), and "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995), in which our heroes fight the good fight and win. Well, sort of. Though meant to be evocations and inspirations, many such 'positive' films about teaching end on bummer notes: Mr. Holland winds up alienated from his family, ultimately cut off from his art, and fired as a victim of budget cuts; while the real-life Olmos character "Stand" is based on actually got dumped from his hard-won administrative appointment. Teachers may be revered for their generative activity and sacrifice, but their brilliant contributions are never quite enough to win the full love of their respective communities, it seems.
Touches of realism, or perhaps irony? Certainly, no matter what lip service we pay to the apparent worth of Education, there's obviously something about it that this society de-values/dis-trusts. That's clearer in the Teacher as Not-so-Good Guy/Gal category. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), for example, projects an enigmatic central figure whose complex psychology profoundly affects her pupils for both good and bad, long after a disaffected 'Brodie girl' takes her down. A still bleaker treatment emerges in Mamet's play "Oleanna" that went to screen (1994), wherein political correctness and real-estate lust fuse to destroy a distracted and arrogant (though basically humane) prof, while elevating his insipid student into something both unteachable and empowered. Although such films seem to undercut the Teacher, they still, paradoxically, pay homage to that figure's ongoing
However, while the movies above and the majority of Teacher flix, including classics like "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) and "To Sir, With Love" (1967), are 'psychologically realistic' that is, they present believable representations of the teaching experience a growing sub-sub-genre offers, instead, what can only be comprehended as un- or semi-conscious apprehensions of the current angst over the fate of our disintegrating inner cities and our decaying dreams for the future.
For example, a number of recent films feature a new archetype, the Teacher-as-Kickass-Commando. Foremostly fake of these is "Dangerous Minds" (1995), with petite Michele Pfeiffer as a tough ex-Marine roped into teaching in a murderous L.A. hood chock-full of raging Black and Hispanic youths. She whips them into shape with the occasional display of brute literacy, like when she turns them on to Bob Dylan relevant 'cause the lyrics have 'secret messages' about sex, drugs, and other cool stuff hidden beneath their dull poetic veneer. But mostly she just buys them off with an 'everyone gets an A' policy, trips to amusement parks (metonymy for today's Edu-Entertainment conflation), a dinner date contest with babelicious Teach as the prize, etc. That's the answer to social dissolution, an apparently appealing enough fantasy to land "Minds" its own (albeit short-lived) TV series.
"The Substitute" (1996) starts from a similar premise i.e., post-modern merc posing as Teacher meets problem students in hell-hole but foregoes the smarm to move along briskly to satisfying bouts of ultra-violence wherein drug-dealing students and faculty (eventually the school itself) blow up real good. The message here is that while the Education Enterprise may be mired in deep umgawa, it can still be saved, with a bit of willpower and a helluva lot of firepower. All we really need in the classroom, you see, is some mercenaries untainted by higher education or teacher training. Substitute sequels II and III, though insipid, readily attest to the ongoing redneckian appeal of this B-movie dream scenario.
More intriguing, from a taxonomic p.o.v., is the Teacher-as-Alien/Fiend. In The Faculty (1998), an "homage" to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), a wholesome small-town surface masks a dreadful secret; teachers at the local high are actually parasitic brain-eaters from another galaxy, intent on dominating Planet Earth. Students begin suspecting that 'the truth is really in here' when their educators suddenly become hard working, dynamic in class, personally hygienic, and physically attractive. What's wrong with this picture? The faculty's freakish preference for Perrier instead of usual desk-drawer booze or day-old coffee is the final tip-off and leads smartly to the space invaders' demise.
Meanwhile, in "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" (1999), with Helen Mirren, the accustomed power roles are reversed when students abduct their daunting instructor and hold her captive. Monster tip-offs abound, including Mrs. T's super-human strength and devilish cunning (respectively demonstrated by her punch-out of the lead-guy kid and her ability to read the minds of her dim, sappy kidnappers). She's un-American as pigeon pie, they discover, into Brit-inflected irony, haute couture, and kinky spank sessions with the goofball Phys Ed coach obviously an alien, though of the Legal persuasion (a la Sting). Once the students recognize that Mrs. T is not truly human, no rules (moral, legal, or other) apply and it's easy to reduce her to a puddle of babbling helplessness.
Educators have come a long way, indeed. The role of Teacher, because of its profound impact on us in childhood, remains a life-long magnet for strong, often contradictory manifestations in the psyche fear, love, loathing, lust, etc. The spectrum of teacher films sketched above arcs from demi-deification through to outright demonization, providing a simple, reassuring sub-text for both components of the audience. To teens the message at this end is: Hey, Teach actually is an evil monster; so, like, you can deal with 'IT' accordingly. While to basically middle-class adult viewers, such movies project a double-bind along the lines of: Education has failed us it's the Teacher's fault; that's why everything's scary and screwed up, yet maybe, somehow, she/he/it, the still-powerful figure, will reappear in a new guise and fix it.
In this bifurcating pedagogic context, the dear old Chipster is as defunct as the dodo. Slouching into the new millennium, our images of Teacher flicker somewhere between dream-date, warden, apocalyptic angel of death, and/or alien menace. The legacy of Columbine High, et al., haunts us. All those millions of hormone-crazed kids out there pumped up, pierced, drugged, tattooed, running free, who knows what else must be controlled, contained, or, in the extreme recesses of some dark minds, castrated/killed … at least within the confines of wishful imagination. Sure, teachers are dehumanized and scapegoated. But what of the students? A bleaker sub-text of these Commando/Fiend categories is that, if you can't keep the kids off the streets long enough to make the slurbs safe, then you baffle them with bullshit. And if that doesn't work, just pull out your Uzi and blast away. Or eat their brains. Whatever. Education as 'Essential service'. Hmmm, there's an idea. Pass the Perrier.
Ryszard Dubanski, M.A., is a member of the Communications Department at the University College of the Fraser Valley, Communications Chair of UCFV's Faculty and Staff Association, and the editor of its newsletter, "Words & Vision". His publications include: creative non-fiction (recent winner of the "Event" prize for creative non-fiction), fiction (shortlisted for the 2004 CBC Literary Award), drama, journalism, reviews, academic articles, criticism, and sundry teaching materials. "Black Teeth", a book collection of short fiction/creative non-fiction is coming out in Spring 2005; one story therein has been adapted as a feature screenplay, now in pre-production. Current projects include a radio drama and a study of the archetype of Teacher in pop culture. Ryszard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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