Many of us were touched years ago by the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, the story of a misfit music teacher who overcame school bureaucracy (and put aside his own selfish ambitions) in a relentless quest to inspire his students to be something more than they imagined they could be. The testimony of his inspiration lived on in the lives of his students for decades.
As schools across the nation marked senior class graduations last week, I was reminded that it has been 40 years since mine (actually, I skipped the ceremony to go to a concert in Oakland, a choice that haunts me none to this day). But I was reminded that it was 40 years ago that I and a few other seniors sat for the last time in a class taught by a Mr. Holland of our own. Chet Farrow was a new electronics teacher —slightly frenetic, passionate and fiercely independent. Some never thought he would last.
He must never have listened. He took an arcane science full of formulas, calculations and labyrinths of schematics and made it come alive for a bunch of kids (mostly guys at the time) who cared more about rock music, cars, football and dates to the prom. He never fought that. We built stereo systems, redid the score board at our football field, tricked up running lights on our cars — all with him cheering us on (and occasionally stepping in to keep us from electrocuting ourselves or intercepting someone’s toss of a 20,000-volt capacitor that we used to play hot potato). Then we went Big. A bunch of us concocted an idea to transform our gymnasium into a rock concert hall to attract some of the rock, soul and blues bands that were spilling out of the Bay Area back in the late 60s. With a pensive school principal looking on, we fabricated a sound stage, a mobile control room, lighting, sound baffling — and over the years our gym pulsed with the live music of bands that were the envy of every school in the area: Santana, Isaac Hayes, Steve Miller, and others.
But you know the funny thing? We learned about electronics, sure, but we learned about dreaming and working a hole in our 501 Levi jeans to make them come true. The list of people who stepped head-high out of Chet’s class and into lives they never imagined could be posted on a wall somewhere: rock stars, music producers, designers of some of the most successful electronics toys and games, rocket scientists (really) and a whole bunch of other people who can look at a friend’s busted stereo and say, “Here, let me take a look at that.”
All because Chet decided to be himself, be different enough to shake up the world around him, be hopelessly in love with learning and unrelenting in pushing you toward your dreams.
Thank you, Mr. Farrow. You made a difference.
Now it’s our turn.