Of all the reasons to make a film about Jim Kennedy there is one that stands out. Those of us who have been a part of his programs at PHS have cited many things that have been learned along the way from Jim's teaching style and personality. But perhaps the most influential quality, and the one that is most needed for teens in this day and age, is the relentless pursuit of being excellent.
If you really think about it... in what settings in today's society are teenagers pushed to truly be excellent at something?
Increasingly and sadly they have less and less involvement in their lives from parents who are too busy or too indifferent to care. And if they are fortunate enough to have a traditional family support structure it seems that mindless distractions and hobbies have taken the place of quality activities that would contribute to the character of the teen. The dismantling of the family unit at every turn tragically leaves the inspiration to be great to other circles of influence including friends and teachers. If they are lucky their friends will help them to be better people and fill some of the void...but don't count on it. Instead you might want to err on the side of caution when it comes to assuming friends are a positive force.
The influence of media marketing, professional sports, and Hollywood have for many years now eroded the senses and distorted the priorities of young people everywhere. What they see on TV, Social media, and at movie theaters shapes their opinions and desires to be cool and cutting edge... And in very rare occasions are they ever uplifted and inspired to be great because they caught the latest episode of "Big Bang Theory". Hollywood equates "excellence" or "greatness" with your net worth, your physical appearance, and your latest box office draw.
The education system in our country is increasingly being co-opted by those who crave power and control. Those at the top wish to dumb down kids in school and slot them into preconceived roles so that they fit nicely into society and they don't cause any ripples in the pond. Complicating curriculum and learning styles only drives a wedge further between kids and their parents because the answers are reached only by following progressive methods that parents never learned. There is surely no expectation or path to greatness and for realizing your eternal potential in this plan.
What motivation to teenagers have to be excellent? If they are in special groups or organizations that require hard work and dedication then they will be challenged to become great. For example, if young boys are encouraged to be in Boy Scouts they will have many opportunities to develop skills and qualities that likely will help them turn into productive citizens and will prime them for excellence. But what percentage of youth will actually be involved in this kind of program?
Kids in sports now are not encouraged to be great and to stand out above the crowd. Participation trophies and "no score" games coddle kids and lead them to think that it's not fair if someone else excels on the field or on the court. "We don't want anyone's feelings to be hurt" they say as they hand out the same drone-like award to every kid that decided to show up. How are we teaching kids and teens that hard work, God-given talent, and dedication are valuable anymore when we begin to suppress their excellence at such a young age?
Throughout the film you'll notice a common thread. It's important to point out that during the filming and interviews we typically tried to capture comments that were unscripted and in their natural context. That means that when you hear student after student talking about how "he pushed us and expected perfection...and that's what he got" that sentiment is real and made a lasting impression on each of his students. It must mean that even after 10 or 15 years of separation from that life, having someone who inspired you to greatness and did not give up when you wanted to actually did shape you into the person you now are.
So why does that matter? Why is it noteworthy that a high school choir director expected excellence from you? Well, at what age in your life do you think you were most shaped into the individual you now are? If you are of the belief that everything happens for a reason you might also believe that a person is put in the path of your life for your own good. You cannot go back and re-do your high school years…God only gives you one shot. With such a relatively small window of time to gain such a life-shaping influence it's stands to reason that if you are going to be lifted and challenged to be great during those 4 short years it will likely come from someone who was put in your path specifically for you.
How will each students testimony of Jim Kennedy's real influence on them translate over into real life when they graduate? Some may only think of their time in the choir room with Jim in a black and white way... That they enjoyed his humor, they learned great music and poetry, and they learned how to be on time and work as a team. Those are all great reasons to have loved a teacher because they made your time in high school meaningful. But those are really just the beginning of what a truly impactful human being does for someone. Most will have learned characteristics and qualities that become a part of them and that cannot be so easily put into words.
What happens when 5 years down the road you are faced with a crossroads and one path leads to a noble life and the other to chaos? Will you then draw on the time spent under the wing of a man who believed in you and helped you find out what you were really made of? You may not say to yourself "self, I know that I can do the right thing right now because I remember that one time in Singers...". In reality you will not have to recall "that one time" because the seeds of resilience and diligence and honor will have been planted in you years earlier by loving parents, friends, and yes...your choir teacher. When you make that choice that leads down the right path you are seeing the fruit of those seeds because they now define your character.
In this world the things that truly affect you for good are getting harder and harder to see. Yes, we made a film about our choir teacher...and many thousands of people get that and understand who he is and feel the same way we do. But realistically, everyone cannot move to Powell, TN and enroll in the high school so that their kids can have this same experience. This film is really about shining the light on teachers that inspire young minds to greatness and examples of these kinds of people are all over the world. If you take one thing from this film let it be this; Wherever you are...wherever your life takes you keep a keen eye out for your own Jim Kennedy and allow that person to inspire your mind and heart to excellence.
And who knows...maybe one day you will be that person whose Hands In The Air raise those around you to greater heights.
Co-Director, Hands In The Air