An overdue thank you to a teacher
Sometimes I look back on my high school days and I wonder about the statute of limitations on certain crimes.
Mostly, though, I remain appreciative of one particular teacher who became my enabler.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that teacher — the late Diane Foster — with the airing on PBS of “The Vietnam War,” an 18-hour documentary by legendary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the most controversial foreign entanglement in our nation’s history.
The film’s 10th and final episode was scheduled to air this evening.
I haven’t been watching the documentary in real-time, but have so far DVR’d the entire film.
I’ve watched numerous documentaries on the Vietnam War, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to give 18 hours of my life to one more film.
Then I watched the first episode, “Deja Vu.”
It’s not necessarily what Ken Burns says that makes his documentaries gripping — it’s how he says it.
The way he cuts back and forth between France’s failures in Vietnam and how the U.S. followed in the exact same bootsteps isn’t merely ingenious — it makes you hope that one day, when time travel becomes possible, somebody takes a copy of this film back to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
The inclusion of interviews with former enemy combatants also makes the film cut that much deeper.
That’s how Ken Burns gets you to sit through an 18-hour movie.
And in the early ’90s, when he worked his brand of mojo on the American Civil War, exploding into the national consciousness, I happened to be a high school kid here in Jefferson who liked to watch IPTV if for no other reason than my parents were too cheap to get cable.
I was a student and amateur photographer at Jefferson-Scranton High School enrolled in as many “independent art study” classes as they’d let me. I had concluded that learning to process my own film and develop my own photos was a skill far more practical than math. (Plus, it was easier to sneak out of the building and go get breakfast at Hardee’s during an “independent art study” than it would have been during Algebra II.)
When Burns followed “The Civil War” with “Baseball” in 1994, his massive exploration of the national pastime, I announced to Mrs. Foster, the high school art teacher, that I wanted to make a documentary.
This was the era before digital video and editing software.
I may as well have been asking permission to cut a goat in half and pass it off as some sort of edgy art installation.
But Mrs. Foster didn’t see it that way — she encouraged me to go for it.
Using the school’s VHS camcorder (the only kind of “movie camera” I could scrounge up in 1994) and stacks of books checked out from the Jefferson Public Library, I went about making “The Turbulent Decade,” my documentary about the 1960s in the style of Ken Burns (only about 17 hours and 55 minutes shorter than one of his actual films).
I spent hours in the art room shooting famous photos of the era and filling up VHS tape after VHS tape.
Only now as an adult do I realize that I was committing copyright infringement.
My idea was to write a script, record the narration, then edit it all together with some boss rock ‘n’ roll music into one glorious piece of DIY moviemaking.
I just had no idea how.
What set Mrs. Foster apart was the fact she recognized I had an intense interest in documentary filmmaking — and in doing so, recognized her own limitations.
She could have just shrugged, but she instead offered to take me to the AEA in Fort Dodge, where I could learn analog video editing.
I can’t recall how many times we went, but I do remember her making the time to drive me to the Iowa Central Community College campus, where I would see my little documentary through to completion.
I was even given access to the AEA’s film library, where I was allowed to borrow other documentaries on the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the various topics I wanted to touch on.
From those, I ripped footage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his prophetic “mountaintop” speech in Memphis the night before he was killed (which, even at the age of 17, gave me chills).
Footage of police dogs and fire hoses being turned loose on nonviolent black protestors in Alabama was matched with Richie Havens singing “Freedom” from the “Woodstock” soundtrack.
I’m pretty sure I even checked out “Easy Rider” on VHS from the Sierra Theatre and ripped footage of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their choppers for my section on the counterculture.
Basically, I was unknowingly writing my own Interpol arrest warrant.
I knew I couldn’t afford to have Doris Kearns Goodwin speak in my movie, so I got my mom and uncle to record the narration on a cassette tape (using a microphone and a recorder borrowed from Rolfe Blaess).
Mrs. Foster saw fit to premiere my documentary — all, like, eight or nine minutes of it — at the high school’s spring art show.
Don’t ask me if it’s any good. I haven’t seen it in years. It’s still stuck on VHS in a box somewhere.
I do know it was more of an exercise in Editing 101 than “A Film by Andrew McGinn.”
However, my mom (a longtime secretary at the junior high) told me years later that one of the middle school’s social studies classes watched it every year.
And because of those contacts I made at the AEA, I came back my first summer from college and worked full-time in their audio-visual department.
I never got to thank Mrs. Foster until now.
She passed away in 2013.
I’m eternally grateful she went above and beyond.
So, to those still teaching, I say this: It may not feel like what you’re doing is appreciated, from the actions of the Legislature on down to the indifference of administration, but you still have everything in your power to make a difference.
I just presented 1,020 words of proof.