Last Wednesday, Oct. 5, we celebrated Teachers’ Day. As my way of celebrating teachers’ day, I watched—or re-watched—the film “Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” based on the 1934 classic novel of the same title by James Hilton.
There are two film versions, the first, in black and white, a 1939 film which won an Oscar for Robert Donat, who portrayed the British high-school teacher Mr. Chips. I saw it using those huge discs—as big as a long playing record—in the ’80s.
The recent one I saw is a DVD of the 1969 version starring Petula Clark and Peter O’Toole. O’Toole earned an Oscar nomination for his Mr. Chips.
Mr. Chips is the epitome of a teacher—strict, a disciplinarian. He was learned and well-versed in his subject, the classics. He seemed cold and detached, but was in his core loving, a man totally devoted to his profession. He was very principled, a man of integrity. Above all, he loved teaching and his students.
In the closing scene of the 1969 film, Chips sits in his home after a conversation with a freshman in Brookfield, the English boarding school which was the setting of the story. The young man was the grandson of his former student. Chips carries this monologue:
“I wonder if we’re any use at all. I mean, what did we ever teach the boys? How to parse a sentence in ancient Greek? Was that going to help them today? Was it? Well, I suppose we did teach them one thing: How to behave to each other. Yes, we did try to teach them that. And is there anything more important to teach people than that, is there?”
Then Chips takes a walk and the lines from the famous song are sung by him as the background music, as he walks and watches the boys of Brookfield line up for attendance:
“In the evening of my life I shall look to the sunset
At a moment in my life when the night is due
And the question I shall ask only you can answer
Was I brave? And strong and true?
Like you? Like you?”
I ask for your kind indulgence and allow me to deviate from our regular Sunday reflection to pay tribute to our teachers: the teachers we have in the classrooms and the teachers we have in our homes, workplaces and communities. These are the men and women in our life who challenged us and inspired us to be “brave and strong and true.” They gave us our confidence. They encouraged us to persevere and work hard. They showed us how to be faithful to the truth, to who we are and why we are here, even as we fail and make mistakes; even when—or most especially—the going gets rough.
A couple of weeks ago, I quoted from Parker Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach.” He succinctly describes teaching at its best: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
Teachers, through their own humanity, teach us to discover our own humanity—and the struggle to live it out. As one of my teachers in college, the revered Fr. Roque Ferriols, SJ, often said “madaling maging tao, mahirap magpakatao.” I was trying to translate this line, but nothing seems to quite capture its power in Filipino.
As I look back on my own journey to live out my humanity and my own vocation as teacher, indeed “mahirap magpakatao.” But there are small victories that encourage us to journey on. The student who after 30 years still cherishes his high-school dream to live a life of service and, despite his success in the corporate world and his family life, he still waits and longs for the moment to live out this dream. The lethargic student you were worried about in high school, but ends up being a country manager of a major multinational company and tells his teacher who “retires” (not from teaching) to pursue “teaching,” his true passion—“You always taught us to discover and pursue our dreams, now go fly with our dreams as you pursue your own.” The grateful student who, after having been given a second chance, proves himself and passes with flying colors—and years later seeks out his “teacher,” who gave him this second chance, to say “thank you.”
Teachers never rest on their laurels. They simply ask for the blessing—always, “in the morning . . . in the noontime . . .” “to be brave and strong and true.” I saw this in my teachers. I saw this in my colleagues as a teacher. I see this now as I work with teachers from public schools—young and old, the greenhorns and the veterans—the heart and soul of a teacher asks for this blessing, “to be brave and strong and true.”
What we need to remember is that teachers ask for this blessing not for themselves, but for those they teach and have dedicated their lives to.
Heart of teaching
There is another blessing teachers ask for, the most important blessing, the heart of teaching—“to fill the world with love.” Teaching is loving students into excellence.
There is a man I met years ago. He came from very humble beginnings, a product of the public-school system in the ’60s. To be able to take the entrance test at the Ateneo for college, his family had to borrow money for his transportation fare and, I believe, for the entrance-test fee. He made it and, while studying at the Ateneo, he became close to many of his teachers/mentors, Jesuit and lay.
In his sophomore year, I think it was, his father died. This was early morning. Around early afternoon, one of his Jesuit teachers went up to him, took out a piece of cloth all wrapped up, and opened it. In it was the money his Jesuit teacher had collected. Then the teacher accompanied him home so that they could bring the remains of his father to a funeral parlor.
This young man never forgot this. He graduated valedictorian of his college class, became a successful banker and businessman, but he never forgot that one act of kindness and love from his teacher. After “retiring,” he dedicated his life to improving the public-school system and focused on helping educate and form good teachers. He has done admirable work for our teachers and our public-school system. He never forgot the teachers who loved him into excellence—not just his Jesuit teacher, but also his other teachers, the many Jesuit and lay teachers, his mother.
This is the most important blessing a teacher asks for—“to fill the world with love” by forming and loving students into excellence, who will in turn fill our world with love.
As the closing scene in “Good-bye, Mr. Chips” very aptly puts it, the blessing we ask for—always ask for “in the morning . . . in the noontime”—becomes a question in the end, “in the evening of our life.” Yes, were we “brave and strong and true?” But above all, “did we fill the world with love?” And as Mr. Chips’ final words put it, “Like you? Like you?”