The previous blogs focused on a few events that inspired me to love and eventually use film. As mentioned, I survived the physical activity required to watch “Clayton family film classics”, such as the original King Kong, with my older siblings. Many years later, an executive used a short clip from the film A Few Good Men to drive home a difficult truth that a room full of leaders needed to hear. However, another important film, created by a young 6th grade teacher in New Jersey named Mr. Nicholas Menna in 1965, had an everlasting impact on me.
The Play’s the Thing. Sure.
As was the tradition of many elementary schools, the 5th and 6th grade classes at Tatem Elementary School would produce and perform an annual play. These were corny events that touched on various topics with bold revisionist history including Christmas plays where everyone, including Tatem’s few Jewish kids, had to sing Christmas carols and students with naturally blonde hair and blue eyes were hand picked to play baby Jesus and Mary. The only albino student to walk Tatem’s halls is also considered to be the greatest Saint Mary in the school’s history. Or a play about settlers moving across the United States during the 1800’s to discover gold in California and build a big railroad, resulting in, as 5th grader “Lefty” Ford proudly proclaimed to the audience, “discovering a great city called Hollywood and my father said that there were so many Chinese people building the railroads, that the egg roll and egg foo young was invented in our great country.”
The most memorable play, however, was the infamous 1964 “Thanksgiving Day” play, dramatizing how the nice Pilgrims came to America and served turkey and chocolate cream pie to the Indians, who immediately fell in love with the Pilgrims and basically handed over America in exchange for a couple of blankets, more turkey, a bunch of canned cranberry sauce, and, I kid you not, a six pack of Ballentine beer and a pack of Winston cigarettes. It turns out that these last two bits of nourishment were snuck into the storyline impromptu by 6th grader Bob “Goony Bird” Dunn playing one of the Pilgrims. Goony’s mother was a proud Navaho Indian and taught Goony the real deal about the Indians and Pilgrims. The beer and cigs were his form of disruptive protest over the nonsensical nature of Tatem’s “Thanksgiving Day” story. The teachers and parents in attendance were mortified when the tribe’s chief, played by Jimmy “Choo Choo” Thane, looking thoroughly confused, sheepishly accepted the six pack from Goony. The 100+ students in the audience, however, went completely crazy when Goony, instead of handing the chief a peace pipe, fired up a Winston, took a long drag and exhaled, and uttered the most memorized line in the school’s history: “chocolate cream pie my ass.”
Bring on Menna
The following year Mr. Menna was hired at the young age of 24 to gain control over the upcoming 6th grade class. He was a strict, no-nonense Italian American who grew up in New Jersey. He insisted that students stand when asking or answering a question. He emphasized good penmanship and proper grammar and mathematics. He demanded that respect be shown to everyone in his classroom. And, get this, he was the first teacher in the school system’s history to produce a film instead of a play. I was in 3rd grade when we were called to the auditorium in the school’s basement to watch, not a school play, but a movie called “Adam Hood” featuring the older 6th graders, directed by Mr. Menna. The film was a 14 minute parody of the classic story Robin Hood. When the lights went down and the movie started, I could not believe what I was seeing: kids only four or five years older than me appearing in a movie! The room was filled with awe and laughter. It was an experience that would stay with me forever. The following link contains a three minute clip. Check it out (the audio, which was narration by a 6th grade classmate, no longer exists).
Three years later I was a 6th grader in Mr. Menna’s class because I was one of the bad boys who needed some prescriptive Menna medicine. When I settled into my seat I figured it was going to be a long year. Boy was I wrong. To this day it remains one of my most memorable school years. For the first time in my young life, school was fun and interesting. Mr. Menna was creative and gave homework assignments that included watching films such as “El Cid” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy“, to augment our classroom teachings of the wars between Christian Spain and the Moors and the challenges that Michelangelo had with painting the Sistine ceiling. He provided a slide show of photos that he had taken of his trip to Rome. And he spoke of Italy and the Renaissance period with such passion that it seemed as if I was there. Mr. Menna added a fourth R to the essential 3 Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic). It was Renaissance, which to me was synonymous with art, beauty, and hope. Mr. Menna was the first teacher who made any sense to me. School was never quite as interesting or stimulating since. But, Mr. Menna made his mark.
Italy at Last
Over the years my experiences at Tatem became a faded memory. As an adult I occasionally considered what it would be like to travel outside the United States. Italy was always at the top of my list. Finally, I booked a trip for my wife and me to visit Italy during the Christmas season of 2007. For eight days, we visited Milan and viewed da Vinci’s “The Last Supper“, we climbed to the top of the cathedral Duomo to check out its impressive roof and to take in a 360 degree view of the city; Florence where we viewed hundreds of magnificent paintings and sculptures including Michelangelo’s “David” and “The Slaves” in their unwakening state; Rome where we visited the Vatican Museum including the ”Raphael Room”, attended Christmas mass in Saint Peter’s square, toured St. Peter’s Cathedral and saw the famous “Pieta” carved by a young Michelangelo, and numerous perfect marble sculptures from various artists, the “Sistine Ceiling” in it’s hushed glory, and I wept in silence and awe when encountering “The Moses” in the Church of St. Peter in Chains. As we moved from city to city and viewed so many wonderful sites, I began thinking about Mr. Menna’s history lessons of the Renaissance and Italy.
Christmas Eve Phone Call
On Christmas Eve, my wife and I were sitting on our hotel’s balcony enjoying red wine and a view of the Pantheon illuminated by misty rain and amber lights on the piazza. Mr. Menna was still in my head. I took a shot by dialing information in New Jersey and asked for Nicholas Menna’s phone number in the southern New Jersey area. Miraculously, the operator gave me a number and I dialed. A woman answered and I asked for Nicolas Menna. The next voice I heard sounded exactly the same as my 6th grade teacher, after so many years — no nonsense, direct and to the point. “Hello.” I said “Hello, Mr. Menna?” “Yeah, this is he. Who’s calling?” “Mr. Menna, this is Douglas Clayton. I was a 6th grade student of yours in 1969.” After a brief pause, he said, “Douglas Clayton? Oh yeah, I remember you. Are you in jail or something?! Why are you calling me?” I said, “No, no, no I’m not in jail. I’m in Rome. I’m calling to wish you a Merry Christmas and to tell you that the reason I’m in Rome is because of you. I realized that the other teachers taught us only the basics, but you thought enough of us to teach us beyond the basics. I’ve seen everything you talked about, even the Sistine Ceiling and the Moses. And you were right, it’s all so amazing and important. I just wanted to let you know that and to thank you for inspiring me to look at the world through a broader lens.” The phone fell silent on the other end and I was wondering if we had gotten disconnected and he hadn’t heard a single thing I said. Finally, in a gentle tone that I had never heard from him, “Thank you Douglas. This is the nicest Christmas present I could have ever hoped for.”
Connection to Film and Learning
In 2004, a couple of work colleagues and I began experimenting with filming short educational parodies targeted for a broad audience in work. We parodied Field of Dreams, The Godfather, and Star Trek, similar to how Mr. Menna parodied Robin Hood. Employees played various roles, similar to how Mr. Menna featured students. The next blog will feature short clips from these films.
In summary, a sixth grade teacher unknowingly inspired me to breathe the air and see wonders that exist beyond the shores of the U.S.A. I think I’ve become more open minded because of it. He unknowingly inspired me to create film parodies of well known stories featuring colleagues as actors. I believe I’m a more effective learning professional because of it. I would love it if you would blog back with examples of work related videos that feature employees in fun or creative settings. Or share a story of a teacher who inspired you.