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Mr. Holland’s Opus, a film (1996)


This film is recommended for all teachers, in my opinion.  Mr. Holland, masterfully acted by Richard Dreyfuss, is a young husband who aspires to write music as a profession.  He takes up teaching as a “fall back on” job as he waits to write his masterpiece of music that will gain him, he hopes, fame and fortune.  His principle, a lady of determination and principle, is at first unimpressed with the young Mr. Holland’s lack of ability to inspire his students.  His first five months of teaching are a disaster and one can see the frustration, as he blasts his students of music appreciation for their work which he considers “bankrupt”.   Then one day, as he struggles to help a homely young girl who desperately wants to play the clarinet, a light comes on for him.  It is the light of the reward of achievement as he finds the key to help the girl rise above her deep seated impressions of herself that she is a failure.


Mr. Holland personal life is a scene of conflict with his goal of becoming a master composer.  His wife gets pregnant unexpectedly, and the extra expenses make it so he must work a driver-training job during the summers to make ends meet, when he had intended to write music.  Then his newborn son, fondly named Cole in memory of the musician John Coltrane, is born completely deaf.  This is a terrific blow to the man who loves music, and a strain on his marriage relationship as his wife struggles to deal with a boy who can’t communicate due to deafness.  However, through the means of a school for the death, mother and son learn to communicate well.  Mr. Holland, however, though he loves his son has become deeply involved in the rewards of his teaching job and the response he gets from the students.


One of the points of deep pathos in the film is connected with a young and very talented student, Rowena.  Mr. Holland writes a song for her to sing in connection with a school presentation of a George Gershwin reproduction, designed to raise money for the music program.  Rowena has a crush on Mr. Holland, and though nothing at all out of order happens between them, it is manifest that Mr. Holland feels a strong attraction for the talented and beautiful student.  His wife is cognoscente of the attraction and in the sequence of the filming, one can read her feelings of concern, jealousy, and fear of losing her husband to a young and pretty girl, one who has no deaf son to burden her, and who can sing with real talent.  In a climatic moment, Mr. Holland goes down to the bus station to bid goodbye to Rowena, who had asked him to accompany her to New York, where she thought he could be a master composer, and she a singer.  Mr. Holland chooses to stay with his wife and son, but gives her an address of a friend in New York who will help her get settled.


During the sequence of the film, one watches Mr. Holland’s deaf son grow up without much attention from his father, who is too busy with his hearing students to do a good job learning sign language to communicate with his son.  In a moment of deep grief, he explains to his students that Beethoven went deaf in his later years, and so cut off the legs of his piano so he could feel the vibrations of the notes through the floor.  A student asks him “how would he know a C was a C?” and he explains that Beethoven had not been born deaf.  It is an unspoken moment of agony as he is obviously thinking of his son, who has never heard and will never hear or recognize a C note.  A place where the movie falls down is where Mr. Holland puts on a production for the deaf students, and sings a song for his deaf son.  While the scene is very touching, this father happens to know that one valiant act will not make up for years of neglect of one’s children.  I know from painful experience that neglecting the needs of my own children in favor of others, no matter how deserving and needy those others might be, will cost a father in his relationship with his children.  Regaining lost confidence is a long and slow process.  Nevertheless, the film does a decent job of showing how his deaf son sits on top of his speakers so he might learn to appreciate the music that is his dad’s passion.


The finale of the film brings a lump to my throat in watching the film and I’m pretty sure I saw tears in my wife’s eyes as well.  Mr. Holland is 60 years old and the music department is being shut down by the now-principal, once vice-principle, a man who has long had little regard for Mr. Holland’s passion for music.  Money is tight and the principle is cutting programs deemed “non-essential”.  Mr. Holland has little hope of getting another job and feels discouraged and disheartened as he packs up to leave.  But then he walks into a room where his former students have gathered to honor the man who inspired them and influenced their lives in a very positive fashion.  They play a piece of music, presumably something that Mr. Holland wrote.  The company is addressed by the formerly shy young lady that learned to play the clarinet under Mr. Holland’s instruction.  She is now governor of the state, and a lovely, accomplished woman.  She makes the statement “Mr. Holland, we are your magnum opus (your greatest work).”  Though he never became a great composer, as a great teacher he inspired and led his students to strive for excellence in their lives.  His teaching and example have made a far-reaching impact in the lives of many, perhaps much more than he could have done had he become a full-time composer.


Any teacher with a caring concern for their students cannot help but deeply relate to the message of this film and its multiple conflicts.  What instructor has not struggled to find the proper balance with his teaching and his personal life and goals?  How many stumbled into teaching as a “fall back on” job, and then found it irresistible?  How many teachers have not found themselves particularly attracted to their students, sometimes those of the opposite sex, and found themselves deeply conflicted as to the proper behavior and the proper display of affection?  How many have found themselves faced with choices between family and students?  All of these conflicts, emotions, and ethical challenges make this film a must-see for any teacher who aspires to greatness within his or her profession.