The other night I again watched the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. I just happened to stumble on this movie a few years ago. I don’t remember how. I do remember Richard Dreyfuss being nominated for an academy award for his performance, but did not actually watch the movie until a few years after its release.
The movie chronicles the life of Glen Holland, a would-be rock musician who takes on a teaching job to pay the bills until he can make it as a musician. He gets dragged kicking and screaming into his fallback profession, teaching, and initially just does what he can to “eek” by. That is, until he actually is able to help a student overcome her fears and personal demons by learning to master playing the clarinet.
The movie is filled with songs from “my era”, and rightly so as it chronicles his teaching career from the late sixties until the early nineties. Mr. Holland gets students to love music by playing the Kingsman’s song “Louie Louie” or making the correlation with them between Bach and the Toy’s song “Lovers Concerto”. I will not share more than these few glimpses into the movie, as I believe everyone should watch it because it is that darn good.
There are two takeaways that I got from this movie, one personal and the other more global. The personal side for me takes me back to my days teaching Theatre and Dance at Hiawatha Park. You see, I too was going to be famous. I was in a band, we had an agent, we were recording, it was just a matter of time. And in the interim, I needed to do something to pay the bills. So, teaching in after school programs for the Chicago Park District seemed like a great way to “eek” by. Well, fame never came. And it was a bitter pill for me to swallow. After all, I was not going to be like all the rest – I was going to make it. But I didn’t. I was a failure.
And so there I was, stuck in a nowhere job teaching young kids. I didn’t even like kids. But it paid the bills. And that’s the way it started, until one day when I was able to teach a young girl how to do a pirouette, or teach another young girl how to do the time step, or teach a young boy how to be the Cowardly Lion. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but something changed. All of a sudden I was putting my heart and soul into teaching this band of young people how to dance and act show after show, dance recital after dance recital, year after year. A whole group of young women stayed in my program for 12 years. We formed a dance company, we performed outside of our own little parks and recreation program. I even turned down a promotion a year before some of them graduated high school so that they could have one more year of being in shows. Then I got another opportunity for a promotion and decided it was time to leave. After all, it was only a theatre and dance program, right. No big deal.
The final performance of the Hiawatha Park Dance Company was at Woodsmoke Ranch near Starved Rock Illinois. We had performed there over the summer for a couple of years. One of the parents owned a lot on the ranch and got us in the door. Once we were in, we were asked back. We performed that evening, cried a little, but knew it was time to move on, door closed.
The next day, they took me to the community room and played for me a tape that they made. The tape chronicled my years teaching at Hiawatha Park and ended with a montage of the end of almost every show we had done. You see, after every show they would give me flowers. They would always try to hide them from me, but I always knew they were going to do it. So together we all watched the many years of them giving me flowers flashed up on the screen to the tune of Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.” It ended with the final show and the final gift of flowers. The only other time in my life that I cried harder was when my mother died. I could not believe the love and the caring that I was feeling. And to quote from Mr. Holland’s Opus, “there is not a person in this room that you have not touched. We are the notes of your opus, the music of your life.” That is exactly how I felt – and I never had felt so blessed.
To this day, I am in touch with many of the young people who gave more to me than I ever gave to them. They probably don’t realize it, but when you feel like a failure and then someone helps you understand that you were made to do something else, that your life has a different purpose, that is such a great gift. I can never thank them enough for showing me that I was not a failure. I felt like Glen Holland at the end of the movie. And to this day I remain in contact with many of them. They hold a very special place in my heart and always will.
The second takeaway is a little more global. Teaching is such a noble profession. A teacher never knows who they will inspire, who they will excite, who they will save. I was dragged into that profession kicking and screaming and now thank God every day that I had that opportunity to teach. Teachers are very special. They have the power to change lives.
So here is the The Last Scene From Mr. Holland\’s Opus. Once you watch it, I don’t think I will need to say more.
4 thoughts on ““We Are The Notes Of Your Opus””
Oh Jan! I cried reading this! You were such a powerful force in my life. For years, I read and re-read what you wrote in my 8th grade yearbook. You gave me hope, helped me laugh and helped me cry. I remember eating dinners at the Peacock Restaurant and just having you listen to me. That was so amazing to me that an adult would just sit and listen. I even remember meeting your puppy before you got him. You were a bright spot in my somewhat bleak childhood and I cannot thank you enough. I am truly blessed to have had you in my childhood and I am eternaly grateful.
Our experiences were very special – and whatever you felt I gave you, you gave back to me tenfold. I am eternally grateful to have had you in my adult life.
I know there isn’t really a need for me to leave a reply to this, as I think you understand what you have meant to me, but I will anyway.
Being a performer and teacher myself, I have found the difficulties in drawing lines with my students between “friend” and “teacher”. Somehow, you were able to gain our respect enough that we would not cross that line. We could come to you as a friend and you would not talk down to us, yet, you never tried to be “cool”. You always took the “adult” view on things to try to help us through what ever we were going through.
Trying to find a program that does full on productions for kids in a park district setting is unheard of…and trust me..I’ve been trying. Unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars, or take your chance at auditioning at the community theater level, kids don’t have much of a chance. What you did was amazing and I took for granted that every park district had these kind of classes.
You were, to many of us, a second Mom. And to some, even a first Mom. Love you forever, Jan.
Jen, you have always been one to let me know how you felt, and I have always appreciated and counted on that. Love you forever too, sweetie!