As we search for examples of triumph over the human condition for our students to emulate, we are sometimes led into the stale pages of literature and the dusky hallways of history for keen reminders of teachable moments. Roger Ebert — one of our current premier, and popular, movie critics — has been fighting cancer for eight years. At 67, and after multiple surgeries and reconstructions, Roger is left with no jawbone, thyroid or salivary glands. I submit the notion that all our students should be made aware of Roger’s ongoing fight against a foe that continues to aim to kill him and his repeated refusal to give in to the inevitable ending of us all.
How many of us would choose to hide with a mangled face like Roger’s? How many of us would prefer death over living with an agape mouth and a frozen expression?
The why of how Roger chooses to live a public life with a rubber mask of a face is the transient lesson in need of teaching. How can we survive unwitting events and unknowable conditions that seek to kill us without regret or forethought?
Robert Ebert cannot speak, swallow or eat. Yet he continues to work. Roger continues to put pen to paper to create words that provide meaning and insight. Without a vocal cords, Roger Ebert makes words sing. Our students should find the harmony to sing along.
When our students complain about deadlines or when they lackadaisically tell us they’re too tired to pay attention in class — all we need to do to help set them right is to point them to the sacred covenants of Roger Ebert’s life — and if they miss the moment in the man, then we have hard proof of their lossy unteachability.
Roger gives a great interview to Esquire about coping with shattering disappointments and he also reveals plans for a new mechanical voice that is being built to sound like him:
Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don’t all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices — Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue — with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio. The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day.
CereProc is mining Ebert’s TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won’t sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight — he’s a night owl; she prefers mornings — when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.
I have been influenced by Roger Ebert’s writing for most of my adult life, and while I may not always agree with his reviews, I always respected the deep, human, connections of understanding he always embeds in every review.
Now that Roger fights on to live to write and to watch and to read and to love over and over again — any sense of our self-pity or our internal mourning is forever put to rest in the example of his unbelievable fight for an imperiled life that continues to thrive against the belly of the beast best efforts of every malignant cell and troubled tissue to take him from us. Every day we die a little, and each night, we dream a lot of the days yet to live.