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Opinion: Back to school? What I learned from a childhood full of family cinema trips

As we send our children back to school, what other educational opportunities can we give them? My family trips to the cinema expanded my childhood possibilities

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Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams and Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay in 1981’s “Chariots of Fire.”

Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams and Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay in 1981’s “Chariots of Fire.”

Twentieth Century Fox

As our plane dipped below the clouds and presented a vista of Sydney Harbor, Australia, with its curving opera house and expansive bridge, I felt a debt of gratitude for the educational opportunities my parents had given me in my childhood. While then, like today, there are important social and religious conversations we need to have with our children, we should not exclude them from our own pursuits of self-improvement, even if they appear to be too young. When we share the best of what we are learning with our children, they will ultimately be better for the experience in ways that we cannot foresee. 

My mother and father enjoyed watching historical and culturally enriching films ever since I can remember. I don’t know whether it was intentional or simply cheaper to buy a child’s ticket than pay a babysitter, but my parents frequently took me along on their trips to the cinema.

Between 1981 and 1984, this included a quartet of films that would change my life, although my parents never would have suspected it. “Chariots of Fire,” “Gandhi,” “The Man From Snowy River” (fictional) and “Amadeus” touched a high watermark in quality filmmaking that was also family friendly.

The point is that even as a preteen (I was born in 1971), these experiences resonated with my young mind and provided landmarks for my future development as an adolescent and adult. I write today in an effort to encourage you to include your preteens in your own continuing pursuit of knowledge.

The story of “Chariots of Fire,” what with its high octane sprint athletics and elevated learning environment of Cambridge, England, sunk deep into my soul.

It was easy for a 10-year-old to grasp the idea that observance of the Ten Commandments (including the directive to rest on the Sabbath Day) engendered blessings. I subsequently became a long-distance runner, only to cut aspirations of glory short in high school when I realized that I needed to study more diligently to become a teacher. That film provided a model for my formative years.

My father’s invitation — no, I should say demand — that I watch “Gandhi” in the theater (with its three hour running time and intermission!) yielded rich rewards and insights at the time and later as a professional.

In my 12-year-old mind, it was difficult to follow the political twists and turns of Indian independence, but I knew a principled person (Gandhi, as well as his wife, among others) when I saw one and instantly grasped the magnitude of his peaceful crusade for human dignity.

It’s not that 25 years later I would stand before a memorial marking the location of some of his ashes outside Pune, India, but rather that I would be in charge of hundreds of Indian students as a director of international programs at the University of North Alabama. I already had a sense of the value of democracy and the legacy of persuasive change that characterized Indians generally.

Amadeus” touched an ambivalent chord. It came out at the same time I was holding out for my mother to relent from making me take piano lessons (nine years for which I am now very grateful). Mozart made playing the piano and composing music cool. I also sensed that while life presented us with opportunities to develop our talents, it was not always fair.

It would only be later in life, particularly as a college student, that playing the piano and writing music became a catharsis, a form of therapy, to wring out anxiety and stress amidst the challenges of a competitive world. Said another way, Mozart’s on screen performance inspired me to reach for cultural excellence, even if I had to begrudgingly admit it to my parents years later.

Finally, “The Man from Snowy River” taught me about the beauty of God’s handiwork across all of Earth’s seven continents. While I’ve only mounted a horse once in my life, imagining life in far-off Australia became a lodestar in my youth and as a professional.

To the consternation and pungent displeasure of my patient parents, I mail ordered an oiled Outback jacket long before Ugg’s made Australian fashions cool. 

More recently, as my professional research turned to tourism and aviation development in the Indo-Pacific, those feelings of curiosity for the land and peoples “Down Under,” and particularly their relation to their Asian neighbors, brought back fond memories of my first Australian encounter on the silver screen when I was no more than 11 or 12 years old. 

In closing, let’s remember that 9-12 year olds are capable of grasping and being inspired by great ideas. They are always watching and learning. You can sense this if you visit middle school, where there is still an enthusiasm for learning for the sake of learning and a keen eye on future dreams of greatness. I’m grateful to my parents for not leaving me with a babysitter during those years. I think they sensed as well the thirst for knowledge of inquisitive youth.

Evan Ward is an associate professor in the history department at Brigham Young University.