Looking for a few good men…
Anyone who’s ever been in a school anywhere, teacher or student, public, private, religious, whatever, knows that the average class can smell fear. Even a Sunday school class can be fraught with peril. Some teachers claw their way through it. Others buckle. Still others end up bringing it, whether that means inspiring their students or at least taking them down a peg so that everyone can survive the year.
Naturally, this common dynamic is fodder for the screen, and the teacher-straightens-out-unruly-students trope has been done so many times in movies. Lean On Me. Stand And Deliver. Dangerous Minds. Kindergarten Cop. Dead Poets Society. Hoosiers. Mr. Holland’s Opus. Just to name a few.
All of these movies follow the same formula to a certain extent. Teacher meets students. Students act according to type. Teacher threatens to quit. Teacher has a breakthrough with students. Students begin loving teacher. Teacher triumphs and prospers or triumphs and gets the sack by unimaginative administrator. Teacher still somehow wins in the end despite the naysayers.
Then there’s 1967’s To Sir, With Love, which is based on a nonfiction novel by Guyanese-American Eustace Braithwaite. It’s low-key both as a movie and as an installment in the teacher film novel, but it packs its own kind of punch.
Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) isn’t just a new teacher. He’s a new teacher from British Guiana (Guyana today) and California, black and working in England in a continuation school. His students are all the worst rejects from other schools. And it’s June, which means these students are used to each other and their whole routine. Mark’s predecessor tried to be the students’ friend and ended up hanging himself. Mark thinks he can handle things. Academia is just a pit stop for him, though, because he really wants to be an engineer.
At least the staff are kind and supportive, but they’re also honest with Mark about what he’s up against. They’re like Prophets of Doom that way. Mark can expect small annoyances, then the silent treatment, then the young hoodlums will pull out the big guns. They’ve got tricks and tactics galore. That’s just how things are and they’re never going to change.
Our hero tries everything, but nothing really gets through to the students, and one day when a student puts what seems to be a maxi pad in the class furnace, he loses it. He kicks all the boys out, reads the girls the riot act, and then storms into the teachers’ lounge. After pacing around and venting to fellow teacher Gillian (Suzy Kendall), he realizes he’s got one more trick left.
The next time he goes into the classroom, Mark gathers up all the textbooks and drops them on the floor, making everyone jump. It’s a brand new day. Everyone is going to act like adults and be treated like adults. Mark is “Sir,” the girls are “Miss,” and the boys are called by their last names.
The effect is almost immediate, and when Mark tells the kids they’re not the rebels they think they are because their hairstyles are straight out of the 1920s, he’s got everyone’s attention. Throw in a possible trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the students are eating out of Mark’s hand.
The school principal, Florian (Edward Burnham) is dubious. If the students put one toenail out of line, the school is in major hot water. Mark has to promise to take another staffer along, so he asks Gillian. However, the students spend the day making faces at the various busts and chumming around enjoying the exhibits.
Things might be going well, but as a novice teacher, Mark has some things to learn himself and the road to the last day of school is sure to be a rocky one. I could say more, but the movie’s ending isn’t completely cookie cutter.
To Sir, With Love is pretty close to Braithwaite’s real experiences. Sort of. Racism and prejudice were barriers to Braithwaite’s career. Like Mark, Braithwaite failed to get a job in his chosen field of physics so he taught in a East End continuation school for about ten years before going into social work. Never one for self-pity, Braithwaite pressed on, and had a long, fruitful career as a teacher, writer, diplomat, and novelist before dying in 2016 at the age of 104.
Braithwaite thought To Sir, With Love was too sanitized, particularly in the way it downplayed the romance that happens between Mark and Gillian in the novel. He also thought it made what he did look too easy. Braithwaite’s right, because the movie is pretty lightweight in some respects. The racism Mark experiences is both pointed and subtle, and matters seem to resolve quickly.
To Sir, With Love was obviously a low-budget film. Real locations are used, real omnibuses, and what appear to be real street markets. Rooms are small, desks look old and squeaky, and the walls look grimy and old. It’s also economical in its scripting, never staying too long to pontificate on much. The trip to the Victoria and Albert is shown through a series of still photos with the film’s title song playing over it. It’s sort of cheesy, but it’s also nice to see the students coming around.
What makes To Sir, With Love is the acting. Sidney Poitier’s Mark is an elegant tower of strength, matched by a terrific cast of British actors, including, on a side note, two Gilmore Girls alumni, Michael Des Barres and Judy Geeson, both of whom have become rather infamous in their own rights.
The key with any potentially formulaic story is to make people forget the subject matter has been done before. In my case, I didn’t forget so much as remember my senior AP English teacher, Mr. Mike Duda. Every day without fail he would shake every student’s hand as they came into class, even if they were late. He also made it clear from the get-go that we students would learn to think outside the box and aim for something better than mediocre. He was famous for this.
Even though he retired about a decade ago, Mr. Duda remains famous. The Senior Project, which is a requirement for graduation, is his brainchild, and every Placer High School student who does one can thank him for getting them out of their comfort zone. It’s been over twenty-five years since I graduated and I’m still grateful to him. I always will be.
That’s why To Sir, With Love was a pleasant experience for me even if it doesn’t stray far from the teacher movie formula. It’s a compelling story about a steadfastly good man who inspires kids everyone else has written off as incorrigible. Who knows, it might cause what inspired us in the past to capture us all over again.
For more than a few good men, please see Anna, Irene, and Megan at The Pen and the Cross and Horseback To Byzantium. Thanks for hosting this, ladies–it was a great idea! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you on Sunday for Paul’s Swashbucklathon…
To Sir, With Love is available on DVD from Amazon.
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