If Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Principal Clark was stellar enough to make him a Hollywood A-Lister for the remainder of his brilliant career, imagine how young impressionable viewers such as myself felt watching his performance? I was about 13-years-old when I first watched Lean On Me (the true story of a high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey) and I clearly remember thinking, “Why doesn’t my principal give a sh*t about our school like Joe Clark did about his?”
At the time my junior high school was the 97th best middle school out of the top 100 of New York City, and ignorantly enough, we were proud of it. But being the 97th best middle school in the city, would that really surprise anyone? Most of my teachers gave up on us and others would pass us just for showing up to class.
Unfortunately for us, like many other inner-city schools, the few teachers who did care about changing lives just didn’t have the proper assertiveness to reach the toughest and most stubborn of students. That’s why we have to admire and marvel at the ways and methods that Joe Clark got his students to take their education and futures seriously.
This scene is a primary example of doing what an educator should be allowed to do as long as it gets results. In today’s day and age this action would probably lead to media scrutiny, a resignation, a lawsuit and an eventual settlement.
After a young Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins (Thomas Sams) pleads his case to a defiant Principal Clark to allow him to re-enter his school, he’s led to the roof by the principal and given the kind of reality check you’d only get if you had a show on the E! Network. Cutting class and smoking Dwayne Johnsons (Rocks, get it?), get out my school! Oh, daddy left you and mommy to fend for yourselves? Not an excuse! Lamar Odom’s reality show is better than his game? They both garbagé, get over it!
But even after he got the kid to promise to change his ways, do his schoolwork, and stay out of trouble, Joe Clark told the kid, “I don’t believe you Sams. I don’t think you’ve changed a thing. Go on, jump!” After crying and refusing to oblige with such a request, an intense and demanding Clark dropped a gem that resonated with myself and I’m sure anyone who was paying attention.
“You smoke crack don’t ya?! You know what that does to ya?! It kills ya brain cells, son! It kills ya brain cells! Now when you’re destroying your brain cells you’re doing the same thing as killing yourself, you’re just doing it slower! Now I say if you want to kill yourself, don’t f*ck around with it! Go on and do it expeditiously! Now go’head and jump!”
And a scared, crying and defeated child said, “No, I don’t want to kill myself, sir.”
The entire exchange was as memorable as it was admirable. Joe Clark didn’t sympathize with this young man’s unfortunate situation at home, nor did he come to any kind of compromise with the kid, he laid it down and literally made this young’un choose life or death. This scene exemplified the notion that Clark didn’t just take a chance, he took on a challenge and “Miracle on Iced” it.
He took an Eastside High School that was on it’s last legs, with students that had as much hope for the future as the Jersey Shore cast, and turned it into a place where you came to learn and prepare yourself for tomorrow. Any shenanigans and you were going to find yourself in a situation where a six-pack is all you have going for yourself.
We should all be so lucky to be blessed with educators that share the same vision and understanding as Clark. Sometimes teachers are the last line of defense in a world that eats its young. Educators who know they have a responsibility and obligation to their students. Who will do whatever it takes to instill not only the knowledge and wisdom necessary to prepare the next generation for what’s to come, but also instill the desire in them to want to learn, to want to excel, and to want grow. We salute you.
(The Shadow League offers it’s condolences and it’s prayers to the educators and students that lost their lives, and the families of those that were affected by the tragedy that occurred in Sandy Hook, CT this past weekend. God bless you all).