I was listening to NPR late last week, and Robert Redford was being interviewed on “All Things Considered” about his new movie, The Company You Keep, that he both starred in and directed.
The interview turned to his upbringing, specifically his childhood. The interviewer asked the reason Redford often referred to himself as “Black Irish.” Redford replied that it sprang from his Irish father’s fear of poverty and failure, which led to always being afraid not of what you could gain from your actions and experiences, but rather what you might lose from them.
I could relate.
My father immigrated to America from Ireland through NY City in the late 40s. After acclimating himself, he began a string of rough jobs: laboring on a beer truck delivering kegs, cans, and bottles throughout the city; elevator operator in the Chrysler building (seriously, everyone should go to a skyscraper at morning or evening rush hour and watch the masses enter or empty a building--my dad’s job was to prevent his piece of it from being a traffic jam); and bartending in any one of a number of places around town. By the way, these jobs were all on the same day!
Finally, he married my mom and saved enough to embark on a plan I have come to call “flip this bar.” Like the TV show Flip This House, my dad would find a bar down on its luck, see the potential, buy it, clean it up till the floors, mirrors, and bathrooms shone, get the customers in and the registers ringing, and a few years later sell it and move on to another opportunity. He did well enough to raise four sons who all went to college, have done well, and got homes in the suburbs.
Yet, as Redford said, my dad likewise never escaped the constant pressure, the fear of staying ahead.
The interviewer followed up on this line and asked, “So how did your dad take your choice of the arts as a career?” Redford replied, “Not well. He thought I was taking too great a risk with my future.” The interviewer then asked, “So how did you stay on this career path?”
“My third-grade teacher,” he replied. Redford related how he had not been a good student in school, unfocused and inattentive in class. One day he was drawing while the class was engaged in something else, and his teacher caught him. She brought him up to the front of the room and directed him to, in effect, “Show us what’s more important than what we are doing.” He cringed, knowing that he’d be shamed, but he still pressed on. He detailed the chase between the cowboys and Indians he’d drawn, guns blazing, and showed the cliff they were headed for. Then, in a burst of imagination, he drew a formation of aircraft to bomb the unsuspecting forces below.
Redford related how the class stayed interested in his story and that the teacher, far from interrupting or shaming him, brought him up at the end of class and told him every Wednesday he would get an easel and 15 minutes to draw a story that he could tell to the class.
That started the career path that brought us All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Downhill Racer, and so many other artistic achievements, such as the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance TV network.
My third-grade teacher was Miss West. She heard me read the story of the First Thanksgiving in 1963, and I pronounced the name of the Indian “Squanto” correctly. She didn’t stop me, but when I spoke that name she looked up, nodded her head, smiled approvingly, and mouthed the words “Very good.”
That recognition energized my love of reading, sparked a willingness to learn how to pronounce and spell words correctly, and cultivated my desire to speak in public.
Who was your “3rd Grade Teacher”?
Do they know the difference they made?