On the Student Film, “Caretaker”

The 18th century writer, Alexander Pope, described wit as, “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” That definition came to mind the first time I saw “Caretaker, ” a film that quietly says something powerful about a subject that is often difficult to express. More on the film in a minute.

The boys in IB2 will soon move beyond this hall, and as you continue your studies in university and beyond, many of you will spend time reviewing and perhaps conducting research. I’ve come across a few research projects myself, and today I’d like to just tell you about one that has had a powerful impact on me. At the risk of hyperbole, let me say that this is my all time favourite research project, and it affected how I look at schooling, about human development, and about my life.

Doug Heath, a professor at Haverford College, tried to discover what made people successful. He did this by conducting a longitudinal study during which he interviewed individuals, both men and women, at 21, 31, 41 and so on, in an effort to determine what personal qualities and characteristics during student years most highly correlated with success in later life.

What makes Heath’s work interesting is that he didn’t define “success” simply in traditional terms of financial results. His definition was intentionally broad, as he looked at individuals and their relationships with their spouse, their partners, their children, their neighbours, their companies, and their communities. He looked at their professional work, at their private lives, and at their overall sense of well-being.

What he discovered is that there are two variables that have the highest correlation with success, and these variables differ by gender.The most successful women were individuals with a high degree of personal autonomy, and a strong sense of self. By contrast, the most successful men were those who possessed a high degree of empathy, and strong people skills, what we today call “emotional intelligence.”

These particular characteristics are sometimes seen as cross gender traits, but what Heath’s work suggests is that some of the more traditional images of masculinity, the “Lone Ranger” or “Dirty Harry” for instance, while they may work at the box office, they are, in fact, the exact opposite of what we should want to pursue in our personal lives. In other words, nobody wants to spend the rest of his or her life trying to partner with the strong, silent type. Just ask Tonto or any of Detective Callahan’s colleagues how things work out in the end.

(An aside: A friend of mine, before he hires anyone asks himself if the candidate would pass the “airport test.” That test is this: Imagine you are travelling with a business partner, and you just learned your plane has been delayed another two hours. How do you feel about spending the next few hour together in terminal 1?)

All of this is important because the implicit question hidden in the hallways in every boys’ school is: What does it mean to be a man? A few years ago former NFL star Joe Ehrmann talked to us in Laidlaw Hall about what he called “the 3 myths of masculinity.” These myths were based on the false notions that real men are hyper-athletic, that they objectify women, and they define themselves by their financial status and professional standing.

What Doug Heath’s research suggests is that we need to re-imagine manhood, and that this new definition of masculinity is grounded with an emphasis on compassion. (An aside: Cynics used to smirk when, in addressing his audience’s plight, Bill Clinton would frequently say, “I feel your pain.” But Bill may have been on to something.)

There are signs that things are changing. Think, for example, about two recent “This I Believe” speeches. I was struck by Chris’ vulnerability in talking about an important friendship and what he had learned from it. In the same way, I was impressed by Ryan’s openness in talking about dealing with failure at the Prep. (Ryan, did you really get a 5 on that French quiz? We may need to talk…)

All of this brings me back to “Caretaker.” It is easy enough for us to relate to Will. We have all been cut, rejected, or disappointed by the unfairness of life. Will’s problems are more complicated because they are tied up in his relationship with his dad. There is a hint of abandonment, and a strong sense of intergenerational disappointment.

Into the sunset –or in this case, the basement hallway– rides the Caretake. With a a steam-cleaner as his steed, he is on a Quixotic quest to clean the uncleanable dream. Notice, though,  what Seyoum does not do when he encournters Will: He doesn’t solve the problem. He doesn’t play family counslor. He doesn’t suggest Will review his academic agenda on a daily basis. (Not bad advice, by the way.) What Seyoum  does, in addition to cleaning up a mess he didn’t make himself, is give Will time. He asks a few questions, and he lets Will try to sort things out a bit.

Will ends up in a better space, simply because Seyoum took the time. That sounds so simple, but we all know how hard it is to do. There are always other floors to clean, other jobs to do. But in the end, nothing is more important than being there for one another. Joe Ehrmann ended his speech by asking us all to reject those 3 myths and to instead embrace the challenge of being what he called “A Man For Others.”

Seyoum does this beautifully, and “Caretaker” inspires us all to follow his lead.


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