During one of my breaks in packing over the past few days, I was browsing through Netflix Instant for something mindless to watch when I came across the 2000 film Finding Forrester.  If you haven’t seen it – and you should – the premise is that a talented 16-year-old basketball star in New York City befriends a reclusive novelist presumably modeled on J.D. Salinger (played by Sean Connery) and is encouraged to pursue and expand his considerable writing talents.

I didn’t watch it again since I didn’t have enough time and, like I said, I was looking for something a little lighter so I clicked on ahead to the “30 Rock” reruns.  But it got me thinking about movies based around high school.  There are countless films that deal with high school; Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club are probably among the most iconic, but as someone who grew up in the ’90s I’ve always been partial to American Pie and Varsity Blues.

But a lot of high school movies deal with the students at the school, and not the teachers.  Those films are often overlooked in our pop culture for whatever reason.  Maybe it’s harder for people to identify with; I mean, everyone was once a high school student, right?  Not everyone was a teacher.

So, without further adieu, and just for the hell of it, here are three of my favorite films that focus on high school teachers.  And for the record, I did not include movies that focused on sports or coaches.  For the sake of this list, this is a classroom teacher-only zone.

1. Stand and Deliver (1988).  I’ll admit, I didn’t know about this film until “South Park” did a brilliant parody of it in a 2008 episode.  But not long after seeing Cartman parade around the classroom as “Mr. Cartmanez,” I found the movie and watched it.  Jaime Escalante, a Latino math teacher, shows up at the rough Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in 1982, implements a brutal, break-neck mathematics curriculum, and gets a class full of would-be gangbangers to blow the top off of the AP Calculus exam.  And they have to blow the top off of the exam twice after Educational Testing Services accuses the students of cheating and makes them retake the exam to receive credit.

As I looked into Escalante’s story more after his 2010 death, what struck me more was the stuff not portrayed in the film.  For one thing, it took him almost eight years to get his classes to achieve the kind of success that the film suggests happened instantaneously.  Furthermore, he became so hampered by faculty politics and large class sizes (up to 50 in some cases) that he left Garfield in 1991, and the unbelievable AP program he almost singlehandedly built fell into decay.  I would like to say it’s hard to believe that one of the best and most well-known teachers could be run off by a lack of funding and petty bickering with colleagues is shocking, but I know for a fact that it’s not.

2. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1996).  Little-known fact for a lot of you, I’m guessing: for the first few days of my collegiate career, I was a music education major.  And while I enjoyed playing in the band in high school and college, and even worked with the Robinson marching band for a couple of years, in the end I was much more drawn to history and social studies.  But part of my short-lived desire to be a music teacher stemmed from this film.

Set between 1965 and 1995, Mr. Holland’s Opus follows the 30-year teaching career of music teacher Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) at Kennedy High School (location unknown).  Mr. Holland begins the film as a reluctant teacher, knowing nothing of how to engage students.  But thanks to a great deal of reflection and some pep talks from colleagues and administrators, he turns into a popular, dynamic educator who excites his students about music.  As he says near the end of the film, “I was dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I wanna do.”  I know a lot of teachers who feel that way.

The saddest aspect of this film (spoiler coming for those who haven’t seen it) is that Mr. Holland doesn’t retire on his own terms at the end of the film – he gets inglouriously laid off when the school scuttles its fine arts department in a cost-cutting move.  The richest legacy of this movie is that it helped raise awareness of the fiscal troubles suffered by music programs across the country and led to the formation of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation to raise money for arts education.

3. Election (1999).  This is one of my favorite movies period, not just in the teacher-centric genre.  It’s probably best-known for starring a very young Reese Witherspoon, who stole the show as the ambitious, calculating rising senior Tracy Flick.  But Matthew Broderick did an awesome job portraying the popular but long-suffering civics teacher Jim McAllister.

I think the reason I love this movie so much is that I taught all the students that “Mr. M” had to deal with – the conniving and often hateful leadership kids who would do anything to get ahead, the well-meaning but kinda dim athletes, the social outcasts who couldn’t get along with anyone, etc.  And while the two movies I just mentioned are fantastic and inspiring, Election reminds you that high school can be a place where some gritty stuff goes down – students getting it on with teachers, people backstabbing each other with reckless abandon to win a student council election that is, in the grand scheme of things, completely meaningless, and teachers who can’t leave their personal problems at the door, try as they might.  I’m not saying this is something that high schools should aspire to be like, of course, but it’s reflective of my experiences thus far.

So tell me, readers – what movies did I miss?  Once I get moved in up in North Carolina I’ll be sure to check out some of your suggestions if I haven’t already seen them.

Advertisements