Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mr. Holland's Opus Revisited

Several years ago, in late April, I was heading toward my car after I'd taught three classes that morning. I felt under the weather, didn't think I taught well, and, in my propensity to doubt myself, I wondered if I taught well at all. Deciding to check my email in the student union before I left campus, I logged on and read a message from my college dean: the graduating seniors had chosen me as their favorite professor, and could I attend the college convocation to receive the award? Of course, I thought it was a mistake.

Ever since, I've hoped that other teachers I know could somehow get a sense of how they influence their students. That affirmation doesn't have to happen as dramatically as the denouement of "Mr. Holland's Opus," but at least I hope it can happen for them in a very positive way. To have that kind of gift in your life, you have to not expect it or work for it, otherwise you're focusing on your own honor rather than the well-being of your students! I do try to praise my own former teachers when I can.

The TCM network showed "Mr. Holland's Opus" this past month. This movie makes me bawl my head off--even more so than "Les Miserables" (the musical), if that's possible. Mr. Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an aspiring musician and composer who takes a job teaching kids music. Teaching takes over his life and so he never realizes his initial dreams. But he helps and influences many students like the stoner Mr. Stadler, the musically untalented Louis Russ (who tragically dies), the pitifully self-doubting Gertrude Lang, and the talented Rowena Morgan (with whom there is mutual infatuation). Additionally, family concerns, especially a deaf son, makes him confront the ways he uses and prioritizes his time. Finally, he is forced into retirement, but not before he enjoys an unexpected community tribute. The old cliché, "life is what happens while you make other plans," is clearly a moral of this story. Another moral: success isn't fame or money but the lives we touch for the better.

Besides Dreyfuss the various actors are people whom I enjoy in other shows and movies: Glenne Headley, William H. Macy, Jean Louisa Kelly, Olympia Dukakis, Alicia Witt, Jay Thomas, Joanna Gleason, and others. I disliked Macy’s character so much that I (humorously) imagine him getting his comeuppance as another character: the one Macy plays in “Fargo.”

“Mr. Holland” reminds me of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," of course. It's also a Capra-esque movie in the tradition of "It's a Wonderful Life." But although I've no idea if the movie accurately reflects the life of a music teacher, aspects of the film ring true. The male psyche needs the assurance of positive work, but if a man works too hard he neglects family. He loves his family, but if he has found a strong sense of self and assurance in his work, the psychological consequences of refocusing can be painful--but balancing work and family has to happen if he truly cares for his loved ones. I found these movie scenes believable; if I were still leading groups about men's spirituality, as I did a few times years ago, I'd probably show these movie scenes as the basis of discussion.

I looked at some of the discussions on Some writers there noted that Mr. Holland's symphony at the end was good but not great. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. If we have a sufficient creative drive, the creative work we want to do may very well force itself out of us, regardless of whether we "have time" to do it. In the afterward of "Blue Highways," William Least Heat Moon has testified to this drive to create, which compelled the writing of that book amid less than ideal circumstances. He has no patience for the notion, "If only I could get a grant, I could write my book." This is not to say that we don't need encouragement for our creative work, which unfortunately Mr. Holland never really gets for his writing, except from his student Rowena. Mr. Holland's better work is that in which he finds validation along the way.

That's why the character Rowena does not appear at the end, although many other former students do. Some writers regret that she didn't return for the school tribute, but her absence makes dramatic sense. She had suggested an opportunity to pursue his earlier dreams, but if he had followed her, he would've missed his true work--and his true life. But while Rowena knew all along that she wanted to sing, Mr. Stadler and Gertrude benefited more dramatically from Mr. Holland's clever ways to affirm them.

I'd almost forgotten that I met Richard Dreyfuss when, for reasons I don't remember, he visited Yale Divinity School and chatted with students in the commons room. This was in 1980 or 1981. I think he was in town for a play at the Yale Rep, and he graciously visited the div school for a group of us star-struck students.

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