In 1978, I was assigned to teach at Wheeling High School, in Wheeling, Illinois. I went there so I could take over the drama program, at least as far as tech directing and also directing the musical. I loved the kids, but I had terrible students–I was assigned to teach something called Practical English, which I couldn’t make simple enough for students who didn’t want to do anything. For five years, I went along assuming I didn’t know how to teach. I had to invent grades, and they were mostly Ds, but the administration was constantly on me to give high grades. I didn’t know how to give an A to a student who hadn’t done anything to earn even a passing grade, and so I had a terrible time.
Then, one year, I was assigned to teach film study. The students came in believing they didn’t have to do anything, just sit and watch films. Wrong! I required them to learn film terminology, filmmaking techniques, and so on. Fascinating. Most of them reacted well. Some, who just didn’t want to do anything, didn’t, and failed the class. Their parents were outraged–at me! I would show them the grade book, which revealed that the kids didn’t do anything, and they still believed I was being unfair.
But enough. Over the next ten years, I proved that saying: if you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught. I had a lot of background in theater–years of experience, both professional and educational–but I had to do a lot of learning about film. Early on, I decided I would show only world class films, and I did: Citizen Kane; Casablanca; Being There; Star Wars; Beatles; and some great short films like Dead River Rough Cut (a terrific film about the backwoodsmen of far northern Maine); Rodeo; Ski The Outer Limits; and a few others, including a homemade (not by me, unfortunately) movie about surfing.
Citizen Kane has always stood out to me: I’d pass out a worksheet with questions for the students to answer while they watched. Each time I taught it, the kids would start out bored–it’s black and white, so obviously it couldn’t be valid–and by the second day, they’d be right in there, even groaning when we had to stop for the day. It’s no accident that it’s considered one of the great films of all time.
Tonight my wife and I are hosting a film night at our house. I’m going to try to find a cartoon at the library, or somewhere, in response to an impassioned plea for it from my partner “Crazy” Dick Baran. Then, I’m going to show the chase scene from Bullitt and talk it over; then, a special showing of a great, if little known film by William Friedkin, Sorcerer. We’ll discuss that one.
If you’re in the neighborhood, come on over. More the merrier.