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City Teaching: Beyond the Stereotypes

By Gregory Michie

Home > Archives > Volume 22 No.4 - Summer 2008

By Gregory Michie

From the opening frames, it's evident that Half Nelson isn't going to be a conventional "urban teacher" film. It begins on the hardwood floor of a bare apartment, where Dan Dunne sits in his underwear, legs outstretched, a scraggly beard creeping down his neck, a dazed, spacey look in his eyes. An alarm clock buzzes insistently in the background. It's time for Dan to leave for school, but he's struggling to peel himself off his living room floor. Soon, we understand why: in addition to being a social studies teacher and the girls' basketball coach at a Brooklyn junior high school, he's a crack addict, a basehead.

Dan wants to be a good teacher, and even when he's coming unglued personally-which is often-he does his best to hold it together for his students. In his classroom he ditches the prescribed curriculum and asks his black and Latino kids to wrestle with tough questions. His methods are part Socratic seminar, part didactic ramble, but his lessons push students to think, to make connections, to see history as something that can be shaped by everyday people working together and taking action.

Yet we're never tempted to see Dan as the savior, the white hero-and not just because of his drug habit. While it's clear that he despises the forces that keep his students down ("the machine," he calls it), the filmmakers remind us that he's not an innocent. When he asks his kids during class one day to name the obstacles to their freedom, their answers come easily: "Prisons." "White [people]." "The school." Then Stacy chimes in from the back row: "Aren't you part of the machine then? You white. You part of the school."

As committed as Dan tries to be to his students, it's obvious that he's holding on by a thread. He succumbs to his addictions at night and is distracted and tired in class the next day. It seems inevitable that his two lives will collide, and one evening following a girls' basketball game, they do. One of his students, Drey, a player on the team, finds him cowering in a bathroom stall, soaked in sweat, crack pipe in hand. She glares at him, more hurt than surprised; he looks terrified.

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