David Van Biema and Gavin Moses
March 27, 1989 12:00 PM

It is 9:15 on Monday morning, but some 250 students from Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., are not in school. They are marching on the offices of the Board of Education, carrying signs announcing that IF MR. CLARK LEAVES, WE LEAVE!

The fact that Mr. Clark, their newly legendary bullhorn-and-baseball-bat-wielding principal, recently booked a show involving near-nudity into the school may have upset some people, but it has not diminished these students’ affection for him. “We want Joe!” they shout. “We want Joe!” Believing that Clark has been suspended by the board, they are marching to demand that he be reinstated. The scene looks like something from a movie.

A particular movie. As the film Lean on Me completes its second week atop the box office chart, millions will see the Joe Clark character—played by actor Morgan Freeman-jailed for his unorthodox efforts to turn Eastside High around. They will see his loving students threaten to riot if he is not returned to them. The kids on their way to the Board of Ed today have seen that movie. Some of them were extras when it was filmed here. Now they think that history is repeating itself. And the foremost educator in their lives is not around to enlighten them.

Joe Clark is not in jail; he is spending his first day of paid suspension on Good Morning America. And the board has not suspended him. In the words of his personal manager (yes, he has a personal manager, as well as an agent), “He suspended himself.” Then he called a press conference to announce it. Two days before his students hit the streets to display their solidarity with him, the most famous high school principal in America was chatting in his office with a reporter, philosophically discussing his plans to stop being a high school principal, to explore—as he called them—”options.”

“Maybe in June, I will take some kind of action as far as permanently or temporarily terminating this experience,” said Clark. That’s the way he talks—like in the movie. “At the end of this school year, I could be out of here. I could be rewarded commensurately with the expectations of my toils. I could hit the lecture circuit and make five times what I’m making now. I’m a private person. But I’m great on TV. And I think, privately, honestly, that maybe I’ve outgrown the job anyway.”

Few Americans are unfamiliar with the bare bones of Joe Clark’s myth. How, born in Georgia and raised in Newark, he rose to become an elementary school teacher in Paterson and then, when no one else could do the job, the principal of drug-infested, violence-prone Eastside High. How, brandishing his megaphone and Louisville Slugger, he “expurgated” hundreds of students and dozens of teachers he thought were deadweight, clashed with the school board and eventually turned the school into a sanctuary of order and school spirit. The public may also remember his appearances on Donahue and Nightline and his popularity with Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Knowing all these things, the public, and Eastside students, might wonder what would cause Clark to give up the calling he pursued with a crusader’s enthusiasm.

Clark says the idea came to him because of reaction to the striptease. The striptease happened last month when he was away, on the West Coast, doing the Arsenic Hall show. Before he left, Clark had scheduled an assembly for 11th and 12th graders: a variety show to be produced by Eric Floyd, a young graduate of TV’s Fame And an aspiring “Las Vegas-Atlantic City showstopper.” Floyd’s show had played Eastside once before without incident. But then it had not included an act called “The Goddess of Rap,” in which Floyd’s fiancée, Wanda-Dee, performs with four muscular male dancers. In that number, as the dancers stood with their backs to the audience, Wanda ripped their pants off, revealing (clotheswise) only silver G-strings. The crowd of 16-and 17-year-olds screamed delightedly; the assistant principal on duty rang down the curtain.

At any other high school, this would have caused a furor; at Joe Clark’s school, it caused a media event. Eric Floyd happened to have a videotape of the incident, and he offered it to local television stations, which broadcast it. There were complaints to various public officials, some of whom said that someone should be suspended. Clark volunteered to take a five-day suspension—with pay. Then he told the press he might quit. “I just don’t want to put up with the crap,” he announced.

At that point the Joe Clark myth came up for a bit of reexamination. Local newspapers pointed out that, his heroic image on film notwithstanding, Clark had been unable to raise Eastside students’ miserable test scores; that one of his aides, the disciplinarian known in the movie as “Mr. Wright,” was wanted for allegedly forging a check; that teacher morale at his school was low—more than 150 of 300 faculty members had either left or been purged during his busy seven-year reign.

Although the majority of Patersonians still seem to support the man who recently made their town famous, critical voices could now be heard clearly. Though some objected only to the striptease, others saw it as a symptom of a shift in Clark’s energies from Eastside to Hollywood. “I like him as a principal,” said 11th grader Sakara Fritts, “but his public speaking all the time is not good. We [should] come first.” Commented Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves Jr.: “Joe Clark built a foundation. But the foundation is crumbling and eroding. I say, ‘Get back with us, Joe. Be one of us.’ ” The City Council felt differently. It passed a resolution calling on the school board and superintendant to terminate Clark.

Say this for Joe Clark: He doesn’t take criticism lightly. “This is nothing more than a toxic cynicism perpetrated by jealous, invidious, insidious, surreptitious sapsuckers,” he says. “But my charge is to not let them dilute my vigor and vim but to fight on. Although they have tried with greatest assiduity to render me impotent, my spirit lingers on.”

For the moment, at least, so does he. “The one thing that might keep me here” is to confound the sapsuckers, he says, but he is ready for something completely different. As he toured various inner cities on his speech-making rounds, he had a doleful revelation. He concluded that his inability to make his students academically competitive was not his problem; it was the system’s. “I see a system,” he says, “that perpetuates inferiority in the inner cities. With inadequate teachers, inadequate supplies, inadequate leadership. I see black and Hispanic youth being exploited. I see now that I’m helpless in raising the educational standards to a reasonable degree at Eastside or anywhere in an inner city. And that tells me, ‘Joe Clark, maybe you don’t want to be part of the destructive mechanism.’ ”

He talks now about running an educational foundation, or “renegotiating my Republican stature” with the Bush Administration. “I don’t want to shoot my mouth off,” he says, “but I would be interested in doing something that could be of consequence to the nation.” And if Clark does leave Eastside High, he says, he hopes “the damn place blows to smithereens.”

The Eastside student contingent, which knows nothing of Clark’s national aspirations, has reached the Board of Education building, where they occupy a conference room. They stand on tables. They sing the school anthem and Bill Withers’s song, the movie theme,”…we all need somebody to lean on.” NBC was here. CNN will be too. Nobody paid attention to these kids until they encountered Joe Clark; and look—now they have walked right into a movie! And if the movie ended happily, then so must their stories! “We want Clark! We want Clark!”

Clark sits in his little office with the bullhorn and bat that may soon become part of his fondly recollected past. He liked the movie too. It helped him. But he would never make the mistake of confusing it with reality. The film’s exaggeration of his students’ test scores, for instance; that was obviously false. But it’s all right, says Joe Clark. “It’s an industry. It’s a business. It’s entertainment. And the design of entertainment is to make people happy. There’s enough sadness in one’s life. Once in a while you must extract a reasonable facsimile of glee, as factitious as it may be.”

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