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School’s out forever: 16 schools where the kids are in charge

Class Of 1984

As they do every September, students are reluctantly trudging back to school, where they might learn something, or they might just stare out the window and daydream about overthrowing the faculty and declaring permanent recess. Fictionalized student uprisings have taken on a different resonance in the post-Columbine era, but there’s a tradition of films and TV episodes dealing with the subject. Those narratives tend to go one of two ways: Either a grown-up steps in to bring the unruly youths back in line, either by the power of education or just plain old physical violence, or the student body rises up and wrests power from their clueless elders. Whether reactionary or revolutionary, these efforts speak to adult fears that kids these days really are no good, and to teenage suspicions that adults are not to be trusted.

1. Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Blackboard Jungle hails from an era when Bill Haley & His Comets were the sound of teenage rebellion and high-school students were allowed to smoke in class. Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a war vet and newbie teacher who is shocked to learn that everything he’s heard about the lack of discipline in inner-city schools is true. Vic Morrow co-stars as the leader of the juvenile delinquents who attempt to terrorize Dadier into submission, with Sidney Poitier as a student whose tough exterior conceals real potential. Shocking and transgressive in its time, Blackboard Jungle became infamous when overexcited teens danced in the aisles, vandalized theaters, and started fights during screenings of the movie, particularly as “Rock Around The Clock” played over the opening credits. The song was excised out of later prints due to fear of riots, but the template for the genre remained intact. [Katie Rife]


2. If… (1968)

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” Malcolm McDowell made his big-screen debut in this self-deconstructing takedown of boarding school culture—a paean to teenage fantasies of freedom, revenge, and violent rebellion complicated by the fact that it’s at least in part an allegory about British colonialism. Shot largely at director Lindsay Anderson’s own alma mater, If… stars McDowell as Mick Travis, part of a trio of non-conformist lower sixth-formers—high school juniors, in the parlance of the U.S. of A.—who find themselves up against the Whips, who are upper-class in both senses of the word. Drawing inspiration from both Jean Vigo’s classic Zero For Conduct and the political climate of the time, Anderson ended up making something that still feels dangerous and unpredictable. He would go on to make two more films with McDowell as Travis, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, though their planned “proper” sequel to If…—set decades later at a class reunion—never came to be. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Zero For Conduct (1933)

The definitive movie about pre-adolescent rebellion, the imaginative, one-of-a-kind Zero For Conduct was one of only two fiction films completed by Jean Vigo before his untimely death at the age of 29. A contentious 1933 premiere led to the movie being effectively banned until after World War II, and it still brims with risky energy, as though it were channeling anger into raw creative force. Surreal exaggerations, poetic gestures, and playful tweaks of form—including plenty of inventive uses of sound and silence and some very early instances of handheld camerawork—bring to life the fantasies, frustrations, and vulnerabilities of the students of a dingy boarding school. The slow-motion pillow fight that turns into a parody of a religious procession, the visitors beings pelted with garbage at the commemoration, a caricature coming to life through animation—Zero For Conduct features many of cinema’s most indelible images of revolt, and manages to pack them all into a mere 41 minutes. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


4. Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)

When you’re planning on overthrowing your high school, Rock ’N’ Roll High School proves that you would have no better backup than The Ramones. In this classic Roger Corman production, Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) just wants to listen to the cool rock music, and is thwarted by mean new principal Miss Togar (cult movie vet Mary Woronov). Fortunately The Ramones themselves show up (Miss Togar asks, “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?”) to help Randall take over her draconian school. The soundtrack is stellar (Devo, MC5, Brian Eno, and lots and lots of Ramones music), the wardrobe the coolest (Soles’ red satin jacket, the Ramones’ black leather ones). And this anthemic story has a satisfyingly destructive ending for any high school student: The rock ’n’ roll rebels end up blowing up the entire school. [Gwen Ihnat]


5. Over The Edge (1979)

In the mid-20th century, many middle-class families moved out of urban areas to newly erected suburban communities in the middle of nowhere. Without the action of the city—movie theaters, roller rinks, record stores—teenagers turned to drugs, drink, sex, and vandalism to pass the time. So the kids in Over The Edge aren’t necessarily bad; they just don’t have anything else to do. Based on a San Francisco Examiner article titled “Mousepacks: Kids On A Crime Spree,” Over The Edge told the story of bored suburban youth growing up in a seemingly idyllic subdivision. A movie theater is supposed to be built in their town, but the adults put the kibosh in favor of an office park, inciting a suburb-wide youth rebellion. By the end of the film, the kids have trapped the adults in the school and are burning the town to the ground. In between their more dangerous activities, the kids listen to rock ’n’ roll (Cheap Trick contributes several songs to the soundtrack) and deal with their clueless parents as well as small-town cop Doberman. Due to its subject matter and violence, Over The Edge never received wide distribution, and became a cult favorite thanks largely in part to cable television. Kurt Cobain said that the film “pretty much defined my whole personality.” [Mike Vanderbilt]


6. Taps (1981)

Unlike the other teens on this list, the cadets in Taps—like Timothy Hutton, Tom Cruise, and Sean Penn in his movie debut—love their school so much, they take up arms to defend it. First head cadet Hutton protests warmonger George C. Scott’s removal as head of his military academy, in preparation for the school being torn down in favor of a condo development. So much so that after Scott is ousted, the cadets take over the academy, which is unfortunately packed with guns and ammo, and somehow light on any other adults in positions of authority. This ends up in a standoff when army troops are called in to take over the school. Some young student soldiers bail, some stick it out, and an armistice is in sight until Cruise’s character starts shooting at the army troops from up in one of the dorms, yelling, “It’s beautiful, man!” Taps unfortunately doesn’t end up well for anyone, but the three male leads all resonate in one of their earliest efforts. [Gwen Ihnat]


7. Class Of 1984 (1982)

With Class of 1984, Mark L. Lester attempted to make a Blackboard Jungle for the ’80s. The result was a violent look into a future where teachers feared students and schools were war zones. Lester intended Class Of 1984 to be a warning of the shape of things to come for American schools, and his vision of gang-infested schools armed with metal detectors certainly came to pass. 1984 also appears to predict the millennial mindset—or at least millennial stereotypes—in its main villain, Stegman, played by Timothy Van Patten. Stegman is not a misunderstood, abused youth, but a smug young man doted on by his mother. Instead of applying his skills to his studies, Stegman favors sociopathic behavior and the drug trade, and he and his punk-rock gang are less like the harmless pranksters in Rock ’N’ Roll High School and more like the violent thugs in Death Wish. While certainly violent and exploitive, 1984 showcases screenwriter Tom Holland’s sardonic sense of humor in a sharp sequence where Roddy McDowall’s Corrigan wields a pistol in biology class, and actually gets the kids to learn. Apparently the only way to get through to teenagers is to threaten them with certain death. [Mike Vanderbilt]


8. Class Of 1999 (1989)

Class Of 1999, also directed by Class Of 1984’s Mark L. Lester, is sort of the Dawn Of The Dead to 1984’s Night Of The Living Dead. In this loose sequel, the teen gangs of Lester’s previous film have triumphed, overthrowing the American educational system and, in turn, America itself. In a post-apocalyptic Seattle ruled by leather-clad punk rockers, the area around Kennedy High School is a “free-fire zone” where military forces (barely) maintain order with checkpoints and snipers on the school roof. In order to regain control, principal Dr. Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell, completing his journey from teen rebel to the Man himself) hires the very ’80s Megatech corporation to install Terminator-esque cyborg teachers played by Pam Grier, John Ryan, and Patrick Kilpatrick in his classrooms. Despite this inspired idea of letting robotic killing machines teach biology, things take a turn for the homicidal rather quickly, sparking a new student rebellion. [Katie Rife]


9. The Substitute (1996)

Like Class Of 1999, The Substitute posits that when it comes to disciplining teenage gang members (the “inner city” is implied), there’s no such thing as excessive force. Tom Berenger’s Shale isn’t quite “homicidal cyborg” extreme, but he’s close enough, a mercenary for hire who launches an elaborate and brutal revenge scheme after the members of a gang called the Kings Of Destruction attack his schoolteacher girlfriend Jane (Diane Venora) during her morning jog. Posing as a substitute teacher, Shale takes over Jane’s class, and over the objections of the school principal (Ernie Hudson), teaches the bandanna-wearing, ice pick-wielding, mostly black and Latino student body a thing or two about both Vietnam and the phrase “by any means necessary.” The racial implications of The Substitute are uncomfortable (to put it mildly), but white man’s revenge sells, apparently. Three direct-to-video sequels were released before the series ran its bloodthirsty course. [Katie Rife]


10. The Principal (1987)

James Belushi’s Rick Latimer in 1987’s The Principal is not the usual idealistic educator featured in most tales of teachers versus students. When Rick is banished to a tough inner-city school due to a violent incident with his ex-wife’s boyfriend, he doesn’t come in to the school to make a difference in the kids’ lives. He’s just looking for a way out himself. Then Rick takes a liking to a few of the students and declares a moratorium against drugs, fighting, and violence. Of course, gang leader Victor Duncan protests, and Rick, along with a security guard played by Louis Gossett Jr., spends the film’s running time in a battle for the soul of the school. The Principal is certainly more of a cartoon than Over The Edge, and Belushi resembles a hard-drinking, play-by-his-own-rules ’80s cop with his leather jacket, disgusting apartment, and motorbike. The film’s message that learning is good and violence bad gets lost among the film’s more over-the-top action moments, like when Belushi rides his motorcycle through the halls of the school. The Principal may not have the gravitas of other films in the subgenre, but it’s still a campy good time. [Mike Vanderbilt]


11. Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973)

The second in the floridly titled Terrifying Girls’ High School series, Lynch Law Classroom doesn’t follow the same “teacher arrives at rough school, teacher is threatened by unruly teen gang, teacher fights back” pattern as many films of this type. Instead, the conflict here is between the delinquent students at an all-female reform school known as the “School Of Hope.” The school is run by the sadistic “disciplinary committee,” a gang of really mean girls who slowly drain one troublemaker of her blood in the opening scene. When a hard-bitten teenage yakuza known as “Noriko The Cross” (Miki Sugimoto) is committed to the school, her classmates beg her to help them end the committee’s torturous reign. Noriko, thirsty for vengeance for her best friend—who, as it turns out, was recently murdered by the committee—agrees. Eventually, the student body riots and displaces the evil committee and their friends in the administration. But first, because this is a “pinky violence” movie (a blend of female-led action and softcore sexploitation), there’s a series of fetishistic sex scenes to get through. [Katie Rife]


12. Light It Up (1999)

No one’s idea of a classic film, Light It Up was a late-’90s vehicle for pop star Usher (née Raymond), who was trying to break into film by demonstrating his leading-man potential. Instead, audiences were treated to a milquetoast story of students overcoming adversity, but not actors overcoming a wobbly script and their own uneven talent ranges. Usher (along with fellow students Rosario Dawson and Sara Gilbert, among others) plays good kid Lester Dewitt, who attends the kind of run-down inner-city high school that is the stuff of education reformers’ nightmares: broken windows, missing textbooks, and no heat in the middle of winter. The Breakfast Club’s Judd Nelson graduates to teacher status, as a misunderstanding with his good-hearted students and the school security (toplined by a gruff Forest Whitaker) leads to a hostage situation led by the students. Soon, they’ve barricaded themselves in the library, and are emailing their eminently reasonable demands to CNN while a SWAT team encircles the building. Everything doesn’t end in sunshine and college-acceptance letters, but then, this is a message movie, not wish fulfillment. For audiences, wish fulfillment would have entailed a more daring story. [Alex McCown]


13. Matilda (1996)

Intelligent, precocious children in literature habitually undermine those in authority, their wiles and wit superior to the dumb adults around them. Roald Dahl’s Matilda sees the heroine first bullied by her dumb, lecturing father and misunderstood by her dumb, shallow mother, but it’s not until she arrives at school that she’s able to take power away from a tyrannical oppressor. Played by an excellently sneering Pam Ferris in the movie adaptation, Headmistress Trunchbull’s abuse includes swinging girls around by their pigtails and locking students in the chokey, and it extends to the fully-grown Miss Honey, Matilda’s sweet-as-her-name teacher and Trunchbull’s niece. Luckily, Matilda has telekinesis in addition to brilliance, and she graduates from pulling petty pranks to haunting Trunchbull and sowing enough discord in the school so she’s driven out once and for all. Combining the sweet victory of overthrowing a petty dictator and a food fight, Matilda uses her powers to give her fellow students a well-deserved catharsis in the form of dropping lunch boxes from their cubbies, prompting the students to pelt Trunchbull with their food and drive her out of the school for good. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


14. The Simpsons, “Skinner’s Sense Of Snow” (2000)

When a blizzard traps the students of Springfield Elementary at school—on the last day before Christmas break, no less—Principal Skinner calls on his questionable military leadership experience to keep the unruly students in line. His no-nonsense approach briefly works, until Bart digs a snow tunnel through the drifts surrounding the windows and doors. Skinner gets trapped in the tunnel retrieving him, and the resentful kids waste no time relagating Skinner to another familiar status: POW. (At one point, Bart orders Skinner to write lines on the chalkboard, yelling at him, “Di di mau!”—Vietnamese for “Hurry up.”) Bound in a kickball bag, he’s impotent in the face of hijinks, as the kids burn books, gorge on the scant remaining food, and turn the school into a giant playground. [Kyle Ryan]


15. Saved By The Bell, “Student Teacher Week” (1992)

The student takeover of Bayside High is a school-sanctioned one, putting this episode in Freaky Friday territory rather than Lord Of The Flies. Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen), Lisa (Lark Voorhies), and Screech (Dustin Diamond) get to play teacher for a week after winning an essay contest, with Kelly teaching history and the other two leading the dodgeball activities. Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is named student principal so that Dennis Haskins can run around in a denim tuxedo, pretending to be a teenager. Naturally, Zack starts abusing his power before the first LL Cool J poster goes up in Mr. Belding’s office, but he soon finds himself mediating a fight among friends after Slater (Mario Lopez) ditches Kelly’s class on test day. Principal Zack suspends Slater, who responds with an angry mob that includes Lisa and Screech. Zack reminds everyone about their friendship and mutual respect for each other and the episode ends with passing grades and a victory over Valley, because these kids are all right. [Danette Chavez]


16. Growing Pains, “Mike, The Teacher” (1990)

Mike Seaver, the smart-ass underachiever played by Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains, is the kind of twerp you’d expect to lead a student uprising. But in “Mike, The Teacher,” he’s fighting on the side of authority. A flu outbreak leads Mike’s old high school to put out a desperate call for substitute teachers, and since his college classes are canceled (thanks to the same epidemic), Mike figures he can play educator for a day and pocket a quick 50 bucks. Karma’s a bitch, though, and Mike ends up trying to corral a classroom filled with aspiring Mike Seavers—unruly shits who proudly refuse to listen. Mike tries to play it cool with the kids, to no avail, and his long-suffering former principal savors the irony. Only in the closing hours of the school day does Mike learn the trick to controlling rambunctious teenagers: Yell at them until they calm down and shut up. Students rule the school? Not on Mike Seaver’s watch. [John Teti]


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