Many redemption stories have been told involving education, but few stand the test of time like the John G. Avildsen-directed flick Lean On Me. Starring Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark, a no nonsense principal charged with the task of revitalizing the endangered school, the movie contains many pivotal moments serving as lessons in perseverance and banding together in the face of adversity.
And being that its the 25th anniversary of Lean On Me’s release, we proudly bring you the 10 most memorable moments from this classic.
1. Welcome To The Jungle
The crack epidemic of the mid ’80s had crippling effects on society, especially the youth. Inner-city schools were no longer a place for learning and nurturing growth, but a haven for future criminals and drug addicts with teenagers carrying drugs and weapons instead of books.
New Jersey’s Eastside High depicts the ills permeating throughout the educational system, most notably in the movies opening credits. Within roughly four minutes, it’s clear that the school is even worse than some crack dens, and it would take someone of significant character to restore the once proud school to its former glory. And that man would be the great Joe Clark.
2. The HNIC
“There’s only one boss in this place and that’s me. The H.N.I.C.”
Before Nino Brown’s infamous roundtable meeting, Clark set the table in grand fashion during his introduction as Eastside High’s new principal. After all but telling Mr. O’Malley to “sit his five dollar ass down, before I make change,” he let the faculty know that due to their previous f*ck-ups there was a new sheriff in town. Joe Clark wasn’t answering to anyone except himself, and he went as far as playing Jerry Jones and making football personnel decisions on the fly. Yes, the Head N*gga In Charge kicked off the Clark regime without a f*ck to spare.
3. Joe Clark Gets Rid Of The Drug Dealers And Junkies
“My motto is simple: if you do not succeed in life, I don’t want you to blame your parents. I don’t want you to blame the white man. I want you to blame yourselves. The responsibility is yours!”
After receiving a list of all the “low-lifes and miscreants” inhabiting Eastside High, Principal Clark rounds them up and ceremoniously kicks them out.* Extreme problems cause for extreme measures, so we’re riding with Joe Clark on this one. A tutorial in polite “f*ck you’s” and the sarcastic well wishes were the icing on the cake.**
With the student body seeing he means business, they begin their journey on the road to the looming New Jersey State Practice Exam to reverse their maligned reputation as a black eye for education.
* — Having a squad of goons on deck for educational purposes was also proof of Joe Clark’s O.G. status.
** — “You are dismissed. You are out of here forever. I wish you well” is also perfect for breaking off a sour relationship when pulled off well.
4. Joe Clark Takes Sams Under His Wing
“Go on, jump. You smoke crack don’t ya’? You smoke crack, don’t ya!?!?…Now, I say if you wanna kill yourself don’t fuck around with it, go on and do it expeditiously!”
If ever there was a perfect example of a young kid lost to the perils of the streets and a poor educational system, it was Thomas Sams. After finding himself expelled with nowhere to turn, Sams meets with the principal and begs for a chance at redemption. Instead, Clark takes him up the roof and shockingly urges him to jump off, angrily explaining that the plunge would lead him to the same result as crack – that being death – but much quicker, saving everybody the time and headaches.
But we’ve all been “just a baby” that doesn’t “know shit” at one point or another, and since America is the land of second chances, giving Sam a second crack at not becoming a statistic was the right thing to do.
Always remember kiddos: just say no.
5. Responsibility Of The Teachers
“Turn and look at yourselves! Because you are failing to educate them, this is the posture that many of our students will end up in, only they’ll be staring down the barrel of a gun!”
The educational opportunities have increased in urban communities since the release of LOM, but still has a way to go when it comes to motivating students. Joe Clark provides the solution with his speech to the teachers of Eastside High. Instead of putting the onus on the students as society tends to do, he gets down to the real root of the problem: teachers and their lack of effort.
While kids can be averse to learning at times, Clark provides a few examples of how to reach a kid and help them excel. With a method that would make Busta Rhymes proud, Crazy Joe kicks the realness about the dysfunction that is the educational system.
6. Joe Clark Has His Own “Chaining Day”
“You know what he saying? Black man won’t throw me out, and you know where he’s saying it? Out there in the parking lot.”
After Kid Ray gets the living sh*t beat out of him by a crack slinging former pupil, Principal Clark goes to extreme measures, chaining all of the doors against fire department regulations. Those codes are no joke, but neither is protecting the well-being of innocent teens. We can agree that the fire chief can kick rocks, even though this beef came back to haunt Joe.
From this scene, the phrase “They used to call me Crazy Joe, well now they can call me Bat-Man!” lives on, having been used even by the likes of toddlers in YouTube vids, another piece of proof that Joe Clark was for the children even before Wu-Tang.
7. The Greatest School Spirit Song Of All Time…OF ALL TIME!
“Take a bow, Mrs. Powers. You have just rewritten our alma-mater.
Maybe the most lasting testament to the greatness of this flick is this indelible performance. In the spirit of a street corner quartet, the crew infuses a pinch of soul into the dated Eastside High anthem with the direction of the school’s chorus director Mrs. Powers. Years before Puff Daddy turned the remix into a phenomenon, the school spirit song from which I measure all others is as endearing 25 years later, and leaves you no choice but to sing your little heart out.
8. Kaneesha’s Gotta Baby
“My Momma don’t want me no more.”
Teen pregnancy was a hot button issue in America, with many of the girls from broken homes feeling left with nowhere to go. During undoubtedly the most touching moment in the film, Joe Clark consoles one of his students, Kaneesha (played by Karen Malina White), after discovering she’s become pregnant. Informing him that her mother doesn’t want her anymore, Principal Clark goes the extra length to patch things up to ensure the well being of his student, proving he has a heart underneath his stone countenance.
9. Now Or Never
“You are not inferior. Your grades may be, your school may have been, but you can turn that around and make liars out of those bastards in exactly one hour if you take that test and pass it and win!”
In preparation for their second crack at the state exam, Joe Clark decides his educational troops could use a pep talk to get ready for the battle ahead. With an impassioned speech that would make Martin Luther King Jr. proud, the H.N.I.C. imposed a by-any-means-necessary attitude upon the students of Eastside High and that would have anyone ready to run through a brick wall. Or at least put up a 1600 (2400 to the ’90s babies) on your SAT.
10. Mission Complete
After doing a few hours in jail over the chained door fiasco and being greeted by a mob scene of his students, Joe Clark and his faculty receive great news: Eastside High got a qualifying score on the State Exam, saving the school from state control. In celebration, a pep rally was held and we were blessed with the most lasting rendition of the movie’s musical namesake. Joe Clark came, he saw, and he damn sure conquered, forever sealing a spot in our hearts.
And since we couldn’t find a video clip for the scene*, here’s a snippet from it in which Joe Clark shares an important message for all of us.
* — Do you have the scene? Email a link or add it to the comments section.