I saw To Sir, With Love the year it came out in 1967. I was almost 10 and it had a profound effect on me. In fact it altered the course of my life. After I walked out of the movie I remember telling my brother “I’m going to be a teacher.” I did. I taught for about 10 years in public high school, and from the day I saw the film until the day I went into the music business, my entire mindset was that of “Sir.” I wanted to make a difference, and it was the influence of a film that caused this desire within me. How many movies can one say that about?
It is almost impossible to discuss To Sir, With Love without talking about the illusion and the reality of the 1960’s. The illusion was the myth of youth, the power of idealism, and the belief that the future was wide open. The reality of the 1960’s was that the decade essentially served as the adolescence of the American 20th century. If adolescence is the period where a young person finds their sense of morality and builds the foundation of the person they will become, often through a series of innocent idealistic and possibly foolish experiences, then that fateful decade was this country’s teenage years. Benjamin Button-like, we were adults in the 1940’s and then after World War II the soldiers came home, had historic numbers of babies and those babies collectively threw our country into a prolonged period of childish and exhilarating social experimentation that we are still reeling from.
Like no other movie, To Sir, With Love captures the giddy idealism and the cultural feel of the times while proving itself to be painfully difficult to rectify with the way things actually turned out. Sidney Poitier, impossibly handsome, impossibly cultured, everything a young liberal audience wants to believe in, is young teacher Mark Thackery, just given the unenviable job of teaching a bunch of low-class high school seniors in a tough North London neighborhood. In one minute of this black man being in front of a white classroom all issues of class, race, youth and revolt are on the table. Poitier simultaneously represents the new idealism and the old guard. The kids see him as a square adult, the other teachers see him as a young upstart, and he finds himself at the crossroads of his own belief system and his need to make a living. Throughout the movie we are made aware that Mr. Thackery is also seeking a career in engineering, and that the lure of the paycheck may overtake his sense of societal obligation. The main thrust of the movie however, is the struggle Poitier faces with the students. This was an era when bad kids wore their hair long and played juvenile pranks. It is an eye-opening comparison to Sandy Hook or Columbine. Our schools are a much more lethal place than they used to be.
The real pleasure in To Sir, With Love comes from the nostalgia it evokes. This nostalgia is not the depiction of an era for the sake of fooling the audience, it is the actual item we are seeing. The young actors depicting the schoolkids, particularly Judy Geeson and Lulu, are actually young people in the 1960’s, looking and acting the way young people did. The dress, styles and depiction of a mid-60’s London are spot-on. The movie also contains what has to be one of the first rock videos as the title song (sung by Lulu) is set to a montage of still images of the kids on a field trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. All this cultural window dressing frames the action of the story nicely as Poitier slowly wins the students over by treating them as adults instead of children and his character slowly comes to the realization that his path lies in service to others. It is beautifully calculated to make the impressionable young mind swoon with the possibilities of doing the right thing with his/her life. It certainly had that effect on me.
Ultimately, this is what the 1960’s were about for so many people. It was the naïve, mistaken impression that changing the world was a simple a matter as wanting to do so. It ignored all the bothersome adult realities that come with a more mature understanding of the ways of the world. I hate to recognize this fact and ultimately hate that I’ve had to toe the line, but a two-hour trip to a more idealistic me is always available in To Sir, With Love. It takes me to a place when art had the ability to make me strive to do more with my life. At the end of the film, as the kids acknowledge Mr. Thackery and Mr. Thackery comes to peace with his future, it is impossible to not be struck by an uncomfortable twinge. One chuckles at Thackery’s optimism for a better future, then one looks in the mirror and feels ashamed.
- Paul Epstein