August 03, 2010
By Chris Hale
“Who are the most memorable fictional history teachers in film, television, and novels?”
Please share your thoughts here or on the discussion page, and read on below for one profile of a memorable fictional history teacher. (Update: we’re receiving most responses on the AHA Facebook page wall)
In the classic 80s comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mr. Hand (brilliantly played by Ray Walston) was the arch-nemesis of stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli (legendarily played by Sean Penn).
Mr. Hand taught American History at the titular high school, was a humorless disciplinarian, and was convinced that every one of his students was on dope. Walston and Penn had brilliant chemistry together and their scenes are standouts in a film, written by Cameron Crowe, overflowing with classic comedic vignettes showcasing the travails of modern teenage life.
Though presented in a comedic manner, Mr. Hand comes across as a teacher that could exist in the real world. Unlike most other films in the teenage film genre which rely heavily on the overused “buffoonish authority figure” trope (Mr. Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for example) , Mr. Hand is authoritarian but not cartoonish and never mocked in the film; instead he’s portrayed as a stern instructor who, though out of touch with the apathetic students of Ridgemont High, is desperate to teach them some aspect of American History because he actually does care about them, though not in an obvious or maudlin way.
He sees their apathy as a form of self-induced ignorance and has no tolerance for it. This is evident in the scene near the end of the film when Mr. Hand shows up at Spicoli’s house just as Spicoli is leaving for the graduation dance (a hilarious moment because it references Mr. Hand’s introductory statement at the beginning of the film, in which he tells his students that they will not waste his time in his class much in the same way they wouldn’t want him showing up at their homes to teach them American History) to give him a lesson on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence (the look on Senn Penn’s face when Mr. Hand presents him with his copy of the text book “Land of Truth and Liberty” is arguably the funniest shot in the entire film).
The fact that Mr. Hand actually succeeds in getting this subject across to Spicoli (Spicoli’s “loose” interpretation of the Declaration of Independence is another classic comedic moment) speaks volumes about his dedication and teaching abilities, and when he tells Spicoli that he’ll “probably squeak by” (referring not only literally to Spicoli’s passing of Mr. Hand’s class, but also metaphorically to Spicoli’s future in general), he shows that he somewhat cares for the obtuse stoner. Though we never get an inkling of his personal life, Mr. Hand, is, in my opinion, one of the most realistic teachers ever presented on film.