Movie/Video Review: Mr. Holland’s Opus

Fr. John Shimchick / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall 1996

Mr. Holland. Most of us have probably met someone like him. He was the teacher in high school or at some other level who made us feel we could accomplish something which we ourselves did not think possible. He gave us confidence in ourselves, our abilities, our talents. He provided us with the "gift of being believed in." Maybe, he was a coach or relative. Perhaps he was our pastor. If we were especially fortunate, he might have been our parent (father or mother).

"Mr. Holland’s Opus," starring Richard Dreyfuss, chronicles 30 years in the creative work (that is what the word opus, especially as it relates to music, means) of a high school music teacher. While the creative work takes place on one level in the transformed lives of the students he comes in contact with, it is also, maybe even primarily, the story of how Mr. Holland’s life was changed by that contact. It might be better to say that it is the story of how his life was changed by assuming the true nature of his vocation. For those of us who are teachers, coaches, pastors, and even parents his story helps us to understand this vocation in two ways.

First, Mr. Holland decided to become a teacher because he primarily wanted to do something else: teaching, he believed, would provide him the time to pursue his main love, musical composition. Teachers have an easy job, consistent hours, he thought. So, he was initially among the first to be in his car at the end of the school day. With these kind of hours he could have the time to write his compositions at home. He soon realized that this would not work. He was quickly frustrated with the inattention and lack of enthusiasm found in his students. Gradually, the more he invested in the details of his job and the lives of his students the more success he achieved and the less composing he did. Always at odds with certain administrators, he became more beloved by the students and their families, both during their time in school and even after graduation.

How many of us have likewise assumed a position or maybe even entered into a relationship (either as a spouse or a parent) that has challenged our initial assumptions of how it would be, how we would act, or how we would respond? The message from "Mr. Holland’s Opus" is not avoidance of the vocation when things become difficult, but a re-examination of what our calling really requires of us and a willingness to have our presuppositions changed or, at least, expanded. It also demands that we re-examine the questions of who is being taught and who is meant to grow. Dr. Albert Rossi, has noted that being a parent is not just about what happens to our children but in seeing that, "Our children are probably placed in our lives to enable us to get serious about life and God" [my emphasis].

The movie can help us understand the notion of vocation in one other way . At the end of his teaching career an incident occurs which forces Mr. Holland to re-evaluate what he has accomplished over his thirty years. At first he draws the conclusion that he has not, in fact, really made much of a difference. The rest of the movie deals with the resolution of this concern -- let’s just say that for him it ends triumphantly! But for many of us it is often more uncertain. Pastors are never really sure about this subject and we are encouraged, for good reason, not to even seriously pursue it. The same might be said for parents, who are likewise not always sure how well they have performed their role and positively guided their children. Sometimes a clear answer is not to be had in this lifetime.

I think here of Serge Verhovsky, the late Professor of Dogmatics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. "Professor", as he was known to his students, was not a dynamic speaker or a prolific writer, but if one was patient enough and fortunate enough to visit with him outside of class then another side of the man was revealed. He was opinionated and usually unbending on his pronouncements. Yet, he indeed cared for his students both during their Seminary days and long after their graduation. He had the time and interest to pursue long and detailed conversations about theology and other issues. He may have been disappointed in his lifetime achievements, in not producing more, in not having more material published. Yet, while one will not find many books or articles written by Professor, it is probably true, as others have noted, that most of what he would have wanted to say has been written on the hearts of his students. His legacy continues to live. So might the answer be for us.

"Mr. Holland’s Opus" raises the issue of one’s true vocation. Is it always what we think it is? It also challenges us also to explore the content and, maybe even, perceived success or failure of our own "opus", our life’s creative work. A university professor once noted that at one point he felt he could have accomplished so much more in his lifetime if he had not been so distracted. Then, he acknowledged, "I came to the realization that the distractions themselves had indeed been my real work."

Fr. John Shimchick is the pastor of Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ
and editor of Jacob's Well, the Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America.

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