Blackboard Jungle ‘07: School Crisis Spelled Out in Chalk

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Running Time 85 minutes
Directed By Mike Akel
Written by Mike Akel and Chris Mass
Starring  Troy Schremmer, Chris Mass, Janelle Schremmer, Shannon Haragan

Mike Akel’s Chalk, from a screenplay by Mr. Akel and Chris Mass, with oodles and oodles of improvisation, plays out as a film by teachers and about teachers, or rather as a comic meditation on why in the United States 50 percent of all teachers quit within their first three years. The film was shot in Travis High School in Austin, Tex., where the film’s co-authors taught high-school courses in order to make a living, if not a life. Most of the cast and most of the extras consists of teachers and students recruited from the Austin area. Hence, though the barriers between teacher and student are depicted dismally enough, the almost pastoral atmosphere around the movie’s fictional Harrison High does not begin to address the literal life-and-death issues of education in the schools of the nation’s inner cities. Not that the clashes of class and race are entirely absent in Chalk; they are simply subordinated to a more ox-like lack of communication between the pitifully well-meaning pedagogues and their recalcitrant charges. The shortcomings of American education provide a never-ending topic of public discussion with little enlightenment or improvement ensuing. My own view as a kind of teacher for the past four decades is that the people who blame teachers and their unions for all the failings in our school systems remind me of the people who blame the state of Israel for all the troubles in the Middle East. In both instances, the diagnoses are much too simple if not simple-minded.

When Troy Schremmer’s Mr. Lowrey, the new history teacher in Harrison High, stands before his first class and asks a sea of blankly indifferent faces what comes into their minds when they hear the word “history,” it is clear that the game is over before it has begun. Poor Mr. Lowrey will keep trying to regain lost ground by writing his lessons with chalk on the blackboard, until one day a never-identified student steals the teacher’s chalk and won’t return it. Thus the title of the movie. The stolen chalk is both more and less than a metaphor for the last straw in a teacher’s ongoing war with his students.

Nor are the other more manipulative teaching strategies much more successful. History teacher Mr. Stroope (played by co-writer Mr. Mass) campaigns incessantly with the students to become Harrison High’s teacher of the year, but in the end he loses to an older and gentler colleague. Mr. Stroope is all defiance just as Mr. Lowrey is all deference. Neither seems to get much teaching done. Janelle Schremmer’s Coach Webb is a very forceful gym teacher, and such a stickler for the rules that she alienates her best friend, Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), who has been promoted to assistant principal, and is so conscientious in her duties that her marriage is in jeopardy.

Mr. Lowrey gains some vindication when he wins the school spelling bee—coyly called the “Spelling Hornet”—which seems to consist mostly of words from hip-hop lyrics, and the contestants are tested by the students. There are a few moments of teacher-student rapport when Mr. Lowrey manages to sing a hip-hop song to the class, but it is not enough to console him for his overall failure as a teacher. Despite the fact that the teachers seem at times to be almost as immature as the students, the sheer drudgery of the work explains why this supposedly noble profession is so little respected in this country. Teachers are never paid enough for what they are expected to do precisely because many people feel that teachers are not competent enough to do something more lucrative. Teachers are fully conscious of this widespread attitude in the society at large, and their motivation to do better is proportionally diminished. Chalk is a message from the horse’s mouth, and is thereby humorously instructive without ever becoming sarcastic or judgmental.