Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
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At my first Baccalaureate as a Carroll teacher in May 1990, I needed a cap and gown. The registrar said she had a spare that might have been worn in during Carroll’s Woodrow Wilson years. The gown came with a cap, sporting elegantly frayed corners.
I fell in love with that old cap and gown, and treasure it still because it reminds me of another teacher who wore disheveled academic attire: Mr. Chipping of Brookfield School, an elite all-boys school in England. Chips’ rumpled regalia was both ridiculed and revered by the students and faculty at Brookfield, where he worked for six decades.
Next time around, bring me back as Chips, please. Or, if I’m termed out as a human, then a golden retriever.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” stars Robert Donat who won the best Actor Oscar in 1940, defeating, ahem: Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier and Jimmy Stewart. Gable’s hopes were gone with wind.
Chips arrived at Brookfield at age 24 and is still teaching at 82 when we see him hurrying to opening assembly, holding his hat as his gown slips off his shoulders. He’s late. He bumps into a new student who is lost and scared.
“You’re not the first who stood there and felt afraid,” comforts Chipping. “Hold on to my tail.”
The boy grins, grabs the back edge of the robe and they run up the stairs to the Great Hall.
When Chips, now retired, goes home to his small place on campus that night, he sits in his favorite high back chair by the fireplace and sips tea. He falls asleep, dreaming of his years at Brookfield.
In his first day of teaching, the students played a prank – kidnapping his hat - to welcome him. Teasing new teachers is a venerated Brookfield tradition, “a blood sport.”
Watching “Chips” I reflected on my own 40 classroom years. My first week in a private K-12 school in Houston included a full rebellion. I was hired to finish the year for a fired eighth-grade English teacher who befriended his students, gave all “A”s -- and lost his job.
One young man initiated me by wadding up a piece of paper and pitching it off my forehead. His timing was poor. The principal, stern Mr. Goddard, was standing in my door. He marched over, grabbed the boy, took him into the hall and lifted him off the ground and slammed him against the wall.
Another boy machine-gunned my asbestos ceiling with his crutch. He did not fare well, either.
Things got quieter after that. I regarded that dent in my ceiling as a hole of honor, proof that I survived. I still get holiday cards from those “rebels” I taught 45 years ago.
We watch Chips fall in love with sweet Kathy (Greer Garson) and marry her. She held tea every day for a few boys, and treated them like sons. They adored her. When Kathy and her baby both die in childbirth, the whole campus mourns with Chipper.
The film traces the sacrifices during WWI. Every year an assembly is held to read the latest names of Brookfield graduates who died in battle. Chips sits with tears falling as the names are read.
Chips’ unconditional love for his students – a love they returned – is the film’s only real “plot.” The film is a tribute to classroom teachers. A kindergarten teacher told me her main job was to put one more leg under every child’s stool – symbolizing unconditional love. When they had three legs, they were ready to face the world.
No matter how few “legs” a child had when they arrived, when they left, each had one more.
“Remember me some time,” he says to his boys. “I shall always remember you.”
The film ends, of course, by saying goodbye. As chips lays dying, a visitor whispers “a pity he never had children of his own.” Chips immediately opens his eyes and responds: “Oh, but you’re wrong. I had thousands of them -- all boys.”
As life leaves him, he sees the boys running up to assembly, tipping their hats to him as he checks off their names. One boy, young Colley, turns to him as he leaves and says: “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
With that, the beloved Chips is gone.
Teaching is a sacred and undervalued profession – and the younger the student, the more noble the teacher’s contribution, in my view. Kindergarten teachers are royalty in my pedagogical kingdom.
So, on this sunny day, let’s thank our teachers for giving us that extra leg, one that lifted us toward a fulfilling life.
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