Posts Tagged ‘dead poets society’

I got home about half an hour ago, my clothes damp with sweat. I wish I could say I just came back from working out, from performing with my rock band, or even that I just got back from a stand-up comedy gig, with those bright, hot lights, the grateful audience, and the rest of those clichés. But I didn’t. I got home from work. I am a teacher.

Yes, that's my teacher look.

I call teaching The Day Job because I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve wanted to write for a helluva lot longer than I’ve wanted to teach. As a matter of fact, if I can tell you the truth (and what’s the purpose of writing if I can’t tell you the truth?), I’ve never necessarily wanted to be a teacher. I fell into it nearly by accident. The good news is that I enjoy teaching nearly as much as I enjoy writing, and while I’m certainly not paid what I believe teachers should be paid, it has paid me a lot more than writing has, and it is fulfilling. If I look back though, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that I teach. As a matter of fact, I think it was more of a surprise to those who know me that it took as long as it did for me to become a teacher. Since it’s the time of year when the kiddies (and many others) are returning to school, I figured, let’s look at some of the teachers from the movies and TV shows that I watched growing up. This isn’t going to be a definitive list of teachers from the media, I’ll let some other list making website deal with that, but I will talk about the ones I think have an effect on me.

I was in my teens when I was flipping through the channels one day and happened on The Dead Poets Society (1989). The movie got a lot of buzz when it came out and I love Robin Williams, but I hadn’t seen it. Part of it was that I was young when it came out (11/12) and part was that my mother’s co-worker had been dragged to see it by his wife and had reported that it was boring, so my mother didn’t want to watch it. I’d wanted to watch it when it came to cable but just never had until the afternoon, I believe I was 16 or 17, that I was flipping through the channels and there it was, just beginning. I loved it. The piece of the movie I remember the best from that first viewing, and the thing I carry with me in the back of my mind in my Badass Book of Teaching is when Robin Williams instructs the students to tear out pages from the textbook. The tight-ass prep school boys have trouble believing that they’re to follow him at first, but eventually do so in a scene that is both beautiful and inspiring.

There’s nothing really beautiful about Carl Reiner’s Summer School (1987) except for Courtney Thorne Smith, but when I saw it at the age of 10 or 11, I loved it. The thing I remember from that, that I still kind of carry with me now, is that Mark Harmon’s Mr. Shoop is lax, miserable, but treats the students as people. He is the typical 1980s hero in that he has a very I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck attitude about him but he reaches the students. It may not be by accepted (and these days, he’d be fired without a second thought), but he reaches them and the class mostly succeeds. The other thing that stuck with me, but that has nothing to do with teaching, are the boys who love horror movies, Dave and Chainsaw. The viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class, as well as the gory horror-movie-type prank (check out about halfway down the page) that the kids play on a substitute after Shoop’s fired, I think helped guide me into my love of horror movies (though the date of the movie’s release, July 1987, leads me to believe that I’d already seen the three A Nightmare on Elm Street movies that had been released by then).

Oh, how this scene had an effect on me.

Mr. Miyagi from 1984’s The Karate Kid wasn’t the typical teacher, yet he was a teacher that I could dig. I was probably about eight when I first saw The Karate Kid on HBO or Cinemax, and it was a story that I loved. Though my days of being bullied were to begin in the following years, I already felt like an outsider and the story of Daniel LaRusso’s warm welcome to Cailfornia from New Jersey struck home. Plus, he learned to kick ass, which seemed really cool. But as cool as Daniel seemed to me at eight, nine, and ten (when The Karate Kid Part II came out), Mr. Miyagi was the coolest person in the movie. Wise and comical, blue collar and elitist, difficult taskmaster and best friend, Mr. Miyagi was the friend all boys wanted back then. A father figure who wasn’t your father and who could teach you to defend yourself, but would still play jokes on you. Forget that he’s an Asian stereotype, Pat Morita brought a pathos to Miyagi that Jackie Chan did not in the boring, lame 2010 remake. Mr. Miyagi wasn’t a schoolteacher, but he was one of the best teachers of my childhood and there have been moments in my 5-year-old career that have definitely been influenced by him.

None of MY teachers did this for me.

And that was one of the problems with the 1980s. The punk rock, MTV movement had seeped into the popular culture so much that everyone sort of became the anti-hero, even teachers. Many of them were mean to the kids, or clueless, and being a little boy in the 80s meant I missed some of the good teachers, such as Mr. Hand, played by the venerable Ray Walston, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie I only saw for the first time in the last few years. Most of the teachers in the John Hughes movies, especially The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were shown as boring, mean, and inept. Of course you had Morgan Freeman taking on a tough, inner-city school in Lean On Me, or James Belushi doing an action movie version of same in The Principal. I recently saw Teachers with Nick Nolte and while he proved to be a caring, even good, teacher at the end, he was pretty much the anti-hero teacher, which is why Mr. Miyagi and the last few important teachers of my childhood in Pop Culture 101 were so important.

Indiana Jones was a hero to me, and probably every other boy born in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the strangest thing about him, to the seven-year-old Billy who first saw him, was that he was a teacher. At seven, you pretty much believe that your teachers live at school, or something like that. To think that they have lives, that they go grocery shopping or have spouses and children of their own is ridiculous. They can’t because they’re your teacher, damnit! And yet, here was a guy who not only was so cool that the girls painted I love you on they eyelids, but he went around, collecting treasures, fighting bad guys, and otherwise being a badass. And he taught you something, too! I don’t know how many fights I got out of by running like Indiana Jones does at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oh, and there’s the whole Nazi and Biblical history thing, too.

"I strongly urge you to turn in your homework, or I'll kick your ass."

Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness was probably the first onscreen teacher I saw that had me listening. He taught Luke some valuable lessons like, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them,” and outcooled Han Solo with, “Who is more foolish: the fool or the one who follows him?” Of course the most important piece of advice from the first Star Wars was “Use the Force.” Yoda also taught about the Force. Never had a green puppet (not even Kermit the Frog) taught me so much at that age. What the hell was the Force? Yeah, yeah, a mystical field that surrounds all life because midichlorians and whatever. It’s magic. Or, as I saw it growing up, it’s the inner power we all have that gives us faith in ourselves. There is nothing more important than faith in yourself. Go back, read that sentence again. I’ll wait.

Teachers should have patience. Some have to deal with two generations of whiners.

Done? Good, let’s continue.

Faith in yourself gives you the ability to make the first step toward whatever goal or dream you wish to achieve. It also happens to be the most important thing that a teacher can pass along to a student.

There are so many other teachers in movies, on TV, and in books, plays, songs, etc. that I haven’t even come close to mentioning. I chose mainly to focus on the teachers I watched in the first dozen or so years of my life, and I’m sure I’m missing some, but those were, for me, the ones that seemed to leave a lasting impression. The only one I’d like to add, from my early twenties, is Richard Dreyfuss’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Mr. Holland’s Opus, which is a bit schmaltzy at times, but is still a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit when I first saw it. He wasn’t a part of my childhood, but I’ve thought about that movie a few times since I began teaching back in the fall of 2007.

"We're going to need a bigger band."

In the end, all the teachers listed above were rule-breakers and taught their students how to fend for themselves, with love, with compassion, and with knowledge. We could all use a little of that in our lives, and we should do our best to use those traits, as well.

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So, do you think I missed a teacher? Is there a pop culture teacher who deeply affected you? Let’s discuss it!

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