“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
To their eternal credit, my parents tried to address this in various ways. They urged a series of different elementary schools—we moved around a lot—to allow me to work faster or move ahead in the books at my own pace. They pushed my first grade teacher to let me skip into second grade halfway through the school year. They searched, mostly in vain, for a school or program that would challenge me enough to keep my interest, to provide some of the stimulation and fun of learning that I so easily found outside of the classroom, but rarely within it. Still, because I attended tiny Christian schools in various small towns, the options were usually limited.
Then, in fifth grade, something magical happened. My mother found a “gifted program” at a local public school, I took some kind of test, and everything changed. For the first time, school was fun. Mr. Mickelson—the first in a series of teachers over the next decade who believed in, pushed, and inspired me—opened my eyes to all that school could be. We did grand, hands-on science experiments with things like dry ice that he would bring into the classroom, figured out the Fibonacci Sequence from old college textbooks, and put together quarterly student magazines filled with art and poetry. He wasn’t exactly jumping up on desks and shouting Walt Whitman, but he was constantly inspiring us, instilling a vast curiosity about the world, and offering up a love of learning that was enormously contagious. Which is, of course, what the very best teachers do.
We all need our Mr. Keatings.
Which brings us into bittersweet territory. Since we select a theme for each new issue a few months in advance, we obviously had no way of knowing that this school-themed issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room would wind up coinciding with the terrible passing of Robin Williams, a man forever identified with one of the great onscreen teachers. Williams inspired not only impressionable and melancholic teenagers with his portrayal of Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society, but scores of future teachers as well (much like his portrayal of a therapist in Good Will Hunting would do for aspiring therapists years later, myself included). While Keating was based on a real teacher, and his words came from an Oscar-winning screenplay, a good deal of the character’s magic and grace came from Williams himself. It was a role he was seemingly born to play, and one that he often remarked was closest to his own heart. Losing Williams a few weeks ago was a gut punch, and we’re all still reeling. There’s no essay on Dead Poets Society in this issue, as we covered it way back in our inaugural issue, but the spirit of the film is nonetheless present throughout—particularly in Sophia Nguyen’s piece on The Emperor’s Club, Tarra Martin’s take on The History Boys, and Fran Hoepfner’s look at School of Rock.
But inspirational teachers and elite prep schools aren’t the only things on our mind in this issue. We also have something on the glory years of late 90s high school comedies (She’s All That), a couple of essays on two very different animated films (Monsters University and Whisper of the Heart), an achingly honest reflection on Notes on a Scandal, a look at teaching and being taught (Il Postino), learning what’s worth loving (An Education), and a poem on Heathers, carved out entirely from the film’s own dialogue.
Growing up, I wanted to be a great many things: an astronaut, a basketball player, a lawyer, a college professor, a psychologist, a rock star, a writer. What I most wanted to be, though—at least once school started to feel more invigorating than tedious—was a perpetual student. To always be learning seemed to me like the greatest possible thing one could ever hope to do, the most fun anybody could ever hope to have. And so now every year, without fail, as the summer starts to fade and September rolls around, I find myself thinking about school, and the passage of time, all over again.
This year, though, it feels especially intense. This morning I walked my son to his very first full day of kindergarten. He’s insanely excited to “finally” be at school with the big kids, right down the hall from his big sister, who just started second grade. Watching all this with a parent’s eye, a thousand miles removed from the kindergartner I was back in the mid-1980s, offers up an entirely different view of things. I see all the unformed potential in both my kids, as well as a fervent, tangible desire to learn new things, to be taught more and more about the world every single day. I see that excitement and pray to the universe that it’s a light that never goes out in them, that these early years of school inspire rather than bore them. That they, too, find their own Mr. Keatings someday.
But I also envy them, because their only real job for the next several years is to go to class—to live, learn, and be taught. Even though it’s been nearly a decade since I last set foot in a classroom, school is still something I miss immensely. The backpacks and the textbooks, the school supplies and bright yellow buses, the lively debates and eagerly raised hands.
It’s September again, and I want to go back to school.