Back to School: Great Teachers, Greater Role Models
It’s time to take a look at some fantastic teachers throughout recent movie history as we gear up for the back to school season. Though the genre contains many gems, I would like to focus on teachers who worked with underprivileged students in their roles. These truly remarkable teachers seem to go above and beyond the call of duty in their quest to educate (and sometimes parent) those that need it most desperately.
Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante, is the shining star of the teacher in the inner city genre. Convinced that beneath the gritty and harsh exterior lies potential, Escalante works rigorously to get the students to study for and pass the AP Calculus exam. Teaching Calculus during the summer (without air conditioning) should be awarded on its own, but by Escalante’s tireless work, the students succeed and triumph over their destined failure. Olmos’ turn as Escalante was nothing short of brilliant, and by the end of movie you will wish there were more teachers like him in real life.
Another classic story of inner city success, Michelle Pfeiffer rocks her role as Luanne Johnson in Dangerous Minds. Pfeiffer plays an ex-Marine who tries desperately to get through to her urban high school English students, using the power of poetry to make her point (though first she resorts to candy and trips to an amusement park). Though Luanne has varying levels of success in teaching the classroom classics, what sets her apart is her devotion to the students doing well in life. She slowly becomes intertwined in her student’s lives (as many good teachers tend to do) which leads to some tragic circumstances. Portrayal wise, Pfeiffer is fearless; she gives teachers a real reason to get up in the morning and brought a lot of heart and pride to a profession that in recent years has gone to politics and unions.
In a humorous and raucous return as nun, Whoopi Goldberg conjures up some more fun in Sister Act II: Back in the Habit as Sister Mary Clarence, who saves a parochial school lacking funds from closure by entering them in a make- or -break choir competition. Together with her fellow nuns, she whips the woeful students into fighting shape and learns some important life lessons along the way. The best singer in the bunch, whose mother forbids her from involving herself in such foolishness, is played by none other than FuGees song bird Lauryn Hill.
Music of The Heart, another musically inclined offering, follows Meryl Streep through several years as a elementary school music teacher. But unlike the schmaltzy Mr. Holland’s Opus, these kids aren’t always in supportive situations with parents eager to have their kids learn an instrument; in fact many of them see it as pointless noise. Most of the kids don’t even have instruments to play. A lottery system is put in place and the winners get to be part of the music class. Through her influence, Meryl’s Roberta transforms the school into a place of learning and merit once again. She even finds love, unlike Pfeiffer’s hopeless Luanne, and well, the Nun.
These teachers show that through perseverance, determination, and impossibly hard work, they can change the system and transform lives. We as a society need this message more than ever, with failing schools and students falling behind internationally. Enter Won’t Back Down, the latest of the genre and sure to be another hit, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two disgruntled parents, one of them a teacher, ready to take over the atrocious Pittsburg school system. Facing an impossibly entrenched bureaucracy, they give everything they have to make sure their children have a bright future. Personally, I can’t wait to see what these two great actresses can do with a tried and true storyline.