The Man Who Inspired This 80's Movie Changed My Life

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

You may know Joe Clark as the impassioned former principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ who inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me. To me he is much more.



Morgan Freeman (left) and Joe Clark (right).

Nia Hamm | @niaahamm

If you grew up in the 80's or 90's you may have seen the movie, Lean On Me (I'm really showing my age). The film is based on the true story of former Eastside High School principle, Joe Clark. Clark’s character is played by Morgan Freeman, who depicts Clark as a mean-tempered yet caring teacher who returns as principal to the Patterson, New Jersey high school he had previously been fired from to find it overrun with drug abuse, gang violence and urban decay.


Although Clark’s unorthodox teaching and administrative methods result in a clash with city officials, his approach also leads to a rebirth of learning and achievement within the school walls, showing students who once had no hope, that they too can achieve their full potential. Anyone who knows Clark was unlikely to be surprised that he demanded the best of anyone under his instruction. He is also the father of Olympic track athletes Joetta Clark Diggs and Hazel Clark.


When I was a little girl, the real Joe Clark was also family friend and he would often visit my cousin’s home when he was in town. One day when Mr. Clark and I were visiting my cousin on the same day, he said that he was going to give me a word to memorize and that I should never forget it. At the time I felt as if he was going to bestow some sort of mystical secrete on me. The word was pertinacious. It means holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action. In other words, to be pertinacious means to be persistent or tenacious.


Morgan Freeman playing Joe Clark in the 1989 film Lean On Me

At the time I don't think I understood just how much of an impact that one word would have on the rest of my life. The word’s importance and value would become more clear as my relationship with fear became more complicated. There have been times in my life where I have wanted to be just the opposite of pertinacious and give up, especially when faced with significant challenges. My fear of failure has often centered around inadequacy, rejection and pain. It has caused me to doubt my own potential and in some cases that has stunted my own growth. Sometimes the disappointment bred by remaining stagnant is easier to bear than the fear of failure.


Fear is one of the most powerful and influential forces in life. It impacts your decisions, actions outcomes. According to psychology experts, fear is meant to protect you, but it often serves as an obstacle that stands between you and your goals. Indeed, successful people are often those who know how to control their fear.


And while there are times where I have given up on certain things, particularly when I felt as if I wasn’t good enough, the idea of doing so never sat well with me. It was almost as if it was difficult for me to exist knowing I had left something unaccomplished. Ever since that chance encounter with Mr. Clark, I have felt compelled to be pertinacious in spite of my fear of failure. I think this is part of the reason I continue to push forward with my goals or dreams, even when I lack the confidence I believe is required to achieve them.



One thing that can be more powerful than fear is encouragement. That is what Mr. Clark gave me when he told me memorize, and in essence, internalize the word pertinacious. The impressionable years of childhood and adolescence are when foundations are laid that significantly shape the path a person takes in life. This is true about both negative and positive experiences. While unpleasant circumstances can hinder a person’s growth, pleasant encounters like the encouragement I received from Mr. Clark as a young girl can be far more influential on a child who becomes an adult. This is why I believe that despite my fear of failure as well as the experiences of rejection, judgement and pain that have only served to feed that fear, my internalization of what it means to be pertinacious has always made me feel compelled push forward. Even if it took years to achieve a goal or dream, including applying to graduate school, becoming a television reporter or getting married.


All these years later I realized that Mr. Clark was giving me the tools needed to muster the motivation required when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. He understood that there was nothing separating me from the next wildly successful person but amount of desire and tenacity it would take for me to also achieve whatever level of success I set as my own personal goal. This is what he sought to teach his students and this is the message delivered in the movie, Lean On Me, which was based on his own life.



When people don't believe in their own potential, their lack of confidence manifests in their quality of life. They stunt their own growth. They block their own benefits. They stand in their own way. They don't take a chance on themselves. And they do not strive to reach their full potential. On the other hand if a person’s resolve to achieve a certain goal is greater than their own weaknesses, including their lack of confidence or fear of failure, than they absolutely have everything they need to achieve their goal. Fear is a natural perfectly normal emotion. It’s how we operate in the face of fear that determines an outcome.


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