Commentary : 'Lean on Me': A Modern Myth? : Taking Artistic Liberty With Real Joe Clark

Times Staff Writer

While students and teachers watched in shock, a troupe of Latin dancers ended a performance at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., by stripping down to their G-strings. Now, two weeks later, the school board must decide whether to punish the school's controversial principal, Joe Clark.

The incident, which Clark dismisses as "an ethnic dance" and "no big deal," took place too late to be included in "Lean on Me," the film opening today about Clark's determined, though sometimes misguided, efforts to improve troubled Eastside High. Judging from the way the movie turned out, it's doubtful the Latin dancers would have made it into the film, anyway.

"Lean on Me" is advertised as "the true story of a real hero," but that is only half right. Near-naked dancers notwithstanding, Joe Clark is a real hero to thousands of Eastside High students for bringing pride and order to the once chaotic, inner-city school. "Lean on Me," however, is not a totally true story.

As a reporter for the Record of Hackensack, N.J., from 1981 to 1985, I wrote about Eastside High and came to know Clark, the school's teachers and its students. I chronicled Clark's first 10 months at Eastside High in a 10-part series and followed the school's progress after that.

For his work at Eastside High, Clark was praised by former President Reagan, interviewed on "Nightline," and profiled by "60 Minutes." He appeared on Phil Donahue's show. It is hard to see why the film makers chose to distort events that brought Clark such attention and put him on the cover of Time magazine.

The distortions in "Lean on Me" start to roll even before the opening credits. We are told it is 1967. We watch Clark, dressed in a bright tunic, teach history to an Eastside class of eager white students. It seems Clark has radical views; he is exiled to School No. 6, a white elementary school. Twenty years later--in 1987--Clark is appointed principal of Eastside, now a mostly black school that looks like a bomb exploded on top of it.

Surprising as it may seem, none of that is true. Clark said that he didn't get to Eastside until 1972. The subject was remedial reading, and his students were mostly black. Even if it had been 1967, there would have been many black students. Twenty years ago, Eastside was 46% black.

In 1979, Clark became principal of School No. 6, in reality a tough elementary school in one of Paterson's worst neighborhoods. Ninety percent of the school's 1,000 students--mostly poor blacks and Latinos--read below grade level when Clark arrived on the scene. By 1982, the school was so much better that Clark was quietly hailed as a miracle man. That year he was dispatched to work his magic at Eastside High.

The factual errors--large and small--go on. Two more examples:

--In the movie, Clark is arrested and jailed for locking the school's doors in violation of the fire code. Fact: Clark did lock the school's 27 doors to keep out drug pushers, but he removed the chains after the city went to court to force him to do so. He was never arrested and never jailed.

--In the movie, Clark tossed out 300 students during a school assembly on the first day of school for being "drug dealers and drug users." Fact: In Clark's first two months at Eastside High, 135 would-be juniors and seniors were told to leave either because of poor attendance or poor grades. That figure swelled to 300 by year's end, as more students were taken off the school's rolls for attendance policy infractions.

Perhaps the movie's most disturbing distortion is its portrayal of whites as unsympathetic, opportunistic, or just plain foolish. In the movie, a white mayor and white fire chief conspire with an angry black parent to set a trap for Clark. A fat, fumbling white vice principal, shudders when Clark raises his voice. A white music teacher is so consumed with choir rehearsal she becomes annoyed when Clark interrupts to discuss the school's song. An angry Clark immediately transfers her.

In fact, Paterson's white mayor, Frank X. Graves Jr., was one of Clark's earliest supporters. Eastside High had two white vice principals, and both were strong Clark supporters, too. The white music teacher did have some run-ins with Clark--he transferred her to another school two years after he got there--but she did teach the school's 2,700 students the alma mater.

Clark initially had strong support from the head of the history department, the athletic director, a boys' shop teacher and two English teachers--to mention only a few who immediately come to mind. All were white.

And it was a white member of the board of education, William Pascrell, who lobbied to get Clark assigned to Eastside High. That is especially significant, because Pascrell was the city's Democratic leader. Clark is a Republican.

Clark called the movie's portrayal of whites "sad." He said, "Some of my greatest supporters are white." And Clark, 50, agreed that fictional Mayor Don Bottman was nothing like Graves. "The mayor is off. Paterson's mayor was much more supportive."

Clark said that his input into the movie was minimal. "I wanted no sex, and no swearing, because I don't talk that way," he said. "They did those things." He said that despite some of the movie's factual shortcomings, he believes it is "95% accurate."

The movie isn't complete fiction. Actor Morgan Freeman captures Clark's personality, right down to his trademark smirk and $100 vocabulary. (To Clark, unruly students are "parasites" and "miscreants." Disloyal teachers are "surreptitious snakes"). When Freeman spoke to a child in the cafeteria, and questioned him about his girlfriend, he demonstrated how the bullhorn-toting Clark got to know his 2,700 students personally.

And it was heartening to see Beverly Todd, who played a vice principal, light into Clark for his dictatorial, and sometimes brutal, methods. By late 1984, black teachers had grown so frustrated with Clark that they held a secret after-school meeting at the city's Masonic Temple to figure out how to deal with him. Clark beat them to the punch, and had the leaders transferred to another school.

"Lean on Me" presents a picture of a school that undergoes a dramatic academic transformation in just one year. But the picture is exaggerated. Though Clark did manage to achieve improved results at Eastside High during his first year, he did a lot better in the movie.

The movie says that before Clark, only 33% of the school's students passed New Jersey's minimum basic skills test--a standardized test that measures how well students can read and compute on very elementary levels. Actually, Eastside High's students scored better than that before Clark's arrival. School statistics show 49% of Eastside High's freshmen passed the reading test and 56% passed the math test.

The improvement in test scores during Clark's first year was impressive. Again, the official statistics show that 55% of freshmen passed the reading test, and 82% of freshman passed the math. In "Lean on Me," a whopping 85% of students pass the test.

Clark says test scores have continued to improve by 10% each year. But other measures of academic improvement have slipped. Only 22% of Eastside High's students go on to college these days, Clark said. That rate was high before Clark's arrival. In 1981, 35% of Eastside High students went on to college.

Clark defends his record, saying the city's children are receiving poor educations in elementary school, and can't catch up by the time they reach Eastside High. Besides, he says, he must spend so much time policing against "vandalism, sex rings and drug use" that "I can't get to instruction. It's a shame, but it's an unimportant issue compared to eveything else that's going on."

Now Clark has something else to worry about--the school board isn't happy about the Latin dancers. Mayor Graves reports that many in the city are especially upset because Clark, who has taken responsibility for the incident, wasn't even in the school when the incident happened. He was in Los Angeles promoting "Lean on Me."

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