Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rewards Points

The mercifully long winter vacation gave me the chance not only to grade 200 pages, to read several of the novels I thought I might have to save until summer, and to catch up on hours of sleep, but also to see one of the two movies I usually see per year. And given my ridiculous work schedule, I am usually relegated to choosing a film based more on convenience than anything else. 

Generally, I must say, I am repelled by American movies. For a while there it seemed as if every American film contained the requisite “aren’t we all suckers for beautiful young people in love” scene. In these "heartwarming" films, a restaurant full of all kinds of people, all in unison and all clearly impelled by the same overwhemling emotion, would giddily erupt into some song like “Stop in the Name of Love,” and everyone would clap and sing, happy just to be breathing the same air as the beautiful young lovers. UGH! I say. When a friend recently asked me what movies I DO like, I had to say foreign movies, which are usually atmospheric and subtle and don’t feel the need to clobber the audience with sing-alongs or sentimental strings or overblown moral or emotional messages (Ennio Morricone and some Italian cinema excepted).

Give me a movie like Patrice Leconte’s 2002 film “Man on a Train,” where Johnny Halladay and Jean Rochefort meet by chance and enter each other’s very different lives. Halladay’s character is a thief; Rochefort’s, a poet and teacher.  The scene that exemplifies the kind of subtlety I am talking about occurs when the two have lunch in a local cafe and a young man comes up to Rochefort’s character to say that he remembers the teacher and can still recite one of the poems he had been taught. When Rochefort’s character, obviously flustered, embarrassed, and proud, asks the young man what he currently does for a living, the man says he works down the street in a lamp shop. No big, dramatic, “You changed my life, and I am now part of the Dead Poet’s Society forever.” No eavesdroppers joining in, clapping and singing, “What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love” or something equally banal. Here the quotidian was colored and warmed for a moment by nostalgia, both the teacher’s and the student’s, and the connection felt true and, therefore, profound.

Well, as with all things, one must never say, "Never!" or make sweeping comments based on overblown opinions because one never knows when such broad statements and gestures might come back to, as they say, bite you in the rear, especially when life seems to imitate "art." This past weekend I went to Santa Barbara to visit my family. We exchanged gifts for birthdays and other assorted recent holidays and then trundled off to our favorite clothing store to redeem our gift cards. As we moved through the racks, one of the sales women, who offered to set up a changing room for me, could not help grinning at me, her head tilted, a question on her face. After teaching for as long as I have, everyone looks familiar, so I sometimes ignore the impulse to ask people whether I know them, particularly when I’m about 100 miles away from all my teaching experience. But clearly this young woman and I knew each other, and just as she was about to ask, “Are you. . . ,” I asked her whether she had attended the high school where I began my tenure in the LAUSD. She was ecstatic when she determined that I was in fact her former English teacher and offered her graduation year and her name. 

She then said that my class was life-changing for her, and because of me she had learned two other languages, traveled and studied abroad, and was not just working in this clothing shop, but she was also in school, earning her PhD.  She said she would always remember that I told my students never to settle for mediocrity, and that she herself has always lived by this credo. I could not help but hug her at this point, and we both welled up with heartfelt tears. 

It was at that moment that I noticed the clicking of hangers and the whooshing of garments had stopped, and all the well-appointed Santa Barbara shoppers stood as if frozen, listening to our conversation. As my former student wiped away her tears, so, too, did the women in the store, and one whispered to my mother that she had never seen such gratitude or heard such a, dare I say it, heartwarming story before. The whole store had stopped to listen to the story of this humbled teacher and her grateful student, but I am happy to report that within moments we were all rifling through the racks again, and no one erupted into song.