Recently I had a chance to watch the 1939 MGM tearjerker Goodbye, Mr. Chips, with Robert Donat aging 60 years as a shy, gentle teacher at an English boarding school. The movie was beloved in its day—Donat won an Oscar for his performance—and it still seems to crystallize the feelings many have for their old teachers. Mr. Chipping is too humble and selfless to advance in his profession, and his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him alone. His life is haunted by a sense of unfulfilled potential. As he lies on his deathbed, two caretakers hovering over him observe sadly that he never had children. This remark revives old Chips for a moment, and he insists that he had thousands. As he slips away forever, the floating image of one boy beams and calls out, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips!”
Any such sentiment is unlikely to survive a viewing of Chalk, a riotously funny mockumentary in the style of The Office about fledgling teachers at a middle-class public school in Austin, Texas. Coproducers and improv artists Mike Akel and Chris Mass wrote the script over the course of many 6 AM sessions, before starting their jobs teaching at Austin high schools. An opening title informs us that 50 percent of teachers quit in the first three years, and the action follows four of them through nine months at the fictional Harrison High School as they deal with insulting kids, difficult coworkers, and crushing workloads. “As teachers ourselves, we both had a lot of strong opinions about the profession,” Akel writes in his director’s statement. “But we didn’t want to push an agenda. We wanted to tell a story from inside the world of teachers.” After being inside for a while, you may wonder how 50 percent manage to stay.
The filmmakers drew on a lively bunch of students and colleagues to cast the classroom and teachers’ lounge scenes, though the lead roles went to Mass and three more trained actors. Mass is the Ricky Gervais of the ensemble as the obnoxious, hyperambitious Mr. Stroope, a third-year history teacher who showboats in class and brazenly campaigns for the school’s Teacher of the Year Award. He admits to his supervisor that his lesson plans are often sketchy and late, and he fights a losing battle with classroom sarcasm toward his kids. His best-buddy routine with them often rings hollow, but they’re perfectly willing to take advantage of it. In one vignette the film crew follows Mr. Stroope out to the woods for his target practice with a pistol, where he explains, “It’s like teaching in the sense that you do your best, and you’re not gonna get every kid.”
Unlike high school movies made for the teen market Chalk gets many of its laughs from the backstage wrangling among the teachers as they unload their stress on one another. Second-year PE instructor Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) seems to blow the whistle around her neck 24 hours a day, harassing teachers who don’t follow school rules, trying to enlist colleagues in a 6 AM walking club, and complaining endlessly to the new assistant principal, Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan). Mrs. Reddell can’t cope with the pressure of her position (in an early scene she asks a grizzled mentor what she should do when a student orders her to “kiss his white ass”). She’s forever on the phone apologizing to her husband for her late hours, and in one of the four private video diaries woven through the movie, she admits she hasn’t had sex in three weeks. Eventually she realizes that her happiest days are the ones when she’s tapped to substitute teach.
These three characters give Mass and Akel the chance to satirize different aspects of the teaching experience, but none of them is as gripping as Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a hapless first-year history teacher whose students eat him alive. Mr. Lowrey has gone through a divorce and abandoned a job in computer engineering to become a teacher, and his fear and agony on the first day should strike a chord with anyone who’s ever stood at the front of a classroom. As played by Schremmer (who works as a director of Christian education at a “collegiate church” in New York), Mr. Lowrey is smart and committed but painfully shy and boring. He makes every classic teacher mistake: posing vague questions, asking students to read out loud with him, telling them he’ll operate one way and then doing the opposite. When his students rebel, he resorts to the hopeless disciplinary stunt of asking someone to take over the class, and in one excruciating scene, he tries to quell a classroom fight between two big girls by loftily invoking the preamble to the Constitution. The kids stare at him like he’s crazy.
Mr. Lowrey’s trials remind me of early classroom scenes in Goodbye, Mr. Chips that show the new schoolmaster trying to get control of his boys, though of course the kids here are less rowdy than they are spoiled, jaded, and rude. Handling troublemakers is one of the trickiest aspects of teaching, and Mr. Lowrey is neatly outmaneuvered by Amon, a tall, quick-witted kid who continually challenges his authority. When they finally go nose-to-nose over Amon’s ringing cell phone, cursing each other out, and Mr. Lowrey ejects Amon, the kid’s exit line only vocalizes what everyone else is thinking: “You’re a horrible teacher.” Chalk approaches the painful social awkwardness of The Office when Mr. Lowrey shows up at Amon’s home for a talk with his mother. Instead of apologizing she gives him a tutorial on how to command children’s respect and, as an example, calls Amon up from the basement to fetch them two glasses of wine. Amon obeys and, with finely minced sarcasm, asks Mr. Lowrey if he’d like to smell the cork.
The classroom meltdown with Amon represents rock bottom for Mr. Lowrey, and in the last few weeks of the school year he begins to make modest gains. He learns to keep a lid on his classes and wins back a small measure of respect from his students. Under their tutelage he’s the victor in a comic spelling bee the school holds where the kids turn the tables on their teachers and quiz them in hip-hop slang. During a study period his students invite him to “spit something,” and one taps out a beat on a desk as Mr. Lowrey raps clumsily, laughing and coming out of his shell. But the statistic cited at the movie’s opening hangs over him. (Readers who value suspense may want to stop reading here to avoid a spoiler.) I wasn’t terribly surprised when, sitting at lunch with the other three teachers, Mr. Lowrey quietly confesses that he may not renew his contract for the coming fall.
What did surprise, though, was his next remark, about teaching: “I don’t know that . . . I like it that much.” None of the others faults him for his admission, and the brief silence in which they contemplate it is Chalk‘s real moment of truth. Self-interest isn’t usually part of our fond image of the pedagogue—an idealist who lives to give, working long hours for modest pay so that children might blossom. But Mr. Lowrey is no more responsible for our children than anyone else, and he has just as much right to personal fulfillment. In the final scene he surveys his empty classroom, collects his aptly chosen poster of Sitting Bull, and flips off the lights as he leaves. Sometimes it’s Mr. Chips who gets to say good-bye.