IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Great movie teachers? Class is in session

Forget Mr. Holland, Johnny Castle is much better at showing you the moves. By Mary Beth Ellis
/ Source: contributor

As a teacher, I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but… this is absolutely my least favorite time of year.

Here come the 24-count boxes of crayons, the sensible fall shoes, the blue pens crisp in the package.  The first day of school is pending, and the death of fun is nigh.

I felt this way long before I was a teacher, banging my shopping cart thorough the automatic doors of the supermarket and striding right back out again whenever the big fat pencils at the ends of the aisles reared their graphite heads.  Those mimeographed class supply lists stacked high at Staples rang for me, it seemed, and I didn’t want to go back.

Elementary school was a great big lockbox located at the bottom of an enormous, dark pit, over which an unbreachable iron gate was positioned the second the first bell rang.  I felt kind of trapped there, is what I’m saying, and eight trembly years of phonics worksheets and drippy cafeteria walls did their damage. 

I teach college, which is a bit different; I am in control now, and if somebody doesn’t show up with the right backpack, I can assure him or her that it’s OK, nothing bad will happen, they just won’t get into med school or a doctorate program or even McDonald’s Hamburger University, ever.  It’s very freeing. 

From whence came the transformation from angry schoolgirl to smiley face sticker-wielding professor?  Not the expected places — it’s more “Animal House” than “Dangerous Minds.”  Most lists of Inspiring Movie Teachers for Actual Teachers are topped by John Keating of “Dead Poets Society” and Glenn Holland from “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”  They are not included here, because 1) if I see my students leaping onto their desks to quote Walt Whitman, I will freak out and 2) a 40-year-old teacher dedicates a piece of music to a 16-year-old?  Really?  That’s a thousand-word article in and of itself.  Get an electronic ankle bracelet, Mr. Holland.

P.S.  I did once rip a page out of a textbook for dramatic effect in the middle of a lecture, but I’m better now.

The best movie teachers, class:

Yoda, “Star Wars”:  Little.  Green.  Different.  He sends Luke Skywalker into the Tree Stump of Very Deep Thought in “The Empire Strikes Back,” which keeps him from whining within the audience’s hearing for at least 10 minutes.  For this alone, Yoda is the Teacher of the Millennium. 

Mean Dude From “The Paper Chase”: I speak here of Charles W. Kingsfield, who was portrayed by John Houseman and is one of a scant few movie teachers to haul home an Academy Award after class lets out.  Kingsfield is Lord Of All Movie Profs.  He rules by fear, makes the Harvard boys cry, and at the end of the semester, he gets a standing ovation. 

I just finished my lesson plan for tomorrow, and it involves Skittles.  Everybody gets some.  I do not think Kingsfield would approve.

Johnny Castle, “Dirty Dancing”:  I cannot count the number of ways in which I would be fired if I grabbed my students’ hands and placed them on my chest, announcing, “You gotta feel it.”  Then again, I teach English; Johnny (Patrick Swayze), he can get away with this. 

Mr. Garrison, “South Park:  Bigger, Longer, and Uncut”:  Mr. Hat notwithstanding, I would have retained far more from the third grade had my teacher insisted that we learn how to tell a prostitute from a police officer and reassured my young mind with such truths as:  “There are no stupid answers, just stupid people.”

Andie Bergstrom, “SpaceCamp”:  She’s an astronaut!  No, she’s a SpaceCamp instructor!  No, she’s an astronaut who for some reason has nothing better to do for three months than work at SpaceCamp. Andie (Kate Capshaw) is responsible for imprinting upon Lea Thompson that she must put the team first, here at Space Camp, in order to fulfill her destiny of standing around in a blue jumpsuit between Kelly Preston and a hilariously young Joaquin Phoenix. “Every ‘i’ dotted, every ‘t’ crossed,” she says to young, feather-haired Lea.  “That’s the way I learned it.  That’s the way you’ll learn it.”  And that’s why she’s so hard on her — because someday, she’s goin’ up

Should I be more worried that I can quote that entire exchange completely from memory, or that I’m not at all ashamed that I can do so? 

Curtis, “The Blues Brothers”: Would you or would you not want Cab Calloway to introduce you to blues music as a child?  That’s what I thought. 

Ben Stein, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”:  Although once, just once, I would like to call roll without some student monotoning “Bueller?... Bueller?...” I would like to be this guy when I grow up, for he is quite possibly the most self-actualized teacher I have ever seen.  He has sharpened boring to an art form.  Sometimes I bring in fire twirlers in a vain attempt to catch the interest of my students; this guy didn’t care.  He just absolutely reveled in not being interesting.  No whimsical ties or shout-happy rounds of Economics Jeopardy for this guy, no sir.

It is my understanding that the lecture Ben Stein delivers in the film was completely unscripted. Man. Boring is one thing. Boring on cue?  That takes talent.

Fortune, “Rudy”:  Watch this movie with actual or former Notre Dame students and watch the salty, salty tears flow.  Like all good college movies, the most useful wisdom comes from a speech from the janitor (Charles S. Dutton) in the form of a smackdown that says, in essence:  “Oh, get over yourself and your big fat football.”  I sit at your feet, Janitor Fortune.

Indiana Jones:  Indy’s day job?  Professor of Archeology.  Perhaps I should take to wielding a fedora in the classroom.  Also, a whip.

Freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis runs and teaches (no, really) in Central Florida.  She is about to appear in Random House’s “Twentysomething Essays from Twentysomething Authors” but is honestly more awed by her brand-new nephew, Will.  She hopes to teach him many destructive tendencies one day.