The protagonist of Lean on Me is Joe Clark, an African-American male in his early forties. The film, based on a true story, shows how Clark, played by actor Morgan Freeman, used unorthodox methods to bring about much-needed change at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. Although Clark is in almost every scene in the film, the audience sees only the professional side of this character. We learn nothing about his religion, marital status, or living situation. With respect to educational level, we know he must have at least a bachelor's degree to teach in the public school system and at least a master's to be a principal. Clark is extremely articulate and speaks formally at times, using vocabulary designed to emphasize his status as both educated and an educator.
The film opening is set at Eastside High in 1967. Clark is in front of a classroom full of white students. While all the boys are wearing oxford shirts and ties, Clark is dressed in a brightly colored dashiki shirt. The shirt is meant to make a strong statement. It shows Clark's pride in his African heritage. It also shows his penchant for the unconventional and perhaps even his desire to thumb his nose at authority. One can assume the wearing of such a garment would have been considered radical, particularly in a white school at a time when racial tensions ran high in the United States. It was such an overt symbol of the Black Pride movement. That Clark was apparently allowed to wear the shirt without challenge speaks to his success as a classroom teacher. In the opening scene, it is clear that he is an enthusiastic, high-energy educator who is well-liked and well-respected by his students. Clark has a strong connection to them, even though their backgrounds are probably quite different.
When Clark is asked to return to Eastside twenty years later, it is to a school that is predominantly African-American. It is a frightening, lawless place, and a stark contrast to the kind of school it had been just two decades before. Clark tries to connect with all students in order to affect change; two relationships explored in the film are with a girl called Kaneesha and a boy called Thomas Sams. Clark has their best interests at heart, but he relates to each student in a very different way.
Kaneesha and Clark have a history; Clark was Kaneesha's fifth grade teacher. Kaneesha is a very sweet girl with a ready smile. She is proud to know Clark and to have been one of his students. Kaneesha wants to do well in school and she is always concerned at the first sign of trouble. For example, when a student gets shoved into a locker during the chaotic time before Clark became principal, Kaneesha becomes visibly upset and runs for help, even though the plight of the student is ignored by everyone else, including a school custodian. Clark treats Kaneesha with extreme gentleness. When he speaks to her, his voice is soft. He personally pays a call on Kaneesha's mother to find out why Kaneesha has been asked to leave the home. When Kaneesha confides to Clark that she is pregnant and tearfully tells him she does not know what to do, Clark comforts her and promises that, with the help of Kaneesha's mother, they will work together and make the right choice.
Clark is very tough on young Thomas Sams, who appears to be about the same age as Kaneesha. Sams is one of the boys Clark bans from the school because of bad behavior, but Sams approaches Clark and tearfully begs to be let back in because he is too afraid to tell his mother what has happened. Clark agrees, but only after bullying Sams into making promises about applying himself to his studies and staying out of trouble. Clark demonstrates he does not make threats he does not intend to keep; throughout the film, Clark watches Sams carefully and immediately reprimands him if he is not doing as he should. In one scene, Clark humiliates Sams by holding him up as an example of a "slovenly, sloppy boy" (Avildsen) in front of the entire cafeteria full of students. Sams appears afraid of Clark's wrath but also understands the emotions behind it.
The two most significant groups to which Clark belongs are his fellow educators and the community of Paterson. Clark manages to alienate the teachers at Eastside from the time he takes on his new role. His introduction to the Eastside faculty consists of a monologue in which he berates teachers for their role in the failure of the school. He demotes the football coach in front of everyone. He does not allow anyone the opportunity to speak. Clearly the faculty feels bullied and scared.
It is not a surprise to the audience to see this side of Clark. Although he appeared charming and likeable with his class in the opening scene of the film, there was also the moment a colleague called him out of class to speak about a union issue. Clark's temper exploded. He shouted in the halls of Eastside and stood on a table at a meeting with the superintendent. Clark is shown to be a man of strong passions who is not afraid to speak his mind. He wants what is best for his students, but he comes across as arrogant, stubborn, and inflexible. As the story unfolds, Clark angers teachers and staff because he believes he knows best. He definitely asserts himself as a leader and makes no room for others' ideas. He grudgingly praises the music teacher when she changes the school anthem. There is no democracy in the running of Eastside High School.
Clark also stands up to the community. The "roaming groups of miscreants, hoodlums and thugs disguised as students" (Clark, 1988, p. 122) come from economically-depressed neighborhoods surrounding Eastside, where violence, drugs and gangs are a way of life. In the film, the community is represented by several characters, each of whom has a different agenda. Paterson's mayor is concerned about Eastside's low test scores and how they will impact his ability to get re-elected. The school superintendent has faith that Clark can turn Eastside around and supports his methods. A disgruntled parent, Mrs. Barrett, deplores Clark's methods. Angry that her child was one of the "thugs" kicked out of school, she vows to have Clark removed. She continually professes to want what is best for the children of Paterson, but the character comes across as angry and one-dimensional, demanding change but not suggesting any alternatives. Mrs. Barrett gets herself appointed to the school board and she and the mayor form an alliance so they can each get what they want. It is a powerful pairing that Clark cannot overcome, even with the support of students, the faculty members who have grown to appreciate what he has accomplished, and members of the school administration, such as the superintendent and district lawyer. Clark is arrested in the halls of Eastside because he openly defied fire regulations. Such regulations need to be in place; had there been a fire at Eastside when the doors were chained, it would have been a great tragedy. From Clark's perspective, he believed changes could not be made in the school unless troublemakers were kept out. There was simply not enough staff at the school to keep watch on all doorways. Perhaps if the city could have provided additional security, Clark would not have had to resort to such measures.
Based on the film, one can look only superficially at the six life domains in person-centered strengths-based assessment of Joe Clark. The audience is simply not given enough information about Clark's personal life and circumstances. However, based on the characteristics and actions the audience does see, one can make some informed guesses.
With respect to Clark's life and daily living situation, we can surmise that his basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are being met. Clark appears to be healthy and fit. In the scene where he is jumping rope with students, he is able to carry on a conversation while undertaking a fairly rigorous activity. Clark is always well-groomed and wears beautifully tailored suits. He is very aware of the image he is projecting to his community and his students. He clearly projects the image of a man in charge. Because the audience knows nothing about Clark's personal life, we must assume he lives within his means. Money is not his motivation. He is following a higher calling to improve the lives of his students. He is educated, results-oriented, and passionate about his work. It seems reasonable to assume that he will always be employed and thus be assured that his basic life needs are met.
With respect to the vocational/educational domain, Clark is obviously an educated man. The audience knows this because of the position he holds in the school and also by the…