If you asked me to sing the school song of any school I actually attended, I would be at a total loss.
But if you asked me to sing the school song of East Side High as depicted in the 1989 film Lean on Me, I could probably do it, albeit not on key.
Lean on Me opens in 1967 at Paterson, New Jersey’s East Side High. This is where we meet the protagonist of the film, Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman), for the first time. Clark is a young and energetic history teacher who has a classroom full of engaged students.
But school politics soon rear their ugly head. The teacher’s union, a union started by Joe Clark and his friend Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume), has agreed to a proposal by the school board that will give the teacher’s of East Side High a pay increase, but only if Joe Clark is transferred out of East Side High. Stabbed in the back by his fellow teachers, Joe storms out of East Side High and doesn’t step foot inside for another twenty years.
In a great piece of movie editing, we see the hallway that Joe Clark walked down on his way out of East Side High seamlessly transition 20 years into the future. Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” kicks in and the once majestic East Side High is now tagged with graffiti and the floors are covered in trash. There are fights breaking out, hooligans are throwing bathroom sinks out windows and teachers and students alike are being harassed in the hallways. East Side High is officially in crisis mode.
Frank Napier, now the superintendent of schools, is in a meeting with Mayor Bottman discussing their East Side High problem. The state is threatening to take control of the school due to the vast majority of the student body not being able to pass the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test and Napier and Bottman need to come up with a solution. Napier suggests a radical idea… hiring his old friend Joe Clark as principal!
Clark is reluctant at first, no doubt still holding a grudge from two decades prior, but he accepts the position and makes an immediate impact with both the faculty and the student body at East Side High. Clark holds a staff meeting his first day on the job and lays down the law telling the faculty how things are going to be. Clark also orders each teacher to provide him a list of the drug dealers, hoodlums, and miscreants that have been terrorizing the school with no interest in getting an education. Later that day, Joe Clark holds a school assembly where 300 students who were identified as problem students are called up on stage and expelled by Joe Clark and his security force (including Tony Todd of Candyman fame) in dramatic fashion.
That night Joe Clark attends a meeting with the parents of the current and former students of East Side High to explain why he expelled 300 students. It is at this meeting where we meet our villain, Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen). Mrs. Barrett’s son was among the students expelled by Clark and she is none too pleased and makes it her mission to discredit Clark and have him removed as the principal at East Side High. Being an action movie devotee, I can confidently say that I have seen some of cinema’s most diabolical villains, but I am here to tell you Mrs. Barrett can give some of them a run for their money. Barrett is ruthless and relentless and like any great villain, she believes what she is doing is right and justified.
We begin to see the transformation of East Side High and the impact that Principal Joe Clark is having on his students and his teachers. There is hope and optimism in the air as East Side High prepares for test day. But preparing the students for the Minimum Basic Skills Test is only part of what Joe Clark and the faculty have to deal with… it is high school after all, so that means all the high school drama that teenagers are prone to. And then there’s the problem of drug dealers being able to gain access to the school due to a lack of security doors.
Clark’s solution to the drug dealer problem will end up being his undoing. Since security doors aren’t in East Side’s budget, Clark has the doors chained and provides the teachers keys and door assignments. This move does not sit well with Mrs. Barrett or the fire marshal and it is only a matter of time before the fire marshal catches Joe with the chains on the doors and Joe Clark is thrown in jail.
This prompts a protest of epic proportions as every student at East Side High gathers outside City Hall chanting “Free Mr. Clark, Free Mr. Clark!” all while the Mayor, Frank Napier and Leonna Barrett are inside at a school board meeting with the dismissal of Joe Clark as principal is the topic of discussion.
Director John Avildsen of Rocky and The Karate Kid fame was the perfect choice to direct this story of underdogs overcoming the odds and it is never more evident than during the emotionally charged finale. In order to avoid a riot, Joe Clark is asked to speak to his students and advise them to return to their homes. In a case of perfect movie timing, Clark’s Vice-Principal Mrs. Levias (Beverly Todd) shows up with the results of the Minimum Basic Skills test and the movie gets its happy ending.
Unfortunately, reality was not as kind to East Side High as the movie Lean on Me was. A year after the actual Joe Clark retired as principal of East Side High, the school was in fact taken over by the State of New Jersey. Maybe that’s why we never got a Lean on Me 2.