It was probably Christmas Day, 1968. I’d just finished my first year of secondary school. At Maribyrnong High School, actually, in case anyone’s interested. My family had joined with another family for Christmas lunch, which we’d already eaten. I was in a group in the suburban back yard, excitedly discussing the film, To Sir With Love, which one of the neighbours, a girl my age, had just seen. Lucky her. She was allowed to see it. I wasn’t. (Nor was I allowed to see The Graduate. Unsuitable for teenagers, according to my parents. It didn’t stop me reading through the racy paperbacks amongst the classics on my parents’ bookshelf.)
Back to the hushed discussion in the back garden. Vicky, the friend who’d seen the film, was telling us about this shocking scene in the film. Mr Thackeray, the Sidney Poitier character, walks into the classroom and finds that one of the female students has put something unmentionable into the fire.
I remember being somewhat incredulous and awestruck at the horror of it all. Periods were strictly women’s business back then.
Fast-forward forty-one years. A few weeks ago, To Sir With Love was on television and I idly watched the last half of the film, as you do sometimes on a weekend. I’d shown the film to students in the early 1980s, but hadn’t thought about it for years, apart from when Tina Arena released a cover of the title song.
Subsequently, I thought it might be interesting to show the film to my current year 8s. I’m always telling them ‘back in the day’ stories, and I thought it might interest them. I’ve shown them two ‘instalments’ of the film so far. (It’s a bit of a bribe that’s working well. If they work well for the first forty-five minutes of the afternoon session, they can spend the last half hour watching this film.)
It’s been fascinating watching these kids watching the film. It’s also been most interesting contextualizing certain scenes for the students. The pause button is handy here.
“Oh my god! Did you hear what he said?” says one of my students. “That is so racist!” Mr Thackeray, meeting his teaching colleagues for the first time, is calmly bearing the brunt of racist jibes from a jaded old teaching colleague. This led to a discussion on racism, and whether anything has changed, and what it was like back then.
Back to the film. To me, it seems almost silly; so dated. The clothes, the dancing, the accents, the attitudes, all seem so twee now. Yet my own students have watched it with considerable engagement. I had to press the pause button to explain the scene where the female ‘unmentionable’ is being inappropriately incinerated. In the film, Thackeray quickly exits the boys so he can talk frankly to the female members of his class, who should be learning that women should have more dignity. I explained all this to my mixed class, who were struggling to understand what was going on in the scene, given that those times are happily well and truly over. Took me right back to the days of the incinerator in the girls’ toilets, back in the day – not a place one wants to go.
The times have changed considerably since those grotty sexist times. Hurrah.
I didn’t expect that the film would generate so much interest. I honestly expected the kids to reject it, and demand something more contemporary. Initially, having a half hour of ‘film study’ Wednesday, last period, really was just a way of trying to engage the students at a time when they are usually totally disengaged. But showing this oldie has been surprisingly ‘educational’.