Title: Roger & Me.
by James T. Sheridan
Hello, my name is James T. Sheridan, and I am the teacher of the CSP: Classroom Without Walls class that Roger Ebert met in Chicago in early June of 2004. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from twenty middle school students from Houston, Texas and their chaperones for over an hour on the set of “Ebert & Roeper.” I still think about this amazing visit nine years ago often, and with Roger’s passing last Thursday, I wanted to reflect upon his kindness.
As a suburban Chicago kid, I grew up reading Roger Ebert’s columns and watching him on television. I got into movies early with my dad’s help, and I remember trying to beat your Oscar picks throughout middle school and high school. I remember getting up early and running through downtown Elmhurst to buy the Friday Sun-Times to read his movie reviews at breakfast. I read him in print since 1991 and for the past seventeen years online. After graduating from Kenyon College and in that tenuous pre-Teach For America month, I met him in the summer of 2000 at the Harold Washington Library where he read an e.e. cummings poem for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project where I also met Studs Terkel and heard Nikki Giovanni’s poetry for the first time. He signed a copy of his newest book “I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie” to me with the dedication, “but you’re okay!—Roger Ebert.” He always steered me towards interesting films that I had never seen before such as “The Crying Game,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Fargo,” and “Sling Blade,” films that would shape my values and my consciousness. As the Kenyon Film Society President in college, I helped control what films were shown on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and I am proud to admit that Roger Ebert’s reviews influenced me heavily. In 2004, I was completing my fourth year teaching at McReynolds Middle School, and one of the reasons that I stayed was to work closely with the group of CSP students who read additional books, watched and studied movies, and completed service projects way beyond the requirements of the school day. I was so honored that Roger Ebert agreed to meet my students after writing him a simple letter in the mail. The CSP: Clase Sin Paredes class worked extremely hard to raise the necessary funds to visit Chicago for a weeklong field experience through car washes and BBQ’s, and our trip was an astounding success as students gathered information about college. Students and teachers bonded on the El rides that we took around the city. From dinosaurs and mummies at the Field Museum to the dazzling view from the top of the Sears Tower, the students experienced the best the city of Chicago had to offer. For many students, meeting Roger Ebert at the ABC-TV studio was a memorable moment. For me, it was a visit that I will never forget, as a teacher and as a Chicagoan living in Texas.
He met us at the door of the studios, and his warmth and approachability made the CSP class feel very comfortable. Roger Ebert spoke to them from the heart about his life experiences and choices. Nothing could be more powerful for young people to hear. Eighth grader then and now Woodbury University graduate Javier researched Roger Ebert for his Chicago Project and had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shake his hand and tell him and his wife Chaz what he knew about them. High schooler then and current St. Edward’s University graduate and University of Houston graduate student Griselda told me, “I do remember that he had the most genuine and warm smile. I still have the picture in my Chicago album where we’re all doing the thumbs. After the trip, I always looked out for Mr. Ebert’s reviews.” High school student then, UT-Austin and Harvard Graduate School of Education graduate, and current San Antonio elementary teacher Rosario stated, “I remember sitting in the audience chairs, listening to this man who had an opinion. The experience made me question: what was my opinion? What would I do with my opinion? How could I ensure people would listen to this poor kid from the hood? Attempting to answer these questions over the next few years changed me. Whether I was organizing an immigrant rights protest, writing a term paper, or now planning a lesson plan, I remember the importance of having an opinion and listening to the opinion of others.”
As a teacher, I was overwhelmed by his kindness and interest in the students. The staff went above and beyond to make this visit possible. Even after he left (he screened Life of Brian that day, I believe), Roger Ebert’s staff showed us around the offices and continued to answer questions and teach the students about the life of a film critic and the creation of a television show. Such experiences do not happen everyday.
In life, it is rare for a person to meet one of his or her heroes. Reading Roger Ebert’s words from a young age inspired me to keep my own film review journals, to write movie reviews in college for the Kenyon Collegian newspaper, as well as to currently review films for online magazine Cinespect. At all four different schools where I have taught, I have used Roger Ebert’s reviews with my students and will continue to do so. I am honored that he took time to meet with my students because he was a person whom I respect and admire. From championing small but important films to writing thoughtful reviews every week, Roger Ebert was the premier voice in film criticism in this country, if not the world. Know that I will continue to learn from him, read his books, and review the website to catch up with reviews and essays. There are many great movies that I still need to see. I will continue to read and learn, to agree and disagree, and to see and think deeply about film.
Roger Ebert, one last time, thank you for your support of the CSP class from Houston, Texas. We will never forget our visit to ABC-TV studios and the hour spent with Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, and the wonderful staff. Our classroom truly has no walls.
James T. Sheridan,
Classroom Without Walls