I recently took advantage of a free HBO trial and binged on movies I had meant to see but never did. But today, while home for Dr. King’s holiday, I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus again. I had forgotten how much I loved the film back when it was first released in 1995. The movie chronicles the professional life of a musician and composer who first becomes a high school music teacher for a paycheck, and then finds in the unexpected halls a lifetime calling.
After a few missteps of boring recitations and “teacher talk,” he begins to speak to his students, and, more importantly, he begins to listen. He becomes his life, and the ending always makes me cry. Surrounded by so many of his students from across the years, he slowly accepts a baton and, for the first time, conducts his own American symphony, but only after being told by one former student that “we are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
Back in 1995, teaching was the furthest thing from my mind. I had just moved from Brooklyn back to my native Washington with three children in tow. My wife and I greeted this new adventure as both a blessing and a challenge. I also relocated my business and managed to lease an office within walking distance of our home. I had a car, but I rarely used it, so used to walking was I. Over time, my land legs grew lazy, and I took to driving everywhere–even to work.
At that moment, my daughters were entering kindergarten, and fourth and tenth grades. I again became involved in their schools and PTA’s. It was an awful period in DC; a “control board” created by Congress in response to the reelection of Marion Barry led to a sharp reduction in all semblance of democracy. A “Board of Trustees” had also been established to oversee the schools. I voiced my negative opinions on both developments (and the real nature of public education in DC) in two pieces I submitted to the Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative newspaper. The first, “My DC,” railed against the sense of despair permeating the city, while the second, “Who’s Looking Out for Tiffany?,” discussed my own difficulties locating decent schools for my children.
Throughout all that turbulence, the notion of teaching as a profession never crossed my mind. But once, at a heated meeting between parent leaders and a group of teachers, one veteran educator turned to me and said, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you become a teacher. Then see how you do.” I found in her voice both a needle and a haystack. Ten years later, in 2005, after selling the business and dying from boredom as a marketing consultant, I refocused my compass, earned my certification, entered my first classroom, and tried to teach.
I have savored this arc in my journey. To date, I have taught 1,043 students. Each year, I have them print their first and last names on large popsicle sticks I use to ensure I call on students equally. At the end of the year, I bind the sticks together by graduation year and place them in a large wooden box stored in my attic. I tell my students one day, after I retire, I will glue the sticks end-to-end on a wall where I can see their names and recall their faces and energies.
Mostly, I will cherish the bond we shared with one another. I am not as lucky as some of my colleagues who became teachers shortly after college graduation. Some are thirty-plus year veterans who have survived a host of theories, administrators, superintendents, and new initiatives. One told me the other day that she has actually taught three generations in the same family. I cannot imagine such a legacy. This year, I will have completed teaching up to three siblings in three different families and two different schools. I am humbled by the trust their parents placed in me, and I understand the responsibilities embedded in it.
Growing up, one of my two favorite aunts became a high school English teacher (the other was a first grade teacher). My Aunt Vera taught in a relatively small Southern city and frequently encountered her students in her daily treks, even after retirement. I was with her during one of those exchanges, and I still remember how revered she was by her students. Back then, she called me her “lipstick blotter” because she would always use my cheek to lighten her lipstick before heading out to face the world. She is no longer with us, but her example no doubt breathes in the lives of her students, and their children and grandchildren.
I tell my students to work hard not for me, or their parents, or even just themselves, but for their progeny. “No one wants an uninformed parent,” I remind them. “The more you know, the less they will have to find out.” I’m not exactly sure how true that all is. Life has a way of surprising.
But, as a teacher, I do find myself sometimes daydreaming about a room packed with former students–all fully-grown, independent, and satisfied. I guess that vision keeps many a teacher in the classroom. It’s nice to be appreciated, but even nicer to help someone else, especially a young person, find their own appreciation for life and knowledge and faith.
I want to be a memorable cheerleader in my students’ lives–just like Mr. Holland. But I do not want to abandon my own remaining dreams in the process. I want to write my book, the one ambition I have yet to attain. And I do not want to ever take for granted the special joy my own children bring to me, or the way my wife still makes me smile like no one else. I guess I want it all. I must make a promise to myself to remember each part of my opus, and to retire promptly the day before I forget.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)