Dennis Stanton was my 9th grade math teacher. Sitting in class on that first day of high school I was having a hard time reconciling the last two years of stories with the reality of what was standing in front of me. This monster of Soquel High School was a short, round, blonde man who appeared to have more in common with a teddy bear than the demon I had been led to expect.
Over the next weeks I learned to hate him. He issued lunch time detentions for being late, for getting answers wrong on homework. He mocked students, threw chalk, raged at laziness and carelessness. One by one he drove the kids from his class who didn’t want to work. I had a mixed past with math and I think it was only pride which kept me from fleeing his class.
But then this magical thing happened. Once all of the kids who wouldn’t work were gone, he softened into the most inspiring teacher I ever had. He told stories, encouraged us, pushed us, accepted nothing but the best we had to offer.
Today in a workshop I was asked to name a mentor and tell a story about why they were important to me. From out of nowhere came Mr. Stanton’s name and with it a flood of memories.
He taught me that people can be more than one thing. That a monster can also be a teddy bear. That a “jerk” can also be inspiring. He shared his life with us, unapologetically and without consideration for appropriateness. He treated us like adults who were worthy of both his scorn and his respect.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how my time in the film industry effected (and continues to effect) me. It’s been pointed out to me repeatedly that I haven’t done much that’s “productive” since I left. Mostly I’m just fine with that, but I’ve known for a while that there’s more to the story. With a jolt the other day, I realised that part of what has followed me from Weta is a belief that work is futile. That it doesn’t matter how hard I work. That no matter how much effort I put in, no matter how much I prepare, no matter how clever I am, it will come to nothing. Regardless of what I do, forces of chaos, insurmountably greater than me, will prevail.
Right now, I can go back to Mr. Stanton and remember that he was the first person in my life who taught me that it mattered how hard I worked. It wasn’t a lesson I wanted to learn then, and it’s not a lesson I want to re-learn now, but I will.
So thank you Mr. Stanton, all those miles and years away. I hope you’re well and I hope that kids are still learning to believe in themselves because of you.