Sunday, April 30, 2006

Of horses and money

Last night, and this morning, I watched Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer (1998).

What a powerful picture.

It's haunted me all day.

Redford compels, right from the top.  His Tom Booker character tells Annie MacLean that he doesn't help people with horse problems -- he helps horses with people problems.  This is a teacher who understands his students.

The cinematography was effective.  The sparse dialogue felt utterly genuine, yet trapped a powerful subtext of human conflict.  There are long scenes with no dialogue at all.

Redford, who directed this film, certainly seems to understand horses.  And Scarlett Johansson plays a powerful role -- still in her early teens.

There was one very powerful moment where cinematography and story came together in powerful synchronicity. 

At the end of the film, Booker has gotten Pilgrim, the horse, to face up to the horror caused by facing down the semi-truck during the original accident.  It is a horrific moment we witness within minutes of the film's beginning. 

Now the horse lies patiently on the ground in the corral, waiting while the girl rubs his coat, sitting on top of him.  She is still frightened.  The memories linger.

Finally, the girl gets into the saddle, putting her feet back into the stirrups.  Booker lets the horse have its head.  

And as the monstrous horse slowly gets to his feet, thrusting the girl towards the sky, you realize you are once again watching the horse's fall during the accident -- only this time, in reverse.

                      *          *          *

I just finished reading Saving Miss Oliver's by Stephen Davenport.  Teachers of private schools -- and especially administrative leaders -- will enjoy this book.

The book takes you inside the minds of the main characters.  Honestly, I cannot recall reading another story set in a school -- in which the protagonist is the administrator.  Usually, it's a rebel teacher.

Okay, I take that back.  There's Lean on Me, shown mostly from the principal's perspective, Morgan Freeman, but in that case, he's the rebel -- fighting with the school community against the forces of evil. 

In this story, the school leader and the board take on the school community.  The center of good is reversed.  So this book turns the education genre on its head.

Here's the story:

Fred Kindler, the newly hired male head of Miss Oliver's School for Girls, who has taken over for the first head's position -- after she was fired by the board of the school she founded -- finds what it's like to be hated by the alumnae, the students, and the parents (that covers about everyone) as he struggles to save them from bankruptcy;

Francis Plummer, the senior teacher of Miss Oliver's School, finds himself in constant conflict with the new head, and he fails horribly in his attempt to deal with the changes that new leadership brings;

Meanwhile, Peggy Plummer, the librarian of the school, is caught between her belief in the school's new leader, and her natural loyalty for her husband.  Worse, she begins to realize that her marriage and her job are inextricably linked in an unhealthy manner.

                      *          *          *

I sat down at 6 PM over dinner last night at a restaurant, intending to get a good start on the book.  I left the place (that's a lot of coffee) after midnight, having finished the book. 

The book is a compelling read.

I disagree with some of the stylistic choices made by author Stephen Davenport.  His use of verb tense -- and his apparent hesitancy to trust the power of his dialogue -- keeps the reader at arm's length from the story.  The omniscient narrator also seems compelled to explain every nuance of every character's thought.

But the power of the story itself kept me sucking down coffee and turning pages.  The culture of this prestigious institution, which I suspect owes its genesis to Miss Porter's School, was fascinating.

                      *          *          *

Take this passage, for example, found at the end of the book (280).  Nan, the admissions director, confronts Plummer, an English and math teacher, for his failure to support the new head. 

"Why didn't you get behind Fred Kindler in the beginning?" Nan stares at him.  "It was all up to you, and you didn't do a thing."

And before he can answer, she says:  "If you're thinking of telling me it's complicated, don't."

Francis checks himself again.  He's not going to waste his time by giving into his anger; he's going to write the letter; just do his job.  He starts to stand up.  "That's right," Nan says.  "Go write that letter.  Bring it back to me, and I'll correct it."

"Correct it!"

"Yes.  Correct it."

On his way out, Francis closes the door gently behind himself.

Later it will occur to him that checking your feelings, holding them inside where they burn, is what a leader has to do.  Every day.

                      *          *          *

I didn't realize until now why this story feel so familiar.

In August of 1990, I was hired to teach at a private Catholic school in the heart of the Ohio Valley:  Steubenville Catholic Central High School. 

The principal, Kenneth Voss, who hired me, was new himself.  He followed a popular leader.  He faced a situation similar to the one Fred Kindler faces at Miss Oliver's School:  the institution was facing a deep deficit, and he had been hired to bring the budget under control, increase enrollment, and save the school.

Mr. Voss won, and the school survived.

Today, when I think back on the two years I spent there teaching English and advising the yearbook, I realize what I was learning from Mr. Voss.  He shaped me into a professional.

For that, I honor him.

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