Early on in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Da Mayor, as played by Ossie Davis, and Mookie, as played by Spike Lee, have this very short exchange. Mookie is hustling down the “ghetto” block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, delivering a pizza (his job), and Da Mayor (the block drunkard) is sittin’ on a stoop, half hung-over and watching the kids on the block.
Da Mayor: Doctor.
Mookie: C’mon, what? What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it. I’m gone.
This short exchange is the essence of the movie. It is the essence of life. It is the essence of a teacher’s job. Da Mayor is a disrespected elder who, in fact, is the most respectable character in the movie because of how he acts toward others. Mookie is a good kid trying to figure out where he fits in the battle between the two cultures in which he must live. He isn’t sure if he wants to be in the mainstream culture, as represented by his sister, or the street culture of “Radio Raheem” and “Buggin Out.” It is summertime. We don’t know his school behavior, or if he is still in school. We do know he slacks off, but still “just wants to get paid.” Mookie is trying to code switch.
Teachers are Da Mayor. Mookie is one of our kids. How do we teach him to “do the right thing”? Da Mayor, ultimately, cannot, because he is a “an old drunk zero.” His actions don’t match his words. Do ours as teachers, parents, or bosses? Words are only respected if they match actions. We do not want to be known as a, “Do as I say, not as I do” kind. For students to come over to the “right” side, we must model the behavior we expect. Only then, will we develop character, not characters, in our classrooms.