It’s the last week of school here in Canada. All over the country, students are busy signing yearbooks, cutting classes, cleaning out lockers, and in some cases soaking up the last few days of a part of their lives they’ll never return to. It’s this time of year where I find myself nostalgic: not so much for the student I once was as the teachers who educated, enlightened and endured me. There were several bad ones, there were a lot of competent ones, and there were a handful of truly amazing ones. They were the ones that taught me not just about reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic…but about who I could be in this world, and what I should strive for.
It’s these women and men I miss this time of year, since I’m most reminded of saying goodbye to them…and unlike my friends, there were few-if-any reconnections with them as the years went on.
In some ways, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS is the grandaddy of all “Inspirational Teacher Movies”. If you’ve ever seen a movie where students stand in solidarity with their teacher, rise up to overcome their shortcomings, or affect an educator through a large swath of time…you’ve watched a descendant of this 1939 gem. We begin late in the story, specifically the beginning of the 1928 school year at Brookfield Public School for boys. There is a strange feeling about the halls as class begins, since it is the first time in fifty-plus years that Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) is absent from the start-of-year assembly. Chipping is now 83, and as he rests at home, we watch his wonderful story unfold in flashback.
The core theme of GOODBYE MR. CHIPS is tapped into in a wonderful way when the eventual love-of-his-life, Kathy, shows up on the mountainside. When she and Chips meet on a mountainside – like a meet-cute that was excised from HEIDI for being too obvious, she says quite matter-of-factly “Up here, there’s no time”. We already know that Chips is seldom the man for his time and place. He is usually surrounded by teenage boys, teachers younger than him, and likewise young adults here in this Austrian mountainside town. For him – as for many great people many of us have met in life – age is just a statistic. He isn’t worried about the company he keeps, what he should have done by now, or what he still hopes to do. Chips is living his life as if he’s permanently on that mountaintop – living like a God, living with nothing to lose, living with “no time”.
The interesting thing is that such an outlook on life is much harder than it seems. It relies on a desire to do as much as possible, regardless of what it’s what others our age still do. There’s a high level of free spirit and independent will that must be hardwired into us. Some people in this world have this ability – to continue expressing themselves, exploring this world, and soaking up all life has to offer not matter what year is marked on their driver’s license. In a strange way, it contradicts the “old fashioned” attitude that Chips claims to have. It might be the way he sees himself – might even be the way he sees much of the world. The contradiction kicks in by way of this “old-fashioned” man wanting to experience as many new things as he can in his “old-fashioned” way before his time on earth is true.
Kathy says that she is quite smitten with his “old-fashioned” manner…but perhaps she’s actually more smitten with the fact that being “old-fashioned” hasn’t prompted Chips to fold up his tent and start marking time.
As we watch the boys come-and-go through Chips’ classroom over the years, it becomes easier to understand how he – and so many teachers like him – have a different relationship to time and place. To paraphrase an iconic Matthew McConaughey line, Chips gets older, his students stay the same age. The spunk and attitude are a constant, so is the unrest and the shenanigans. What’s happening in the world will wander in and out of the periphery…or sometimes stand smack in one’s line of sight…but his work, his goal, and his pupils are a constant.
It must take a strong disposition to continue working through that sort of semi-stasis. There have been experiments that have shown test subjects go a little nutty when they are depraved from knowing what time of day it is. One can only imagine what it feels like to make that one’s vocation…to see faces the same age year-in, and year-out with the only true marker being the return of a familiar surname.
We forget sometimes that our teachers may want other things – the way Chips wants to eventually be headmaster. Sometimes they are able to achieve these things, sometimes not (in Chips’ case it’s the latter for the most part). Regardless of whether they are able to get what they want, the best of them still come prepared to steer their pupils towards their own goals. It allows them a bit of pride-by-association…the sort of feeling usually only associated with parenting. Such feelings also explain the disappointments they can take on, such as seeing their pupils die too young as Chips has to do in the years of World War I.
Perhaps that mind-out-of-time approach is what allows teachers to steer us towards what is most important in life. After all, when we are young it seems as if every break-up, every sporting event, or every test is life-and-death. As students we will lose sleep over such things, get into fights over such things, and allow them to consume us. Our teachers have been through these experiences – both personally and by-association enough times to know how foolish an outlook that is. True, some of these experiences will stay with us for years to come…but not nearly as many as we might believe.
So many great films about educators owe GOODBYE MR. CHIPS a great debt, the same way all of us owe our best educators a great debt.
Teachers like Chips are at their best when they steer us away from our foolish perceptions and point us towards what’s truly important. Like the reciting of Latin while the school is being bombed, they find a way to make their lessons resonant…and likewise teach by example. They try to make us understand our own potential, and make the most of it. They look at us – their students – and see possibilities. They work with us like a sculptor would a block of fine marble, and hope that they are able to chisel us into something good to put out into the world.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for June…
Josh watched FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT
Beatrice watched REAR WINDOW
Fisti watched TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT
Courtney Small watched AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
We have a new participant! Thaddeus watched ROSEMARY’S BABY
Abstew watched NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
Ruth watched REBECCA
Caitlin watched SUNSET BOULEVARD
We have another new participant! John watched THE GREAT ESCAPE
Andina watched STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE
Karamel watched RIFIFI
Jay Cluitt watched TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Mette Kowalski watched 12 ANGRY MEN
Chris watched MALCOLM X
Dan Heaton watched NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Another new participant! Niall McArdle watched BATMAN BEGINS
Brittani Burnham watched PERSONA
Philip Bender watched PARIS, TEXAS
Shantanu watched AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS
Sean Kelly watched OLDBOY
Will Kouf also watched PERSONA
Cristian watched CITY LIGHTS
The Void watched IMITATION OF LIFE