Polishing the Apple: What ‘Dangerous Minds’ and Other Movies Get Right and Wrong About TeachersBuena Vista Pictures
Yesterday, summer ended for the teachers in the Houston Independent School District. School is back. Today, Dangerous Minds, a movie about a discharged Marine who attempts to teach disadvantaged high school students that they are not victims by giving them candy bars, celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Both of these occasions are of particular interest to me because from 2006 to 2015 I worked as a teacher at a large inner-city school in Houston. I love(d) teaching and I love teacher movies.
If I were to try to place an exact time stamp on it, I’d guess I decided I wanted to be a teacher somewhere around 1991, and I’m almost certain it had a lot to do with the episode of Saved by the Bell in which Mr. Belding’s cooler brother, Rod Belding, showed up and worked as a substitute teacher.
I understand that that’s dumb, but I imagine it’s how lots of these sorts of things work out. It’s how people decide there are occupations they love, how they become doctors or scuba divers or harpists or whatever. You get an image in your head when you’re younger, and it just grows in your brain into this grander and grander thing, and then boom — all of a sudden you’re inspired.
When I saw Cooler Belding — or, really, when I saw him or Mr. Turner or ANY cool young male teacher on TV, it just looked like the best kind of existence. They were always wearing blazers, they were always putting their feet up on desks (and occasionally taking exaggerated bites out of apples while doing so), and they always seemed to be saying these either very dramatic things that no teacher of mine had ever actually said — usually something like “Turn your book to page 43, and now rip that page out, because you don’t need it, because the world around you is what you need to study.” So I got lucky, I guess. I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life pretty early on, and I knew what I was going to wear while I did it.
The first time I watched Dangerous Minds, I thought it was great — partly because I was 15 years old at the time, and so I wasn’t very good at figuring out what was good or bad yet. But another part was that (obviously) I had not yet been a teacher. Because when I watched it on cable after I’d been a teacher for awhile, it felt like one great big FOH. A bunch of the movies about teachers are like that, really. I mean, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like them, because I definitely do and I will definitely watch any movie about any teacher, even Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher, which is less a movie and more a stomach flu. It just means that they don’t get a bunch of the stuff right. They get SOME of it right. They get PORTIONS of it right. They get PIECES of it right. But there are some really big things that get Hollywood-washed to make them more palatable.
So this is a thing about what teacher movies get right about teaching — and what teacher movies get wrong about teaching.
WRONG: The teachers are typically shown teaching only a single class.
This is my worst thing. Teaching movies are always set around a teacher and one particular group of students. This is rarely (if ever) the case in real life. I understand that it’s this way because otherwise the movie would be unwatchable and it would be nearly impossible to move any plot forward, but still. My first year as a teacher, I taught two sixth-grade classes, two seventh-grade classes, and two eighth-grade classes, and each of them had somewhere between 25 and 30 kids. That’s almost 180 kids. Hilary Swank had, like, 22 kids total in Freedom Writers, and one of them was Mario. Mario has never caused any sort of trouble. The most aggressive thing Mario ever did was wear boot-cut jeans in the “Let Me Love You” video.
RIGHT: Teachers have other stuff going on.
The best example of this is probably Ryan Gosling’s Mr. Dunne in Half Nelson, although I certainly do not want to imply that there’s an inordinate number of teachers who freebase cocaine in their off time. Students are always surprised and excited to find out that teachers aren’t robots. I still remember the time when I saw one of my seventh-grade teachers at the mall when I was a kid. It felt like how Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared to feel the first time he got a good glimpse of the Predator. I was completely shocked and flummoxed.
WRONG: The teacher is always caught off guard when the bell rings.
It usually happens during the middle of a lesson or while the teacher is giving a speech or about to make a profound connection with a kid. It’s supposed to be a dramatic hold or a We’re Almost To The Breakthrough moment. That’s not what I see when that happens, though. You know what I see? What I see is poor planning on the teacher’s part. If there’s one single thing on earth that teachers know, it’s when the bell is going to ring. That shit gets embedded into your bones by the end of the first week of the school year. I don’t know my youngest son’s birthday, but I know that the first-period bell at the school I taught at last year rang at exactly 8:07:40 a.m. every morning even though it was actually supposed to ring at 8:10 a.m.
RIGHT: A kid will eventually say something to you that will destroy you.
Ms. Johnson: I would like to help you, Emilio.
Emilio: Thank you very much. And how would you like to do that? You gonna give me some good advice? Just say no? You’re gonna get me off the streets? Well, forget it. How the fuck are you gonna save me from my life, huh?!
The first time this happened to me, it just really obliterated my whole everything. It was one of my special-ed students, this boy named Vincente1 — I taught him for seventh and eighth grade. He was incredible; possibly the most driven, most inspired kid I’d had up to that point. He never missed class, never missed an assignment, never did anything except try to be better than he was when he walked in. But he had a severe learning disability, one that wouldn’t let him process any problem that was designed for anyone more advanced than a first grader. At the end of his eighth-grade year, after I’d passed out the final report cards and the papers that said whether the students had passed or failed, he stayed around for a moment after I’d dismissed the class. He waited for everyone to leave. Then he walked up to me. He’d failed again. He looked me right in my face, blinked his gigantic eyes a few times, then said, “Mr. Serrano, I don’t think it’s fair that I failed. I try harder than everyone else. Kids who don’t work as hard as me passed. What do I do?” I didn’t have an answer. It felt like I’d been shoved out of a plane. I didn’t know what to do. All I could think about was not crying, which I wasn’t doing a very good job of. I will remember Vincente forever.
WRONG: The teacher comes walking into the class after the students have already been there for a while.
Leaving your students alone in your classroom for even 30 seconds is basically the same as saying, “Hey, kids, why don’t some of you hop into the closet and have sex for a bit?” Don’t leave your students alone. Don’t ever leave your students alone.
RIGHT: You need to get their attention first.
In Dangerous Minds, Ms. Johnson tried teaching her kids karate, and then after that she wrote a sentence about dying on the board. In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating stood on the desks and recited poetry. In The Substitute, Tom Berenger’s Mr. Shale catches a soda can thrown at the back of his head and then rifles it back at the face of the student who threw it at him. Mr. Shale is secretly a legendary figure among male teachers in public schools. Every teacher you’ve ever had since 1996 was quietly pretending to be a covert mercenary, I can promise you that.
WRONG: Teachers work long into the night.
There’s always a scene in these movies where a teacher is sitting at a kitchen table at 2 a.m. grading papers (which is super surprising, since they only have that one class to tend to). Nobody really does that. It’s like the teacher version of an R&B singer singing about making love until the sun comes up. It’s some cool shit to say, but nobody really does that, or even expects you to do that.
RIGHT: There’s (generally) a leader in the class.
In Dangerous Minds, it’s Emilio, who is smart and aggressive and impossible. There’s a scene early in the movie where, after Emilio derails another of Ms. Johnson’s lessons, a girl approaches her and says, “If you wanna get the class to listen, get Emilio.” This is an accurate enough thing, at least in classrooms like the one depicted in Dangerous Minds. Those classes, where you have a disproportionate number of students who are listed as “behavior students”2 or discipline problems, generally tend to follow the lead of an alpha student. If he/she feels like being engaged that day, then so will his/her flock. If not, then nope.
When I first began teaching, I assumed a quick way to scan for the alpha student would be to look for the biggest or oldest kid. This, I learned pretty quickly, is right less than half the time. More often than not, the alpha student is the one in the class who’s done something to gain some sort of notoriety at school, like getting caught on campus the year before with drugs, or throwing a desk at a teacher or something doofy like that.
This past year, the alpha student in my behavior class was a boy named Gustavo.3 He was a nice enough kid, but he’d grown up in a situation where it’d been made clear to him that the people who were supposed to love him and care about him were never going to do that, and so he carried all of that turbulence and hurt into school with him each day. There was one instance during the year, after we’d gotten to know each other fairly well, when he wandered into class several minutes late.
I asked him to wait outside while I got the rest of the students started on whatever thing it was they were working on that day. He got frustrated, walked to the door, then slammed it shut as he walked out. A minute or so later, there was a knock. It was the assistant principal. She’d been making her rounds and saw Gustavo standing outside, so she came by to see what was up. When I stepped out of the room, I could see that he was very angry. I told him I wasn’t going to let him into the room like that. The A.P. said she’d take him down to her office to calm down. He said, “You’re not gonna let me in?!” I said, “No. Come back in a few minutes.” He said, “Man, fuck you! Fuck you and fuck her and fuck this school!” He stormed off. He didn’t even make it halfway down the hallway before he’d removed his shirt and told me to [ACTION] his [BODY PART]. He got suspended for a few days for that. His first day back, he walked up to me, smiled, then said, “That’s my bad about what happened the other day. I get like that.” He was very charming when he wanted to be. Maybe two hours later, while I was walking back to my class from a break, I saw him running down the hallway as fast as he could. As he passed me, he shouted, “I’m not going to be in class today, Mr. Serrano,” and then disappeared around a corner laughing. Several seconds later, our school’s police officer came flying down the hallway shouting something about Gustavo into his walkie-talkie. I laughed a bit.
WRONG: Teachers play Russian roulette with their students.
I played dodgeball once. A kid hit me in the chest. That’s as close as it got.
RIGHT: It takes a buy-in by the teacher to reach students who aren’t used to being reached.
Sometimes it’s something simple like you just give a kid a nickname or talk to him or her for a minute about something that isn’t school-related. Sometimes it’s something a little more time-consuming, like you set up a Saturday tutorials session for several of your students. Sometimes it’s something deliberate and delicate, like making home visits to meet the parents of students you’d otherwise never meet. But the kid has to feel like you’re invested in him or her and not just his or her academic success.
(The other version of this — the student buy-in — is something that is often misrepresented in teacher movies pretty regularly. It rarely ever happens all at once and it almost never happens because you give a rousing soliloquy.)
WRONG: You can kidnap kids.
While I was working on this, I polled somewhere near 30 different teachers to get a consensus of the top five fictional movie teachers. I was surprised that Jack Black’s Mr. S from School of Rock showed up more than zero times. He abandoned the school’s curriculum, tricked the kids into forming a band that he was to be the leader of, then kidnapped them and took them to perform in a battle-of-the-bands contest in a seedy rock club. You can try to church it up and say he was trying to teach the kids a lesson about living outside of the expectations their parents placed on them, but most of that stuff was an accident. He was being petty more than anything else. (He’d been kicked out of his band and was determined to beat them in a battle of the bands.) Also — and how could anyone ever forget this? — there was literally a part where he lost the drummer kid and found him in the back of a band’s van, and that’s just way too creepy for me to feel comfortable with.
RIGHT: Some teachers are misunderstood and underappreciated.
One of my buddies is a professor at a very prestigious university. And there’s this great story I like to tell about how he did some outright amazing things for a student of his over a couple of months. So let me tell it to you. First, the student –- he wasn’t even supposed to be one of his students, he was just a normal guy that my professor friend happened upon — but the professor recognized that he was brilliant, and so he took him on as a personal project, an opportunity that any number of young academics would’ve cut off their own noses to get. He rescued this guy from going to jail for an extended amount of time. He lifted him up out of a menial and dead-end job and placed him a very good situation. He called in personal favors to set up interviews for the student with powerful businesses that could’ve ended with him having a job that would’ve immediately moved him from poverty to well-off. The professor even went so far as to arrange visits with several doctors after he realized that his student was suffering from some real mental issues. The student kept trying to run off the doctors with his unbearable crassness, but my professor pal didn’t give up. He just kept dialing numbers and bringing in people until he found his student a psychologist who legitimately changed his student’s life for the better.
That’s all incredible and amazing, right? Well, guess what, I have a surprise for you. My professor friend isn’t actually my professor friend. It’s Professor Lambeau, the unlikable math genius from Good Will Hunting.
There’s an argument to be made that Lambeau tried to press his own ideas and ideals onto Will, sure. But, to me, it looked like he only ever did so out of altruism. He wanted Will to make a difference, to be meaningful in the only way that Lambeau knew how to be meaningful. Lambeau was kind of hard to get along with because he was smarter than most people, and he’s made that his identity, and that’s very annoying. But maybe that doesn’t mean he’s a dick. Maybe it just means that everyone else is too sensitive and romantic.
Professor Lambeau: misunderstood and underappreciated. Like maybe every teacher. Like maybe every teacher movie.