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Why ‘One Eight Seven’ Is Secretly One of the Best Teacher Movies of All Time

In the 1997 thriller, Samuel L. Jackson plays a dedicated high school teacher who turns into a student-killer. It sounds preposterous, but it’s smarter than it appears.

Ringer illustration

Each August, I get this feeling in my chest. It’s not a nervous energy, but it’s also not a not nervous energy, if that makes any sense. It’s there because my body starts to feel that it's nearly time for the new school year to start. For the past two years, I keep expecting for that feeling to not be there—I was a teacher from 2006 to 2015, but left the profession in the summer of 2015 to be a writer full time—but it keeps showing up.

Sometimes I’ll have dreams that I’m still a teacher (the dreams are almost always me in a classroom while the kids are wild and out of control and refuse to listen to me, which I’m sure means something). Occasionally—and this is probably very sad, or maybe it’s just embarrassing—I will go for breakfast at the taqueria across the street from the school I used to teach at (despite the fact that it’s a 30-minute drive from my house, during which I pass up multiple other taquerias) just to try to absorb some of the Educator Vibes from the the campus atmosphere. I just miss the job a bunch, is all.

Teaching was (is) an incredibly difficult job. All of the criticisms you hear about it from people who care about doing it are absolutely true. The pay is too low. The headaches and heartaches are too plentiful. Ideas and thoughts and concerns and insights offered by teachers about how to best reach students are often overlooked or ignored by the administration in favor of implementing some toothless buzzword silliness that someone without any classroom experience came up with. (Prior to the start of the school year, somebody in a suit will stand in a large room with a bunch of teachers sitting at tables grouped together by subject and say something like, “This year we really want teachers to try to focus on pairing higher-order thinking skills with the activation and integration of cooperative learning in technology.” Then a teacher will raise his or her hand and say, “That sounds really good, but what are we going to do about some of us not having enough chairs in class for the number of students we have? I had to buy three chairs last year from Walmart because there weren’t any extras on campus and I didn’t want my students to have to sit on the floor.” Then the suit will say something like, “Oh. Well, we’ll look into that for you.”)

Now, the part that’s strange for teachers (or, at least for the ones who are invested in the job) is that all of that bad stuff gets neutralized (and occasionally even erased) by the relationships they get to form with the students, which is a truly powerful and impactful thing. What’s asked of you by those outside of the classroom becomes little more than background fodder. Because you’re in those rooms, looking at those kids, talking to them, and emoting with them. Maybe you don’t intend to become as attached as you do to them, but it always ends up happening. You spend days, weeks, months, a full school year watching them, trying to get them to understand that they have value and are important while also trying to figure out how to make them feel like they’re more than whatever test scores they can produce for you. By the end of it, on that day when you get to tell them they passed for the year (or have to tell them they failed for the year), there’s this great big emotional knot you have inside of you. That’s really all that makes it worth it. And I think that’s why One Eight Seven, which is a ridiculous teacher movie that came out 20 years ago, is so compelling.

In the film, Samuel L. Jackson plays Trevor Garfield, a dedicated, caring high school science teacher at a very bad school in Brooklyn. That sounds like the skeleton of just about every teacher movie (Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, etc.), except that in One Eight Seven things go extra-sideways. After finding threats of murder scribbled into a textbook, Garfield tries to alert the administration that his life is in danger. He gets ignored and goes back to work, and shortly thereafter he’s attacked in the hallway (he gets stabbed multiple times in the back with a shiv). He survives, and he even goes back to teaching (he moves to Los Angeles and becomes a substitute teacher at a similarly bad school), but things (understandably) aren’t the same. It’s not that he’s afraid—in fact, it’s the opposite of that. His body won’t produce fear anymore, same as it won’t allow him to produce any of the other emotions a person needs to be a very good teacher.

His instincts still push him in the right direction. For example: He makes a home visit in an effort to connect with Cesar, the movie’s main bad-guy student. And he begins privately tutoring a student he believes has the skill to excel in academia but lacks a support system. But, ultimately, he just can’t get there. He can’t find it in him anymore to do the only job he ever wanted to do. And he snaps.

Very wild things start to happen—we find out late in the movie that Garfield’s attack ate away nearly all the best parts of him, and so he ends up becoming a murderer, going from school to school as a substitute teacher and killing students who pose threats to their schools and surrounding communities. There’s a part in One Eight Seven where Garfield kills a student that’s a leader of a gang (it happens off screen, but he admits to it later), and there’s another part where he shoots a different student with an arrow filled with morphine and then cuts that student’s finger off (it’s Cesar), tattoos a message on it, sends it to the hospital in an envelope so Cesar can get it reattached, then teaches a lesson all about hands and fingers when Cesar returns to class. And then finally the movie ends when Cesar breaks into Garfield’s house with two other members of his gang and forces him to play Russian roulette.

And that’s the part that really pulls at you. Because, OK, for sure, absolutely definitely, Garfield killing students is dumb. And there have been other teacher movies where wild things like that have happened. In 1993’s Only the Strong, for example, Mark Dacascos teaches capoeira to students in an inner-city school and also he defeats a criminal organization while he’s at it, too. In 1996’s The Substitute, Tom Berenger goes undercover as a substitute teacher to stop a drug-running ring and there’s a part in it where he throws several people out of a second-story window, students included. In the 2008 German movie The Wave, a high school teacher forms a Nazi-like regime with one of his classes, which ends when one of the students commits suicide. And those are all movies where the action is supposed to be the plot (or, at least, supposed to supplement the plot). But in One Eight Seven, the killings are supposed to be dumb in the same way that Patrick Bateman killing people in American Psycho is supposed to be dumb, in that it is actually smart because the killings aren’t ever about killing, they are there to serve as a commentary on things entirely unrelated to murder.

Watching Garfield in that Russian roulette scene (and in the scene before that where he gets fired by the principal and starts crying silently because even though he can’t summon the strength or courage to be a good teacher again, he certainly wants to be a good teacher again), it’s mesmerizing to see him sort through all of those emotions and finally admit that he can’t do it anymore, which means that his life no longer means anything. Eventually, Garfield ends up killing himself, and he does so as one final attempt to save Cesar (him and Cesar take turns putting the gun up to their heads and pulling the trigger; Garfield decides to take Cesar’s final turn for him, which ends up firing off one of the two bullets loaded into the gun). And what’s really wild is that Cesar decides that, even though he’s won, he has to take that one final turn because Garfield took his, and so Cesar ends up killing himself, too, when that second bullet in the gun gets fired, making Garfield’s sacrifice pointless. And, really, that’s the whole point of the movie: That sometimes, no matter what you do or try as a teacher, you just won’t be able to save students from themselves, or from their lives.

And that may be the most devastating thing for teachers to have to consider, and to accept.