I Became a Teacher Because of Sydney Poitier

January 15, 2022

My first album was a four-record set called, #1 Hits of the ‘60s. I ordered it C.O.D. in 1973 after I saw Mickey Dolenz, of the Monkees, hawking it on our local UHF channel (WTCG). My mom had to pay for it when it arrived, but I immediately chose Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love”  as my favorite track of the 52 songs. So when the 1967 movie of the same name was scheduled to play on the 4 O’clock movie, I knew this latchkey kid would be parked in front of the TV.

What that 9-year-old living in a Georgia Klan town got was his first introduction to Mr. Sydney Poitier. I loved the story of American who tamed the rowdy British kids by breaking the traditional rules of the classroom. He was dignity and respectful control in the face of youthful chaos. Perhaps I craved that.  The fact that that he was black man corralling white kids added to the juxtaposition. But he didn’t treat them as children, and they transitioned into young adulthood under the guidance of “Sir.” There was nothing in my Georgia schools like this. This white boy immediately thought, I want to be like Sydney Poitier.

The film itself, directed and written by James Clavell, is overly sentimental and plagued with real gender problems, but it tackled British racial politics the same season that the Beatles were singing, “All Your Need is Love.” To my young mind, it was all about Pointier’s poise and composure as he deconstructed the politics of the public school, literally throwing out the book (into the classroom trashcan) to take the students to museums and other London adventures. I’d had a taste of Montessori under my belt from the second half of second grade (the first half was wasted in Bible school), and I craved that educational freedom.

So I became a teacher. The first classes I taught were as a young graduate student at Emory University. In one sociology class, taught on the second floor of the Candler Library, I had my own Mark Thackery moment. (Thackery was Poitier’s character in the film.) Instead of working class hoodlums, my students were the privileged children of wealth. It was clear that students weren’t invested in the curriculum I had created for my Youth Subculture class, so I went into a monologue about the corrosive nature of privilege and the opportunity of youth to define itself in its own historical moment. Then I threw the three required texts out of the library window and told them we would never meet in that classroom again. I channeled Sydney as we took the class out into the world. (I later went and retrieved those books from the bushes below the window.)

That dignified grace was a hallmark of so many of Poitier’s roles, including favorites like The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967). His seminal role as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) was a pretty accurate picture of policing in my rural Georgia town and planted the seed police reform in my young brain. I became obsessed with his films, never missing them on the 4 O’Clock movie or when I’d sneak downstairs into the recroom to watch Paris Blues (1961) on the late movie. When I learned about his civil rights work, I had permission to question the racism of my peer culture. Other kids had their role models, this was mine. Sydney and I had the same birthday (February 20) and I knew that the best thing I could be was to be like Sydney Poitier.

There will never be anyone like him, but I carry his Mark Thackery with me into the classroom every time, with love.

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