In Half Nelson (THINKFilm), Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a strung-out teacher working in an inner-city middle school in New York, where, as the teacher, he is the only “white kid” in the classroom. Dunne’s passion for teaching history and his genuine respect for the kids is equalled only by his severe substance addiction, and each day he arrives at school a little more messed up than the day before. What is most interesting about the movie is the intimate-without-being-creepy relationship Dunne develops with his student, Drey, a member of the girls’ basketball team he coaches. Drey is the daughter of a hard-working single mom and a deadbeat dad and is trying to avoid landing in jail like her drug-dealing older brother. But who is her drug-addicted teacher to urge her to stay in school? There are subtle and not-so-subtle ironies at play throughout the film, both disturbing and touching in their honesty. Half Nelson offers a fresh view of human relationships as well as a complicated look at inner-city life.
In Teacher Man (Scribner), the third of Frank McCourt’s autobiographical volumes, he writes candidly about his experience working as a teacher in the inner-city schools of New York starting in the 1960s. Although McCourt’s tales take place several decades earlier than the struggles of Dan Dunne in Half Nelson, the circumstances and struggles are surprisingly similar. McCourt works hard to satisfy the administrators at each school and to find one that will accept his pungent “Mick” brogue. He ends up teaching at many vocational schools, where the students are less than motivated. Breakthrough moments—such as when he gives a grammar lesson in which he compares the parts of a sentence to the parts of a dismantled ballpoint pen—are rare. McCourt finds that the students are most interested in his stories about growing up in Ireland, whether because they are genuinely fascinated or because the anecdotes are a distraction from the required coursework. Teacher Man is an interesting read, and it sheds light on the language and culture of teaching that McCourt learned. The writing is clear, the dialogue is illuminating and the language renders images that stay with you.