Lean On Me

By English Teacher Nan Thomas

Dr. Joe Clark

What began as an off-the-cuff comment between friends that a shared acquaintance provides lawn pest control services to famous former school principal Joe Clark, led to a hand delivered letter to a most remarkable man. A phone call soon followed; Dr. Joe Louis Clark was on the other end of the line. He would be honored to speak with MYcroSchool students.

On September 26th, students and staff were treated to a wealth of wisdom from the energized retired educator who spent thirty years on the international lecture circuit, which included speaking at over 1,000 universities. After two profiles with Sixty Minutes under his belt, as well as gracing the cover of Time Magazine on February 1, 1988, Dr. Clark left his home in Gainesville to share a little of himself with our students. He also shared autographed copies of Time Magazine.

The 1989 hit movie Lean on Me starring Morgan Freeman was based on Dr. Clark’s experiences as the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey (1982 – 1991). A reformer, Dr. Clark was responsible for leading the effort to improve Eastside students’ test scores on New Jersey’s minimum basic skills test. He was successful in this feat, but his bullhorn tactics were not without controversy.

Dr. Clark spent more than sixty minutes motivating students before taking their questions. The previous day, students were treated to the Lean on Me movie, which was extremely well-received; it allowed students insight into the man whom MYcroSchool students so warmly welcomed the following day.

In electrifying fashion, Dr. Clark opened by having the attendees repeat after him, “I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do all things, but I can do something, and that which I should do, I ought to do.” He followed by telling the students they are “here for a purpose,” and that as they “meander (their) way through the obstacles of life,” they cannot hold a “pity party” for themselves. He stressed that life is not easy nor is it fair, and that 80% of people do not care about their problems and “the other 20% are glad it’s you and not them.” His candor was met with a round of applause from students who were overheard saying, “That’s real.”

Dr. Clark, born into poverty in rural Georgia seventy-eight years prior, raised his five siblings after both his parents “booked,” with his mother leaving first. He said he made a “declaration to develop the greatness within,” and he surely accomplished that. When a student asked what he felt his biggest life accomplishment was, he took little time to respond: “my three children.” Dr. Clark is a proud father and rightfully so. All three hold college degrees. His younger daughter is a graduate of the University of Florida. Two are three-time Olympic track and field athletes. As his children were growing up, each was told, “college or death.”

Yet he was told he would never be anything— he would never make it. Dr. Clark knew he had to make an effort; he had to try. “I did for myself,” which was the message he wanted students to hear. He was tired of being poor, and tired of living on welfare. He stated that he never gave up, and he expressed to the students “you should never, never, never doubt yourselves.”


Senior Nandi Michel-Trapaga was most impressed with Dr. Clark’s statement that he had gone from “great disgrace to amazing grace.” To Nandi, those words were inspirational. They mean even if people don’t come from much, they can find peace and happiness in their lives by doing their best.

Repeatedly, Dr. Clark stressed that students should do for themselves; that they should not depend on others to do what they are capable of doing. He insisted that no one is perfect, and that everyone is entitled to a second chance— a chance to change himself and his life for the better.

Words of Wisdom

Students were also told to share with the world their best service, and that by doing so the best will be returned to them. He asked them to live their lives in such a way that they are able to not only tell their children that they acted on their goals, but that their children will tell their children that they acted on them. He expressed the need for students to help others so their lives will not be in vain.

Students were assured that it is not they who are the problem; rather, it is the adults who are not behaving as they need to in order to bring about change in the lives of the young people whose care is their responsibility. He faulted lax parenting, and warned against young people bringing children into this world before they are ready— before they have an education under their belts and are capable of providing those children the best life possible.

Students were reminded repeatedly that how they look; how they carry themselves; and how they speak matter. And they were told that who they spend time with (spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, etc.) also matter. All will either negatively or positively influence their lives.

Asked by a student why he chose to be a school administer, Dr. Clark stated, I thought it was what God put me here to do. I liked administration. I liked being in charge. I wanted to bring about change in the lives of people.”

When a student inquired why he left his job as principal, his retort was quick: “I left education because the whale had outgrown the ocean.” He believed he could touch more people and change more lives speaking with others on a bigger stage.

He was later asked if there were anything he wished he had done. He indicated, “I wish I had raised more hell.” Laughter erupted in the room. Before Dr. Clark rode off into the midday sun to return to the tranquility of his ranch, students were reminded that their mistakes are not what matters; what they’ve done up until now doesn’t matter; and where they are in life at this moment doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the final chapter of their lives has yet to be written. They hold the pen.


“Crazy Joe Clark” (or “Batman”) as he said he was called by critics and admirers alike, led the students in this final chant: “Yes, I can! Yes, I can! And YES, I WILL!”

The staff and students of MYcroSchool Gainesville THANK YOU, Dr. Clark, for leaving a well-deserved retirement to offer encouragement and support. Your visit with us will long resonate.

MYcroSchool Gainesville Charter High School

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