Terror as inspiration

I wonder just what role terror plays in inspiration. I'm not going to go the obvious route and talk about recent horrific events as seen on CNN, Fox, BBC etc., but instead, to discuss something far more mundane, a first-run movie.

A few weeks back I saw Whiplash; the story of an aspiring drummer at a super competitive Music School, by all accounts Julliard. The drummer works around the clock on his technique with the hope of being accepted into an ensemble led by an infamous teacher at the school. From there the plot thickens. Once accepted, the student begins to understand that this teacher is unwilling to stop at anything to achieve what he deems to be perfection. This includes hurling insults, curses, and chairs at his students.

Walking out of the theater I was bombarded by comments about the abusive nature of the teacher; the way he had tortured his students; the fact that he'd broken all of the unwritten rules regarding appropriate behavior as well as those certainly written within the school's by-laws. The individuals making their way out of the theater were all shaking their heads, horrified at what they'd seen, distressed at the violence and outraged by the injustice.

Obviously I understood where they were coming from; their discomfort with the despicable treatment of a young man by his mentor. But as I walked to the car I, instead, thought about just how fortunate this student had been to find someone who was willing to push him all the way to the supreme accomplishment he sought.

Strengthening my own instincts regarding the subject was the reaction of my eighteen-year-old son. He didn't find anything overboard about the teacher's behavior; attributing the drummer's accomplishments specifically to these tough stringent methods. He quite admired the maniacal bastard!

Being the best, in any field, comes at a price; and not just any price but, in some cases, the ultimate one. How many stories are there about a musician, a writer or an artist who worked so hard, put so much pressure on him or herself, was so caught up in achieving the unachievable, that they eventually inflicted upon themselves irreparable damage—either physical or mental? Whether or not they had someone help them do it is almost irrelevant.

Although perfection is frequently admired, we hesitate to talk about the extreme measures it takes to get there. In Whiplash the teacher's aggressive, abusive manner was all about pushing his musicians to the edge…and unfortunately, sometimes over. But the accomplished drummer we see at the end of the movie barely resembles the grasping one we see in the first frame. Without this mentor and his just-short-of-murderous ways, it's hard to imagine him achieving even a fraction of what is captured in that last scene—either as a drummer or as a determined young man. This trial by fire, while exacting a heavy toll, had somehow paid off.

Looking around for a bit of support for my hunch that a little brutality isn't the worst thing, and may in fact be inspirational, I came across an article by Joanne Lipman published in the Wall Street Journal (preceding a well-received book on the same subject that ironically focuses on a music teacher). Lipman cites research that suggests that stress, pain and even failure in childhood promote the resilience (read grit) that can enable and inspire achievement. She differentiates between teachers who are demanding and tough not because they believe the student will never learn, but alternatively, because they are certain that they will.

Here is the moment to mention my own experience of hard knocks teaching. In 10th grade I took a course on Greek History taught by Mrs. R. This particular teacher was known for being especially tough with her students and even, sometimes, insulting. At the same time she was absolutely revered. One of the dressing downs I best remember was when, after catching me whispering to my neighbor M. during class, she called me "rude, crude and socially unacceptable." At the time I was horrified, embarrassed, humiliated. And fact: I never forgot it. But to this day I admit that, brutal manner aside, she was one of the finest teachers I ever had and the one to whom I owe great appreciation for truly educating me in the classics. Mrs. R. wasn't a nice woman; in fact she was a mean one. But in addition, she was a teacher. These concepts are not always mutually exclusive.

So that brings me back to the concept of what role terror plays in inspiration. And now I'm ready to step back and approach the bigger picture. One quick survey of some of the recent flashes of "terror" that have shocked major, world-wide metropolises, just this past month in Paris, Copenhagen and Jerusalem, prove the effect a teacher, or perhaps leader, can have on his students, read: followers. Terror, a word derived from the Latin verb terrere meaning "to frighten," can, unfortunately, cut both ways--inspiring both genius and great evil. It is a tricky tool, but an effective one whose power we'd no doubt prefer to see channeled toward creativity rather than destruction.