Unification News For February 1996


Mr. Holland's Opus

It is rare to find a film today that does not depend on sex, violence or profanity to make money-and that is not made for an audience under the age of seven. However, we are being treated to a wonderfully rich film this season. A film which speaks of love, the challenges of parenthood, and what it means to live for the sake of others. The film I am speaking of is Mr. Holland's Opus, starring Richard Dreyfuss. While I am not a fan of Richard Dreyfuss, I was deeply moved by his performance in this film. He presented a character that was real and believable-someone with whom all of us could identify.

Glen Holland is a musician and composer who turns to teaching high school students in a small town in Oregon. Mistakenly, Holland, a former studio musician thinks that teaching will afford him more time to write his great musical "opus." He is quickly warned about this misperception by a fellow teacher, the football coach, when the coach responds one day that: "Free time? Gee, what's that? I haven't had free time since I started teaching!"

Like many new teachers, Glen Holland assumes that all he needs to do is impart knowledge to his students. That bubble bursts as well halfway through his first year. Of course, by that time, the plot thickens as he learns that he is to be a father. What occurs over the next thirty minutes or so is a renewed faith in education and teaching. Holland gradually learns that teaching is not just a nine- to-five job-it is a commitment of heart and sacrifice. Through his frustration to have his students actually learn something, he comes to realize that "learning" also involves one's heart as well as their mind. Holland also sees that learning requires a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the teacher as well; a sense of dedication to the students-much as a parent must sacrifice for their children. That is where the film makes one of its best contributions to the movie- going public.

The second contribution that the film makes is in the parenting arena. Shortly after the birth of Holland's son, it becomes clear that he is profoundly deaf. This is particularly hard for the father to take because he dreamed of opening up the world of music to his son, made all the more difficult because the son is named after Holland's favorite musician-the great John Coltrane. It is at this point that Holland the parent immerses himself in his role as Holland the teacher; something which does not sit well with Holland's wife and son.

It is at this point that most films show the wife leaving the husband out of frustration and anger, and the son going off to lead a life of crime, violence or aimlessness. Fortunately, the creator of Mr. Holland's Opus decides that he will buck the trend of Hollywood and have the family work through this obstacle with grace and love.

Throughout all of this, sits the unfinished "Opus." In the end, it becomes clear that Holland has been writing an opus of a different kind. This opus is written on the hearts and minds of each one of his students throughout his 30 year teaching career.

Mr. Holland's Opus is the second "teacher" film since 1995 that encourages us to look to the essence of education. In Dangerous Minds, which came out last autumn, we saw a similar kind of lesson. Michelle Pfeiffer portrayed a woman embarking on a second career -teaching. She too goes through a dramatic transformation. Her students are quite a bit tougher, though, than Holland faces. Coming from south central L.A., her students are the tough, hardened students living in crime- ridden neighborhoods that we often see on television or in the movies. However, I found Mr. Holland's Opus to be more free of the usual hidden agenda that we find in many socially-conscious films today.

As a teacher, I too once thought that befriending my students was important. As I faced difficult classes in New York City schools, I wanted to empower them to rise above their circumstances. All of which sounded good at the time. Reality taught me something different, though. Students don't need their teachers to be their friends. And it is extremely arrogant to think that I can "empower" a young boy or girl to rise above their lot in life.

Students need teachers who can not only provide them with the content of education, but also the boundaries and tools with which they can lead responsible, principled lives that can return deep and eternal joy to God. That means they also need discipline -nurturing-and commitment from the adults around them. Much like a second set of parents-or at least teachers with a parental heart.

And that is why I appreciated Mr. Holland's Opus. As Dreyfuss learned the hard lessons of parenting his own son, he became a better teacher. What became clear is that the lessons we learn as parents can be applied to our roles as teachers. The centrality of the home as the first school of love and life is undeniable. Had the lead character in this film only learned how to be a "good" teacher, I would not be writing this review. But, because he came to not only understand how to measure his true contributions in life, but to also understand his responsibility as a parent, the film became remarkable.

I can only pray that when all is said and done, I too can write an "opus" that brings music to God's ears!

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