Why do we expect teachers to do so much more than teach? They act in loco parentis; they nurture their students and minister to them. They take them by the hand and mentor them. What does any of this have to do with the subjects they teach? This question is one of the paradoxes of films that portray the teachers and the teaching profession. Their characters are trained educators, but their stories only sporadically focus on the subjects they teach. Instead, they concern themselves with issues. It is a wonder how many films about teacher are message movies that pit the teacher/protagonist against a challenge of national concern. The spectre of racism looms over Stand and Deliver, which together with Dangerous Minds concerns itself with the problems inherent to trying to learn in America's inner cities. Music of the Heart also finds the inner-city's particular problems perplexing, though it focuses its energy on the plight of school music programs, which have been high-profile victims of budget cutbacks all over the country. Mr. Holland's Opus sees Mr. Holland, a dedicated long-time music teacher, fall victim to those same cutbacks. This interest in such issues is in part because many of these films were based on actual events in the lives of actual teachers, including Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and Music of the Heart. The issues that these films discuss were all themes in the working lives of the teachers who inspired them. But these films also adhere to a codified narrative that has come to shape films about teachers, the prototype of which is the story of Mr. Chipping in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Goodbye Mr. Chips first appeared on film in 1939. It was an English production with English actors and an American director. Based on a beloved book, the film was wildly successful. Greer Garson was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the film, her first screen role. Robert Donat won the Oscar in the Best Actor category that year for playing the title role. It has become one of those movies that, when you get it at the video store, the clerk just gushes. "I watch this one often—it's one of my favorites," she told me a few months ago.
Mr. Chipping is a Latin teacher, but we never see him do much teaching. On his deathbed, Mr. Chips overhears his attendants mourning the fact that he never had children. Mr. Chips uses his last breath to admonish them, stating emphatically that he has had thousands of children—all of them boys. This understanding of Mr. Chips as father to the boys who have passed through his school comes as no surprise—he cares less that they master their Latin than they have enough to eat. He welcomes them to his house to calm their fears on their first days. In the scenes devoted to his relationships with the students, he does indeed act as their father. These are no penniless orphans, of course; they are aristocrats—dukes and officers to be. However, away from their homes they might as well be asking for more gruel. The film assumes the boys' need to be parented—whether comforted or caned, and it calls on Mr. Chipping to do so. Goodbye Mr. Chips assumes that a sentimental education takes the place of an academic one.
Mr. Chips realizes his lifelong ambition to become headmaster of Brookfield as all of the able-bodied schoolmasters around him go off to fight the Great War. Elderly and frail, he watches with much of his own grief as generations of men he knew as boys go off to France never to return. During a bombing raid he leads the assembled students in a Latin lesson about a particular Roman campaign, and elicits laughter from the frightened children when they read that the Roman writer's enemies are also German. It could be an excellent example of teaching to the situation if it were important to the film that the kids learn their Latin lessons. Goodbye Mr. Chips, however, is concerned with an issue.
Mr. Chips, despite earlier settings, is about the Second World War. At Brookfield, teachers instill "moral courage" in their charges as they "mould men." England knew even before September of that year what was in store for Europe, and how it would be compelled to respond. This movie wanted to remind its prewar audience just which virtues it takes to fight wars and win them. That Mr. Chipping suffers a great deal by the war is obvious. Each evening in the school chapel he reads the names of the Brookfield alumni who have fallen in battle. One night he reads the name of a former teacher of German at Brookfield who died fighting for the Kaiser. The students are puzzled. Why would this strange old man do such a thing? Why does he insist that we grieve for those who would destroy us? Mr. Chips' understanding of the ambiguities of war makes it that much better as a piece of propaganda. A man big enough to pray for his enemies though they may slaughter his children surely displays the appropriate virtues of honor and duty.
Goodbye Mr. Chips wanted, also, to remind its audience just what it could lose if it lost to the Germans. The Great War scenes come about only in the last act of the film, giving the Mr. Chipping character time to establish itself as an English institution. As his students know, Chipping is Brookfield and Brookfield is Chipping. Brookfield, we are told, was founded in 1492, an auspicious year for an empire anxious to know that, despite an expanding universe, England is forever its center. How better to remember King and country as you prepare for battle than in the form of a kindly schoolmaster who has invited you into his house to feed you cakes and tell you jokes and stave off your loneliness while you were at school?
Tradition is no less important in Dead Poets Society than it is in Goodbye Mr. Chips. Dead Poets Society may think it's attacking tradition, exposing its evils, bringing Walt Whitman in to yawp it away for good, but its own cinematography does it in. The movie's vision of an Eastern boys' school campus in the 50s drips with autumn-leaf-migrating-Canada-geese nostalgia. It needs some weeds or something. Are those shots with the boys running through the forest, hooded as if they went to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, supposed to be their hour of splendor in the grass? There is too much condensation in that chilly cave for that and not enough eglantine.
Traditions, as we know, are not always so benign. We are incensed by the racism of the College Board in Stand and Deliver, where officials insist that the kids from the inner city pass the Advanced Placement Calculus exam twice. We hate their racism because we want the kids to come out winning in the end. "There!" we say. "These kids are just as smart as any others—even smarter! They are already getting ahead. Why should they get any more federal dollars?"
As Stand and Deliver demonstrates, contemporary teacher films address the wars we fight in the United States today. These wars are not the crises of the week, but deeper crises that these smaller news items only mask. They include racism, class difference, and the idea of a national culture. They manifest themselves in debates over what subjects deserve to be taught in schools and who deserves to be taught.
Contemporary films about teachers include specific narrative references to Goodbye Mr. Chips. They generally feature a sequence in which the teacher first fails to establish trust among students, and then gradually wins them over. In Goodbye Mr. Chips, this endeavor consists of two scenes, separated by twenty years. In Dead Poets Society, it is the scene where Mr. Keating encourages the students to rip literary theory (or, at least, the screenwriters' idea of literary theory) literally out of their textbooks. Each of the films celebrates the accomplishments of an individual, acknowledging his or her work above all other characters in the film. In these films, the students may be bright and dedicated and interested in learning, but the triumph is the teacher's. But in granting the teacher the glory, they also require the teacher to practice self-sacrifice and the loss of personal ambition.
When one of his students visits him in his rooms and remarks about cramped space, Mr. Keating responds, with slight irony, about his "monastic vows." He is not alone among teachers on screen. Films about teachers equate teacherly virtue with a degree of martyrdom. Jaime Escalante creates lesson plans in the hospital while recovering from a heart attack and gives them to his students to execute. Roberta, played by Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart, directs her students in a concert at Carnegie Hall and doesn't even bother to put her hair up. She looks like a mop with a fiddle. Couldn't Roberta make a concession to civilization when she is so near its locus? But the convention demands that she be dumpy. Somehow we just couldn't trust a teacher who showed up in a pair of Manolo Blahniks and a dress by Vivienne Westwood. Mr. Chipping lets himself go, too, insisting as he does on wearing torn robes and surrendering to his unruly facial hair.
Michelle Pfeiffer, who surely had it in her contract for Dangerous Minds that she would not look anything less than exquisite, does give up something to become a teacher. Her character, LouAnne Johnson, comes to her students from a successful career and a less-than-successful marriage. In Music of the Heart, Roberta's husband has left her, though for much of the film she clings to her belief that he will come back. Teaching violin at an impoverished school is in the beginning for her a temporary prospect, a thing for her to leave when her husband returns to his senses and she can return to being a full time wife and mother. When she finally gives up hope for her marriage, her school still refuses to elevate her past the level of "substitute teacher," though in reality she runs her own program and subs for no one. Mr. Chipping cannot realize his destiny without losing his wife and child along the way, as the deathbed scene demonstrates. Mr. Holland must realize his greatest ambition only at the end of his career and be happy with a bunch of amateurs performing his beloved lifetime's work.
We attribute their greatness to destiny. On the way to Carnegie Hall, Roberta's mother comments that if Roberta's husband had never left her, Roberta's violin program would never have been conceived. Teacher films love to show how reluctant their subjects are to enter or stay in the teaching profession. There are so many great things these people could do, the films say, but their real calling requires them to sublimate themselves, to take monastic vows and a pitiful $23,000 a year to do what they do best. These films inevitably tempt their protagonists with visions of the good life. In Dangerous Minds, it is a life without having your students die in drive by shootings. For Roberta it is a return to a life as a military wife.
This issue of self-sacrifice and denial in the name of one's students is a question of national interest in education and the point at which contemporary movies about teachers diverge from their prototype. While Mr. Chipping's story serves as a call for self-sacrifice in a time of crisis, these films ask us to admire a sense of duty and dedication without actually asking us to do anything. These are "feel good" films, which inspire our emotions during our time in the darkness of the theatre, but dissolve in our memories at first light, like the ghosts in our dreams. These films in no way introduce these issues into the national debate, Hollywood is too slow-moving and the films appear long after the teachers portrayed in these films accomplish whatever fate challenged them to.
I think that we have a need to see the same story about teachers sacrificing for their students repeatedly because we are not doing it ourselves. I mean that the love and devotion these characters give to their students takes us off the hook. Teachers in these stories act in our places. These characters assure us that though our institutions are under attack—individualism, love, class, race—that some one is guarding them and fighting for them on our behalf. Greer Garson was Mrs. Chipping and then she was Mrs. Miniver. Do not worry, children, though the bombs may fall as close as your front room, this English wife will guard you and keep you safe. Garson was Elizabeth Barrett during the war, too, so fit was she to play all much beloved English women. But that was her only role opposite Olivier. She couldn't do Cathy in that other wartime fantasy of desire and self-indulgence, Wuthering Heights. Cathy loved Heathcliff, who would have sold himself to the Nazis if it meant stealing Wuthering Heights away from its inheritors. Where did he learn that?