Reflections From History And Faith

By Jeff Olson

One of my favorite motion pictures is Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is the story of a freelance musician who took a job as a music teacher at a public high school. The job was a last resort to provide not only a steady income but also some extra time for composing music. He had no intention of staying with teaching any longer than absolutely necessary. Glenn Holland was in the process of composing what he thought would be a great opus for which he had high expectations for his career. However, work on his masterpiece had to be put on hold because of what he soon learned to be the realities of teaching which extended beyond just time in the classroom. It was a sacrifice he wasn’t expecting nor prepared to make, but he came to understand that it was one he had to make, though quite reluctantly at first. 

Making sacrifices was not unique only to Glenn Holland, as doing such has been and still is quite common among most teachers. Understanding this and the indispensable role they’ve played in preserving our culture and heritage lead to the American tradition of honoring teachers. This began nationwide in 1944 and it has seen different forms and various changes since. Seventy years ago, in 1953, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt informed Congress that there needed to be a day when teachers are regularly recognized for their efforts. Though she received congressional support, the first National Teacher Day did not occur until March 7, 1980. In 1984 the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) established Teacher Appreciation Week as the first full week of May. The National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly then voted to make Tuesday of that week National Teacher Day. 

There’s some disagreement about when Teacher Appreciation Week occurs this year, with the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association observing it May 8-May 12, while some states and school districts started celebrating it the week before. During the actual week of recognition, there’s usually a National Teachers Day, which some celebrated May 2. But the National Day Calendar and Calendarpedia places the day of observation as May 9, the first Tuesday of the first full week in May. The bottom line is that teacher appreciation should be not only an annual event but more importantly a regular part of our lives year around. 

All of us can remember at least some of our teachers, especially the ones who made such a positive impact on us. I can still remember those teacher’s names and faces and how they in their own way helped to mentor and mold me. One of those, Mr. Bill Carmack, I’ve written exclusively about in this column. Such teachers weren’t necessarily the ones who taught my favorite subjects, but they were the teachers who strived to make their subjects more interesting, applicable, and relevant. As a matter of fact, because of such efforts, I began to respond more favorably to a few subjects which I had previously just tolerated and had little to no interest in. 

These teachers also conveyed a sense of caring and demonstrated a genuine interest in me as a person as well as a student. They partnered with my parents and together worked hard in not only teaching me various subjects but also in providing encouragement and instilling confidence, purpose, and direction for using that knowledge. Mr. Holland, in our story, had to learn this. As school principal Helen Jacobs told him, “A teacher has two jobs: fill young minds with knowledge, yes, but more important, give those minds a compass so that knowledge doesn’t go to waste.” As I’ve heard said: “Teaching kids to count is fine but teaching them what counts is best.” My best teachers never took pride in having a popular class, difficult class, or a reputation for giving a limited number of high grades. It was more important to them to inspire and cultivate their students’ capacity for learning. If I had difficulty grasping some aspect of a subject, my best teachers would try to find another way to explain it. He or she believed in the maxim that if a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way he/she can learn. In Albert Einstein’s words, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Sometimes the source of a student’s struggle may not be due to his or her lack of willingness, aptitude or intellect in so much as it is in not having enough self-confidence. Good teachers can often discern this and may invest more in the student to realize his/her potential. 

This is beautifully illustrated in our story when Mr. Holland sees the need to spend some extra time after school helping one of his students who is struggling. Gertrude, one of his clarinet players, practices regularly but can’t play through a particular passage in one of the band’s songs. She’s about ready to give it up, clarinet and all, when Mr. Holland takes just a few moments to remind Gertrude that her mistakes in music are not due to a lack of ability but are a matter of how she sees herself. In a poignant scene, he asked her what she liked most about herself. She replied that it was her hair, because her father said it reminded him of a sunset. “Then play the sunset”, replied Mr. Holland. In at last acknowledging her own intrinsic beauty and worth, she not only more confidently and successfully played through that song another’s but went on to experience success into her adult life, eventually becoming governor of the state. Her sunset became a lifetime of new sunrises. 

From a historical perspective, education in America had a strong Christian heritage anchored in the Bible, which was the foundation (and chief textbook) for public education early on. The young were therefore equipped with the morals, values and discipline needed to constructively contribute to the civil/social order and apply their knowledge in such a way that its purpose and fruits would extend well beyond the temporal needs of attaining a livelihood and material success. The primary goal of education was not to create equity or self-esteem and not even to produce a specific kind or variety of workforce, but to instill piety and cultivate the student’s own intellect, imagination and self-worth and to develop his or her character for future responsibilities as parents, citizens and leaders. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

Even if we succeed in teaching our young the “Three Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) but fail to give them a moral compass for applying these, then we risk leaving them vulnerable to those who could and would place them in intellectual and spiritual servitude. Literacy, in its most complete meaning and expression, is beyond just academics and skills; it is a doorway to freedom and a primary means to preserve it. 

Teachers not only directly impact their students, but they also hold a very special place in contributing to the cohesiveness and moral stability of our communities. And, in some ways their influence vitally extends beyond even that of parents and other family. Our teachers face formidable challenges most days, both inside and outside the classroom. And, they do so in an ever so changing culture and system and with some parents (and others who should) not always supporting them enough. However, as graduation approaches, teachers can take satisfaction and pride in knowing that their role in this milestone event was central and consequential and one that will grow to fruition in a multitude of positive ways in the years to come. 

So, back to our story. What started out as a temporary gig for Glenn Holland, just a job to fall back on, turned into a thirty-year career that he grew to love and live for. And yes – he completed an opus alright, but it wasn’t just the one he’d began composing as a young musician. Mr. Holland’s opus was the thousands of students in whose lives he had poured into and instilled with a rich and enduring inheritance. This was indeed his greatest masterpiece, far beyond the one expressed through only music itself.  

Very few teachers will ever receive the level of honor and recognition as did Mr. Holland upon completing his opus, but more important is the message from his story:  Each of us should do our part in showing appreciation to the teachers in our communities for their time, commitment and sacrifice in investing in today’s generation and in those of tomorrow. May we also remember with gratitude our own teachers who helped shape each of us and many others into what we’ve become and what our lives have stood for. We are indeed a part of their life’s opus. Other than in matters of eternal destiny, no greater legacy exists. As historian and author Henry Brooks Adams put it: “A teacher affects eternity; he [or she] can never tell where his influence stops.” 

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author