O Captain! My Captain!
One random topic of conversation always seems to lead strangely into another in the American History classes I am lucky enough to teach each year. I often find myself horribly off-subject as my almost-adult students and I slowly get to know one another and this week was no exception. Admiring from a safe distance how one of my female students boldly spoke up for another in a small spat of gossip, I commented to the young lady that she reminded me of Melanie Hamilton. The girl curled up her face as if I’d insulted her, although I was pleased that she even knew who I was talking about in the first place!
“But, she has no backbone, right?”
I laughed and explained that, in fact, Melanie Hamilton had quite the backbone and more courage and righteousness than any other character in literature, or in movies, or on television, that I could think of.
“She takes up for everyone,” I explained, “even people who have wronged her. She always looks for the good in others and she forgives effortlessly. She is even-tempered and never gets angry and she’s always wise to the situation and ready to offer a solid piece of advice.”
In my opinion, it was a high compliment to be compared to Miss Hamilton, and as I heard myself explaining what it is that I love about this timeless Gone With the Wind character, the patron saint of goodness from antebellum Atlanta, I made a note to myself to try harder to be more like her.
Cliff and Claire Huxtable get some credit for shaping me, too. As a child of the eighties, I remember comparing my own mom and dad and their parenting to how the Huxtables might handle the situations I often found myself in. My parents were strict, emphasizing important lessons like how a lie makes a bad situation so much worse, by explaining how important it is to earn the things you want, and by seeing how essential it is for two parents to be united together as a team. I loved how they made fun of their kids without being accused of child abuse. My parents did that too, and I deserved it when they said, “Have you lost your damn mind? You make me want to smoke.” I say this to my own kid now, too! The way the Huxtables talked about awkward things like being disappointed when their adult children moved back home and how they didn’t hold back when someone needed to be put in their place, like Theo did when he announced he wasn’t going to college. At the time, I thought I had the worst parents in the world, but I get it now. I still admire and respect the iconic parenting of The Cosby Show and view the Huxtables and my parents both as perfect examples of what a real mom and dad should be like.
I almost couldn’t take it when Charles and Caroline Ingalls finally accepted the fact that their oldest daughter Mary was going blind. Still a little girl myself, I also cried when they lost their little boy just a few months after he was born, and then I watched in terror as their daughter Laura went into the mountains to ask God to take her instead. To see the Ingalls traverse through one trauma after another on that show, always together as they built their life on the unforgiving plains of 19th century Wisconsin, well, it inspired me. Charles Ingalls might have been my first man crush. (or maybe it was Bo Duke; I loved them both) He was so wise, so strong, and so fearlessly devoted to his family. He was a man’s man, but he was a romantic, too. He was the kind of Godly husband and father I wish we could still find on television. Instead, we have The Bachelor.
They don’t make good family television like this anymore, folks. Not even close.
Dagny Taggart smokes like a chimney. The heroine of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is nothing if not a force of nature. She runs an entire railroad, a man’s job in a man’s world. She never makes excuses for her failings. She is never weak in the face of danger, and she never shies away from a challenge. She is perhaps the first modern female literary tycoon. Miss Taggert answers to absolutely no one but herself, yet she struggles silently with the parts of her personality that are keenly feminine. In an era that claims to promote strong female identities, wage equality, and the right of women everywhere to drive the direction of their own lives, strangely she is still virtually unknown. What a disappointment. But make no mistake, Dagny is always my first recommendation for a impressive female role model.
Professor John Keating was played expertly and with artistic precision by the late Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. His role in that picture inspired me to become that kind of teacher. I also buck the system, and I try to teach in a way that casts off traditional textbook learning in pursuit of deeper and more meaningful interpretations of the human experience. I’m critical any time public education stifles individualism in its instructors or when they attempt to mold public education into a one-size-fits-all model. I teach my students to be true to themselves, to follow their own paths, and to stand up for what they know is right. The degrading stereotypes about education aren’t too far off the mark sometimes. Students in public schools really are pigeonholed into a set standard of expected behavior and, worse, so are their teachers. The Establishment wants to brag about Next Generation Educators, but their rules for how teachers are supposed to do their jobs are from the Dark Ages of chalkboards and Study Hall. Administrations try to get teachers to churn out perfect little cookie-cutter students, skilled test-takers with a pre-established catalog of pointless knowledge that can be regurgitated on cue, and yet they still expect them to excel in a world of ever-changing standards and a testing system that won’t remain the same for more than a year. It feels wrong for good teachers to teach that way, so I try not to.
Just recently, the awesome Mr. Keating came to me again as I sat in my classroom on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and graded piles and piles and piles of tests. Mr. Keating would never have devoted that much time to assessing his students’ learning gains for the sole purpose of generating testing data. Instead of having my students sit and robotically race against each other to complete an insane number of standards-driven questions, I should have been standing on my desk reciting FDR’s first inaugural speech. My voice should have been booming, and my fists should have been pounding! Shame on me, Mr. Keating. I promise to do better from now on.
Everyone is shaped by inspiration, and we are all a manifestation of the people, the books, the movies, and the movements that crossed our paths along the journey through our childhood. Have you ever asked yourself what made that kind of a big impact on you growing up? Not only does it give us the opportunity to reflect back on the “good old days,” reliving the shows we loved watching with our families and the books we enjoyed reading, but it’s also nostalgic to remember when television fables really meant something and books actually taught lessons, when movies were legitimately clean if they had a PG rating and when there was a very clear distinction between the good guy and the bad guy. I know it sounds trite to compare the generations, but is there anything in today’s literature and media that can even compare? I wish Atticus Finch was around because I would ask him. He knew everything!