In the Theater Lobby Following `Mr. Holland's Opus'
For once, I should have trusted the critics. Heeded reports of "Mr. Holland's Opus" being lathered with more sugarcoating than a veritable vat of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. The New Yorker criticized it for being a "schmaltz fest." And that was just my first warning. I am leery of any film that even hints of being emotionally manipulating. Films that make a person cry, in my mind, take liberties at the audience's expense. The film that makes you cry three days after you've watched it is the film I want to see.
But I went to see the movie anyway. And with some embarrassment, I admit to my attending it willingly. Several of my colleagues, who had already seen it, told me "Mr. Holland's Opus" was worth far more than the $6.50 admission and gas and time I would spend on it. And since I have the innate tendency to trust teachers long before I trust film critics, the idea of seeing this movie became rather compelling to me--especially when my wife added that we would be seeing it with four of our friends (three of whom are teachers). And, she told me--as though she had to further convince me--we would be going out for an Italian dinner afterward.
I smiled at the image I had created in my mind: of a steamy calzone following the movie, and my not having to pay--for the dinner or the movie.
But even so, I should have expected the conversation that occurred before dinner.
In the theater lobby, after we watched "Mr. Holland's Opus," I was disgruntled by the 2-1/2-hour story I had just witnessed. That my wife, herself a math teacher, praised it for presenting a positive view of teachers did not persuade me. That one of my drama students from five years ago was cast in a bit role did not impress me. It was not the film's liberal dose of bathos that bothered me; nor was I primarily irked by the script's petty resolution of the conflict between Mr. Holland and his deaf son.
What needled at me was the filmmakers' depiction of a devoted teacher.
The talk in the lobby was what you would expect. It was the normal talk you hear following a commercial hit: "What did you think?" "That was so good." "I cried." "So did I." I avoided a bulk of the crowd so as not to have anyone ask my opinion, but there is only so far you can wander in a six-plex theater lobby. I listened from a short distance to the secondary conversation that threaded its way through my group of friends. By its course, I knew it would eventually find me: "Finally, a movie that says something good about teachers." "Did you see Josh Minnick?" "Was that really him?" "Yeah." "Wow." "Amazing." "Wasn't he in one of Jay's plays?" "Two, I'm sure." "Wow, he must be proud." "Jay, you're quiet. What did you think of it?"
I spoke the truth--not really sure how anyone, including myself, would respond to my opinion. I told my friends I hated it.
"Well, I didn't like how it portrayed teachers," I said.
"It was positive about teachers."
"On the surface it was, yes."
"I liked it," my wife declared. "So did everyone else. Don't ruin it."
"But you asked," I said.
"So ... don't ruin it." She meant business.
But I, ever the social klutz, continued to talk--as though trying to do my best to ruin it. For everyone. For myself, too. "I just didn't like how Mr. Holland was expected to give up his whole dream to help others attain theirs. I mean, I don't want anyone to expect that of me."
"Who expects that?" someone asked.
"He gave up being a composer and taught for 30-odd years in the same classroom, for criminy's sake."
"I don't expect every teacher to do that," said another.
"I think the mere fact you like this film suggests you do."
"You're reading too much into it."
"You're not reading enough into it."
"English teacher ... " my wife said, and all my friends laughed.
"No," I interrupted. "Just consider Mr. Holland for a second: At the beginning of the film he calls himself a composer. He only wants to teach for four years."
"He got dedicated to his job."
"We're led to think that. He was supposed to be dedicated to his craft. But he put his whole life on hold--his family, his dream--to help others do the real achieving. He exchanged being a composer for the possibility of having students who would compose in his stead. He copped out. And I resent that expectation of teachers. It's as though a teacher's entire dream is to simply bide his time and ignore his own creative endeavors for the sake of others. As if the best thing a teacher could ever be is just that: a teacher."
"How do you get that?" Faces peered at me as though I'd seen a different movie altogether.
"Because that's what happened! Look at his students: Over four decades, they leave school and experience real life. One even grows up to be governor."
"But he helped her believe in herself so she could become governor."
"That's a crock," I said. I anticipated this argument and was not completely certain how to disprove it. "Who helped Mr. Holland achieve his dream? What about him?"
"What about him?"
"I mean, is that what should be expected of us teachers? To be people who only help others achieve their dreams?"
"What if it's my dream to help others?" my wife asked.
"Then are we to be fully satisfied that our students go on to accomplish greater things than we have? Is that our contribution to society? If we can't succeed in the real world ourselves, do we then just help others succeed?"
"Being a teacher is being successful!"
"Then why be so much in awe of Josh Minnick for the part he played in the film? He had only one line. One forgettable line. And that is his achievement. But we go on and assume the achievement with him. Vicariously. Why? Because we know him. Because he was in two of Mr. Bates' plays in junior high."
"You're not proud of that?"
"Proud? Sure, I'm proud. I'm proud of him."
"But think about it: Here's this kid who's in a movie. He started in one of your plays. Think of how you've influenced him. You were there when he got his start. If he hadn't been in your plays, he might not have been in the movie."
"Should Einstein's 2nd-grade teacher brag?"
"Would there ever have been an Einstein as we know him without his 2nd-grade teacher?"
"That's bull!" I said. And I meant it.
"How do you know?" my wife asked. "How can you be so sure? What makes you think you didn't inspire Josh Minnick to grow up and act in a box-office hit? What if he were to come back and tell you he's an actor because of you?"
I paused; wondered for a second if I really meant what I was about to say: "I sincerely hope I would have the courage to tell him he's wrong."
I rolled my eyes. Did no one else understand? "He's an actor," I said, "because of himself. Being in this film is his achievement. Not mine. Acting is his gift. If I have given him anything, it was only an opportunity to exercise his gift on stage. When you keep it in perspective, you realize I have not given him his gift. I only offered to him what anyone in my position could have given. It's just like in the film. Except I'm in Mr. Holland's shoes. I teach and my student goes on to make a living by doing what I would like to do. It's the student who has achieved more than I ever will."
"So ... what's wrong with that? That's life. Can't you be happy with that?"
I looked at my friends' assenting expressions. "That doesn't bother anyone else?"
"What's to bother?" my wife said, glancing at her watch. "I'm proud of being a teacher."
And she led us out of the theater and to our cars. None of us, she knew, wished to be late for dinner.
Vol. 15, Issue 23, Page 34Published in Print: February 28, 1996, as In the Theater Lobby Following `Mr. Holland's Opus'