Many of us can remember a teacher we had growing up that had a profound effect on us. The ones who stayed late to help us with assignments, who valued our ideas, or who let us vent to them on bad days. The 2003 cult-classic School of Rock offers a heartwarming story about teacher-student relationships in an unexpected and hilarious package. Throughout the movie, Jack Black‘s Dewey Finn evolves from a free-loading free spirit into a dedicated educator, and through the growth of the Horace Green students, we’re taught that there are no bad kids, but rather kids that need an outlet and somebody to encourage them. In a prep school that focuses on discipline and gold stars above creativity and positive student-teacher bonds, the relationship between Dewey and his students provides both parties with what they’ve needed all along: someone who believes in them and appreciates everything they have to offer.
One of the things that makes Dewey a great teacher is his surprising knack for working with kids. Despite starting the movie as a self-absorbed artist using the job and the students for his personal gain, he treats the kids as his equals without any sense of a superiority complex. Something of a child himself, Dewey connects to the students through his unpolished nature and his propensity to speak his mind with no filter. Unlike the other adults at Horace Green prep, he notices the kids’ individual interests and finds strength where others may find weaknesses. For example, Summer’s (Miranda Cosgrove) bossiness is what makes her an exceptional leader and band manager, and Freddy’s (Kevin Clark) energy and spunk are part of what makes him a great drummer.
Dewey also possesses a natural instinct for teaching. He’s a master of balancing compliments while also offering constructive criticism, as he teaches the kids to loosen up and feel the music. As much as he wants to win the Battle of the Bands, he also genuinely wants to teach the students to be confident and proud. He comes to care deeply about each of them, which we can especially see when he flips out at Freddy after the latter sneaks out of the audition to play cards with some older musicians in the back of a van.
Of course, Dewey’s transformation into a teacher wouldn’t have been possible without the students that made him one. Most of the School of Rock kids were cast by director Richard Linklater based on their musical abilities, and for many of them, it was their first and last major acting role. Because of this, what we get from their performances —aside from the musical mastery— is a group of kids who are perfectly tense and a bit awkward, just like the prep school students they play that were never allowed to really let go. They go from a group of overcorrected, cautious students to a band of full-fledged rockers, and all of their performances feel totally believable.
Throughout the film, the kids learn valuable life lessons from Dewey as he helps them overcome their insecurities and assures them that there’s nothing wrong with who they are. After seeing the strained relationship that Zack (Joey Gaydos Jr.) has with his overbearing father, Dewey helps him learn how to embrace imperfection and stick it to the man. He never even mentions Zack’s dad, but as Dewey sings “Step Off,” he helps give Zack the emotional tools needed to stand up for himself. Reserved pianist Lawrence (Robert Tsai) comes out of his shell as Dewey takes the time to nurture his confidence and shows him that he’s cool just as he is. Dewey even embraces his own vulnerability when he helps powerhouse-belter Tomika (Maryam Hassan) overcome her body insecurity, while never dismissing her feelings. While a student like Freddy Jones does not exactly struggle with insecurity like some of his aforementioned peers, through Dewey’s teachings he is given a sense of purpose, and he learns to apply himself and be dedicated to something.
Finally, just as these kids learn from Dewey, he learns just as much from them. He begins the movie as a selfish performer who takes every chance to bask in the spotlight, but by the end, he lets go of his ego as he insists on playing Zack’s song at Battle of the Bands and shares solo time with the kids. When he’s talking to the real Ned Schneebly (Mike White) near the end of the film, Dewey lights up as he talks about all his students, and we can see how much he’s grown as he learns to care about someone else than himself.
For all these reasons, School of Rock strikes a particular chord with those of us who spent our school days drumming on our desks and doodling in the margins. After nearly twenty years, we still come back to this movie because Dewey Finn feels like a teacher we all wish we had as we waited for the bell to ring so that we could get on with whatever creative endeavor fueled us. And so, as we roll tonight, to the guitar bite, we can send a thank you to every Jack Black-esque teacher that shaped us on our journeys to find ourselves, embrace our differences, and kick some ass.