Sunday, July 22, 2012

It All Started with a Phone Call

My teaching career all started with a phone call, and my life was changed forever after.

In the spring of 1999, I was a graduate of the University of Utah with a BA in Film Studies.  During my time at the U, I had chosen to take the production route to graduation, and not so much the academic track.  Meaning that I wanted to work on making movies, and not necessarily teach others about movies.  

I was working as the manager at Book Warehouse, recently married, and looking desperately for a job in film and video production.  I was sending my resume out to anyone I could think of, and I was asking friends and family to do the same.  If anyone had even the slightest connection to editing, producing, creating films or videos, I was interested in speaking with them.

One day, while working at the bookstore, I received a phone call from Tyler Morgan asking if I was interested in teaching the English 270, Genres of Film class at LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I politely told him that he must have the wrong individual because I was interested in making films, not teaching about them.  He then proceeded to read my resume back to me and confirm that he had the correct Tracy Mangum. (Not that there are many of us.)  He had my resume, but I had never applied for this position.  I asked him how he had received it, and he replied that he couldn't remember, but he had meant to call me for weeks since I was such a strong candidate.  He was extremely interested in having me come to the College for an interview, but I wasn't as sure that I was qualified.  I kept trying to politely refuse, but he was insistent that we at least meet in person and see what they had to offer me.  I told him that he was most likely wasting his time, but I would indeed meet with him in person at the College in two days' time.

I hung up the phone, shook my head, and tried to laugh the whole thing off.  I kept telling myself that it wasn't for me, that I wasn't qualified, etc.  I had never taken any classes on how to teach; I had never followed that path in my studies; I didn't know how to put together a lesson plan.  I just wasn't meant to be a teacher.

But there was a little voice in my head that wouldn't be drowned out.  The voice that thought this would be an amazing opportunity.  That I should fake it until I made it.  I couldn't shake the thought and the longer it stayed, the more I wasn't sure I wanted it to leave.

Two days later, I met with Tyler at his office at the College.  It was a beautiful mansion on South Temple that had been converted into a school, and was so unique, I feel in love with it immediately. 

The very first thing Tyler asked me was "If you were to teach this class, would the students have to take tests?"

This took me aback for a moment, and I wondered if this was a trick question.

"Of course they would take tests."

"Would they have to write papers?" was the next question he asked me.

"Absolutely, at least one at midterm and one at the final."  

Tyler gave a large sigh of relief and smiled at me.  It turns out that the previous professor had been showing films to students with a few minutes of lecture before and after, and that was the extent of work that he and the students were putting into the course.  He wasn't giving tests, preparing lectures and discussions, wasn't taking roll, and wasn't testing the students in any way, shape, or form.  The College had discovered this from students in the course who had complained that while the course was fun, it was too easy and they didn't feel challenged.  

This was my first inkling that this College and these students were something special.  At most schools, the students would do everything in their power to not let administration find out that they watched movies, never did homework and got A's with no work.  The students at LDSBC were the opposite.  They demanded to be challenged, to be taught knowledge and not just receive a grade.  

My meeting with Tyler lasted almost an hour, and we discussed everything from how I would teach the class, to what movies I loved, to family, etc.  The class would be 8 weeks in the summer and would meet two nights a week.  I would be paid a flat amount, and it would be a test run for both myself and the College.  If I was good, if I liked it, if the College liked me, and the students were happy, I would be offered another contract for the fall of that year. At the end of the meeting, Tyler shook my hand and asked if I was interested in the job.  I told him that I was interested, but I wanted to think about it, and to discuss it with my wife.  He agreed, but asked if I could have an answer for him by the end of the week.  The College needed 5 students enrolled in order for the class to move forward, and he wanted a professor locked down before they opened enrollment to students.  

I went home with a grin on my face, and I couldn't stop the entire day.  

Lisa and I discussed the options, and we finally agreed to give it a go.  I could share something that I loved, it the small amount I would earn would be fun money for us to take a trip to Disneyland or something we wouldn't have done otherwise.

That first semester, we ended up with 8 students enrolled, and the class went live.  I was a nervous wreck the entire time.  I didn't know how to use Powerpoint, so I hand wrote out notes on a dry erase board.  I had VHS tapes and laser discs at my disposal.  I shared my love of Citizen Kane and how Orson Welles created this masterpiece of a film.  I shared information on what all those jobs at the end of the credits meant.  I shared with them how filmmakers can completely change the emotion of a scene through manipulative editing.  I shared with the students films with themes of hope and redemption like The Mission, and films that were silent, but poignant and hilarious like Buster Keaton's The General.  I shared with them the pure happiness Gene Kelly expresses in the key scene of Singin' in the Rain.  I shared with them that film can transport you to another world for a few hours.  That film had the ability to entertain, but it also had the ability to teach, to enlighten, to move you and make you think.  I wouldn't accept the notion that films were only there to "turn off your brain," I wanted them to use their brain and engage their heart and expand their soul through film.

I got to class early every single night, in order to spend 30 minutes alone before the students arrived, telling myself that I could do this, that I was giving them what they needed and that it was all for the good.  I had to give myself a pep talk to quell the nerves and to put on my bravest face so that my students would never know the panic that bubbled just below the surface of my smile.  It often surprises people as they get to know me to learn that I am not a confident person.  I have a lot of fear and doubt, and I am the king of self-sabotage.  I have tried very hard in my life to quell those negative voices and to push down the self-doubt.  I am much better than I used to be, but back then especially, the terror and self-doubt lay right below the veneer of a confident and knowledgable professor.

The semester ended, and I was on top of the world.  The student feedback was extremely strong, the College was thrilled with my work, and I was addicted.  Standing before those students and sharing something that I loved so much, sharing the magic and power of cinema just felt so right.  It was like I was meant to do this, and I didn't ever want to give it up.

The College offered me another semester in the Winter, and this time, it would be 2 classes.  One offered at 7:40 in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then Thursday nights from 6:00-9:00 p.m.  To the surprise of all of us involved, the word of the class had spread and enrollment went through the roof.  We had 25 in the morning and 15 at night within a week of open enrollment.  By the time the semester started, I had capped out at 30 in the morning and had 22 in the night class.  Tyler was thrilled, and I was scared out of my mind.  Teaching 8 kids was one thing, but 52?  Really?  Could I do that?

Not only did I do it, but I was good at it.  Once again, student feedback was some of the highest at the College. I was having students stay after class for 20-30 minutes to talk about what we discussed in class, or the newest movie out in theaters.  The students found the class challenging, but fair and interesting.  They said I opened their minds in new directions.  That I made them see movies in a new light. That they were grateful they took the class.  That I made them feel as if I cared about each one of them individually and weren't just another student to me.  That meant the most to me, because that was what I was trying to develop.  I didn't want them to take a class where they just hid in the back and slept.  I didn't want want them to just memorize facts and spit them back onto paper for the test.  I wanted them to learn and think and to love cinema the way I did.  

As I continued to be hired at the College for semester after semester, I expanded my teaching style.  I would spend hours at home working on Powerpoint presentations.  I would pull clips of different scenes from different movies to show the class to demonstrate an editing technique, or how the focus shifted in a scene to reveal new information.  I put my blood, sweat, and tears into preparing new things for the class, and I tried to put a little of my soul into each presentation.  The class enrollment grew to 40 students in each section, so I was now teaching 80 students a semester, and I loved each and every one.  I really did.

You see, Lisa and I can't have any children of our own.  We did in-vitro twice and were unsuccessful, but on the 3rd and final try, Lisa became pregnant with twins.  Shortly into the pregnancy, Lisa developed a blood clot in her leg, and it broke free and lodged in her lungs.  Her blood oxygen levels dropped to 60%, which is the equivalent to being on the top of Everest without supplemental oxygen tanks.  We lost the twins, and Lisa almost lost her life.  The doctors afterword told us that to try again would be too risky to Lisa, and we agreed.  So, my students became my kids.  Some of my kids became my friends, and some of those friends became some of my closest and most dear friends.  

After the scare with Lisa, I began to give a final lecture to my students.  I took a class period to discuss my thoughts on film and my philosophy on life.  I included clips from Ratatouille to demonstrate that they can do whatever they dream possible.  I showed clips from Wall-e to show that even the dorky garbage man can win the heart of the beautiful and graceful woman.  I pulled clips from Bowfinger and Searching for Bobby Fischer to show scenes that I wanted to show in class and didn't get a chance to share.  And then at the end, I got really personal.  I shared with them that even though I was terrified I would lose my wife that night when the large blood clot moved to her lungs, I knew that I loved her, and more importantly, she knew I loved her.  That we had lived our lives with love, with laughter and happiness and had no regrets.  If she had was to leave my life permanently, I knew that we loved each other and that was enough to get us through that terrible night.  I told my students to go home that night and to tell someone that they loved them.  To pick up the phone and call a parent, a sibling, or anyone else they could think of.  You never know when you may never get that chance again.  I told them that I loved them.  Each and every one of them.  They taught me more than I ever taught them, and that I loved every moment I got to spend with them.  Even after a day that started with me teaching downtown at 7:40 a.m. and that day ending with my night class and getting home around 10:00 -11:00 p.m., I was never tired after teaching.  In fact, I would often come home and have dinner with Lisa and watch a little T.V. to come down from my high.  

A few days later, a letter arrived at the College with a note from a student that she was so touched from my class and that final lecture, she had drawn a picture for Lisa and me, as a thank you.  I opened the manilla envelope and I was overcome with emotion and tears.  It was a beautiful drawing and the fact that she would draw this for me and Lisa again demonstrated how amazing the students at this college are.  

One semester, I handed out a study guide for the final to a student in the front row and asked him to pass it from student to student.  I accidentally had 2 copies of the final exam mixed in the pile of paper and within seconds of discovering that they had copies of the test, both students that received it came up to me separately and said, "I don't think I'm supposed to have this" and gave the test back to me.  Most college students who received a copy of the final early would have quietly thanked their lucky stars and just slipped it into a folder and gotten an A on the exam several days later.

The students at LDSBC are remarkable.  They have a hunger for learning and have an integrity to them.  These students are the next generation and I know they will do great things.  They look out for one another, they help lift each other up to greater heights, and it's been a pleasure to experience that firsthand.

A few years back, I was informed that the College would no longer be offering English 270 - Genres of Film, because it wasn't a core class and was simply an elective.  The College needed to focus students more on their 2-year certificates and were cutting any classes that didn't move students towards those certificates.  I was devastated.  I had put over 10 years into this class, the enrollment was among the highest at the College, and my feedback was consistently some of the best they received.  But there was simply no room for this class anymore, and it looked as if my time at the College was coming to an end. I taught my final film class during a summer semester, and I invited my family to attend.  It was an amazing night, as only Lisa had ever attended any of my classes.  I spoke about love, hope, and leading an honorable life.  I talked about how film could move and inspire.  That for those 2+ hours of the movie, you could move into another dimension and be transported to amazing worlds and dreams and imagination.  I spoke about Ingmar Bergman and his belief that each of his films was a glimpse into his soul at that time.  That once you took his entire library of films, you would see his life and his soul.  I spoke about how it's hard to share your soul to critics and paying audience members....and how this metaphor applied to films as well as film professors.  I tried to put myself into every class, into each story, into each slide of a Powerpoint.  I spoke about how much this College meant to me, and how it had changed my life forever.  How people like Tyler were amazing to work for and with, that students found me on Facebook and shared stories of how my class changed them.  

On student was from Africa and had only watched two movies in his entire life before my class, both of which he watched on the airplane on his way to attend school in Utah.  He had now watched over 15 between the class and his free time, and he was hooked. He told me that he was transferring to BYU and was going into Nuclear Physics, but he was going to get a minor in film.  And he wrote me a few years later, to say that was exactly what he had done.

On student shared with me that her family was from the area of South America that was shown in the film The Mission.  She and her sister had not spoken to each other in years, but after watching the film in class, she felt compelled to call her sister and tell her about the film.  They spoke on the phone for over an hour, and they got together later that week to watch the film together.  After it ended, they then spent 3 hours discussing the film, the symbolism of overcoming and hope, and began a dialogue that began a healing process that brought them back together.

I had a student who had dropped out of college 20 years before to have children, and she wanted to complete her dream of being the first person in her family to graduate from college.  She wasn't sure if she could go back to school after all these years, and she took my class as a test to see if she had the willpower, the strength, and the skill to go back to school.  She wrote me a beautiful letter that said I gave her the confidence to go back full time the next semester.  She graduated a little more than a year later with honors and completed her dream.

These stories touched my heart deeply and had only deepened my commitment to these students and to become the best teacher I could become.  But now, it was all coming to an end.

Except it wasn't.

At the eleventh hour, the College managed to find another class for me.  It was IT 151, Visual Communications.  I had been working over the last number of years in online marketing, graphic design, web design, layout, etc., and would be a good fit for this class.  

I was lucky enough to have taught that class for the last 2 years.  Students made business cards, flyers, portfolios, etc. and I was able to continue to make a difference in student's lives.

Then earlier this summer, the College announced it would be offering a brand-new two-year degree in photography and asked if I would help create the teaching materials and teach this course.  I was over the moon.  I would teach a night class two nights a week, and teach beginning photography and Photoshop.  I worked throughout the spring on materials, and into the summer as well.  Everything was going to work out perfectly. 

Except it wasn't.

Due to a variety of personal and professional reasons, this last week I had to make one of the hardest decisions in my life.  I had to withdraw my name from teaching the courses.  It wasn't a decision made lightly, and after many weeks of soul searching, it became clear that it was the correct decision.  

My heart was broken, and my soul was shattered.  

I felt like I was deserting and abandoning my future kids.  There were two students who had signed up for the class that had taken IT 151 and were excited to be my students again.  I wrote them both personally this weekend to deliver the news, and to apologize that I won't be there for them this semester.  Both were understanding, and I am so grateful.  

I want to make it clear that this decision had NOTHING to do with the College, and that I love and respect the institution and the faculty/staff there dearly.  Tyler Morgan is one of the nicest men I have ever met, and he has taught me so much about living with class, dignity, and what it means to be a man of honor.  Sue Hepworth has been a rock, and so patient with my scatterbrain self.  Lynda Henry has been honest and fair and great to work with the last few years.  

At this moment of my life, I don't know when or if I will be returning to the College.  I hope I can, and I hope I will.  I won't discuss details of what lead me here, but I will say it is the correct thing at this time, even as it breaks my heart.  I will miss the energy, the discussions, the love.  I will miss attending graduation where the faculty forms two parallel lines and applaud the students as they walk past into the Tabernacle for graduation ceremonies.  A major piece of my soul has been removed and I don't know how I will fill it.  

But I know that the College will find someone who will take that class to amazing heights, and I hope that someday in the not-too-distant future, I can be a part of it again.  

This song is a theme song of life for me, and I've been returning to it often as I write this post.  Because love remains, I will pay the price, but I will not count the cost.

I taught at the College for 13 years, and I would do it all again.  And even though the pain of not being there is raw and deep, I will not count the cost.  I will reflect back on the joy it has given me, and the students who changed my life, and the way it strengthened and enriched me. I hope that I was able to give back 1/100th of what I received.  I move forward into another chapter in my life, and I face it with a smile and a knowledge that I can make that future whatever I want it to be.  I hope that my future will bring me back to the College and to be able to teach there once again.  But if I have lost it permanently, I know that I loved it, and I know the other faculty and staff, and especially the students, know how much I loved it and them.  And that is enough.  

1 comment:

ellie said...

That was beautiful! Thank you for teaching me to love the little things in movies! Thank you for everything you taught me! I am so excited for the next chapter of your life!