Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Praise of Teachers

As I wrote last week, there are whole portions of 1995 that I simply do not remember.

That's true. At the time, I was very focused on my father, who was recovering from his injuries (both physical and mental) from the flood that took my mother's life in May of that year.

But, by the end of December in 1995, my father was recovering and I was emerging from my own fog of grief, and I started doing normal, everyday things again, like going to the movies.

I didn't see "Mr. Holland's Opus," which made its debut on this day in 1995, until the next calendar year, but I had heard a lot about it and I had eagerly anticipated it — and it lived up to my expectations when I finally saw it.

(By the way, you can see it a week from tonight, at 7 Central on Turner Classic Movies.)

It was the biography of a music teacher, and it reminded me a lot of my mother, who was a teacher during her life. It also served as an inspiration for me a few months ago when I was writing about the memorial service for one of my closest friends, who was as musically gifted as anyone I have ever known or ever expect to know.

A fictional story, the movie told a tale most people could probably tell — of the teacher (or coach or church leader or some adult figure) who made a difference in their lives.

Michael Costello of observed that it was a throwback to the days of "the tribute to a life of selfless dedication" theme. It was, he wrote, a genre in which the great John Ford excelled, but it seems to have fallen on hard times.

Costello had praise for the acting, especially that of the star, Richard Dreyfuss, but he had several complaints about the story, writing that the subplot was "underdeveloped" and "heavy handed."

I suppose the criticism was warranted, but I guess most teachers would tell you that they get a charge from witnessing the moments when the light bulb comes on for their students, the way it did for young Gertrude Lang in this clip.

There was nothing false about the depiction of that experience in the movie. It is an exciting moment.

Perhaps I feel that way because my parents were teachers and so were my father's parents. I myself have been a teacher of journalism at times in my life — currently, in fact, on an adjunct basis at the local community college — and I have known that feeling.

The problem with being a teacher, though, is that you can't always be sure you're having that kind of impact on the people in your classroom. And, to be fair, most people would probably tell you that few, if any, of their teachers truly inspired them.

I know that most of mine did not.

But there were a few who did — a few Mr. Hollands along the way. They may have been the exceptions, but they more than made up for it with their devotion to their subject, whether it was music or art or science or math.

"Mr. Holland's Opus" was an homage to all of them.

And, in her own way, Glenne Headly, as Mr. Holland's supportive spouse, contributed much to Mr. Holland's approach to his students.