Every few years there has to be a film about inspiring teachers. “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “How Green was My Valley”, “The Blackboard Jungle”, “To Sir with Love” ad infinitum . 30 Years ago this month it was “Teachers”, a Nick Nolte vehicle with a lot of familiar faces in it but not quite the sort of inspiration you found in the old days. The movie could have easily been parodied with a title like “Goodbye Mr. Chips With Tits”.
This is a honest effort to portray the problems in the school system with a sincere desire to call everyone to action. The problem is that it lays it on so thick, you doubt whether it has the smell of truth to it. Everything that happens in the film happened every day in schools across the country. Much of it still happens today. It just does not all happen in the same school in the same week as is played out here. The movie is entertaining enough but it is filled with cliches and events that would spark protests and marches these days, not the kind of casual shrugging of the shoulders that seems to be standard for earlier times.
Nolte is cast as Alex, a once passionate teacher who has been ground down by the system. He is one of several teachers in the school who are being deposed in a lawsuit brought by a student who graduated without being able to read. The vice principal is his old buddy Roger played by Judd Hirsh. Roger is doing all he can to hold the school together under the leadership of a know nothing, ineffectual principal. He has to juggle warring teachers, school violence, administrative headaches and the lawsuit, all while trying to do what he sees as best for the students. The lawyers for the district are worried about what the teachers might say in their depositions.
Even though they are friends, Roger has his doubts about what Alex might reveal. It’s not really clear that any of this would be a surprise, after all, the attorney for the former student arrives on a busy day when all kinds of hell is breaking loose in the office and the staff room. The lawyer just happens to be a former student of the high school and had a crush on Alex ten years earlier. JoBeth Williams plays Lisa as a crusader out to expose the failures of the system. She also turns into a romantic interest for Alex and may be one of two people who can relight the spark in him. The other potential candidate for that job is a shady student with a belligerent attitude, played by the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio. I’d forgotten that Macchio was in this movie, it is the second film of his on the list and it also reached the top of the box office the week it opened. Eddie Pilikian, Macchio’s character, can’t read. He is another example of the failure of the system and he gives Alex a chance to show that the system can in fact work, as long as you are willing to break the rules. All of the main plot points get a little heavy handed and the social crusading would be hard to stomach if it were not tempered by some comic bits. There are three distinct humor threads in the movie to lighten things up somewhat.
An old timer at the school runs his class like a silent factory, passing out work sheets day in and out without ever really speaking to his students. They all face the opposite direction of his desk and he hides behind his newspaper. All the faculty know him as “Ditto” because of the memographes he reproduces every day. Most of you reading this will have no memory of “Ditto” machines, but before photocopies became widely used for class materials (photocopies are what were used before pdf files kids) the memo machine was ubiquitous in schools at all levels. “Ditto” gets attacked by the school psychologist who has been unable to use the machine since he stands at it all morning long before classes start. OK, that storyline ends with someone being removed from the classroom in a body bag, so maybe it is not so funny. That’s OK, we have the hijinks of a odd kid (you know he is odd by the fact he is played by Crispin Glover) who pranks the friendly math teacher. He steals his desk, and his car and he bites the guy and drags him to the floor. This scene is supposed to spark laughs over how out of control the school really is. Oh wait, this storyline also ends with a body being removed from the schools, so laugh it up kids, this is a comedy as well as a drama. Ok, there is one of the comic threads that does not end with someone dead. An out patient living in a psychiatric facility, intercepts a call for a substitute teacher, and he shows up to take over the history class. Richard Mulligan brings his quirky smile and jerky mannerisms to the part and he turns out to be the kind of teacher that students would really like to have. He dresses up as historical figures and has his students participate in re-enactments of the subject matter they are learning. This was actually fun despite the fact that it is insulting to every teacher who spent time in school learning how to best reach students. The idea that a deranged amateur will do a better job than the professionals is probably not going to win many awards from the N.E.A.
The comic threads are alternated with the main story concerning the lawsuit. The lawyer schilling for the district is played by an incredibly young Morgan Freeman. The school board and it’s lawyer are basically conspiring to hide the truth from the plaintiff’s attorneys but the unwieldy teachers are gumming up the works. Macchio’s character needs to learn how to read, Laura Dern appears as a student who is pregnant by a teacher and needs Alex to help her get an abortion, and Lisa is disenchanted with Alex and his approach to the lawsuit. Can you see how cluttered this film is? There is a message here and it is an important one, the school system needs to be reformed. 30 years later what have we managed to accomplish?
Lets see. Well, you will never see this image in a school these days. The school nurse, in a classroom with a cigarette! We have at least purged that horrifying element from our schools. After all, smoking is a bigger danger than drugs, bullying, failing to learn or wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers money, right? Oh by the way, my wife’s school is trying to ban the teachers from consuming soda on the school grounds. That’s the kind of reform we get in a public school system.
Here is something a little more promising. The teacher who is nailing students at the school and gets at least one of them pregnant, will not be merely lectured to by the assistant principal and moved to another school in the district. Well at least if the parents hear about it. I seem to recall that the creep in the L.A.U.S.D. who inseminated the cookies he was giving the kids in his class was moved around a few times before the district finally got sued over the incidents. Admittedly, teachers having sex with their students is taken a lot more seriously now, I just don’t understand why such a thing happens in the first place. The leeches of the world are fond in all professions but when they are teachers, expect some salacious news coverage. I don’t know about the other places in the country, but in California, a teacher who helps a student get an abortion would probably get a medal instead of being run out of their job. So that’s progress right?
The movie has to end with a dramatic moment, and the screenwriter concocts a justification for the pretty lawyer and former student to disrobe as a way of inspiring her old high school teacher. Well I’ll tell you, it would inspire me, but not maybe the way it works out in this movie. The problems of the schools are real, the film however isn’t. I remember feeling the same way about the movie in 1984. Good themes but it pissed me off a little. I’m a bit more charitable toward the storytelling this time, but when it comes to the problems with our schools, 30 Years on, not much has changed.