Matt Damon: 'Mr Speca inspired kids to work hard'

'Just do your work, kid,' an English and drama teacher told the Oscar-winning actor. And the words stayed with him

Matt Damon

My mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, was very involved in my schooling. She is a professor of early childhood education, and we moved from one city to another when I was 9, because she wasn't happy with the public-school [ie, state] system.

And, at that time in America, the public schools were pretty good. If you knew how and where to look, you could get a really good education for free.

My mom believes in public schools and wanted to put her kids through that system, so she tried to find the best ones in the Boston area. We ended up at these alternative schools that were a bit hippy and lefty, where you call your teachers by their first name.

There was a lot of self-motivation: you were trusted to do your homework and things like that. They were good for Kyle, my older brother, and me, and I had a bunch of great teachers.

'Just do your work, kid'

One guy that inspired me was Gerry Speca, who had a huge impact on me, and fellow actors Ben and Casey Affleck actually – anybody who came through his classroom. He was a special guy. He taught me English and also did drama at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, my high school in Massachusetts.

He was one of those teachers who could light up a room and inspire you. He was incredible and charismatic and was the person who first got me interested in acting – or, if I was already interested, he brought it out of me. He was so good at inspiring kids to work harder than they were used to. And yet it didn't feel like it – it felt like you couldn't wait for his next class.

He had this one phrase: "Just do your work, kid," which we still laugh about when I meet him. It's just five words but literally thousands of times in my life I've heard him say that in my head when I've been alone in some hotel room getting ready for the next day's work, or researching going an extra step because he said those things to me at the right time in my life.

Teaching to the test

The irony now is that we have had to take my stepdaughter, Alexia, 8, out of public school in Florida, where we live, because the situation has become untenable. We had been trying to figure out what to do when my mom went down and observed the school. She has written a couple of books and I think one of the teachers had read one of them. She told my mom, "We are totally disempowered, we are teaching to these tests."

George Bush has done this "No child left behind" thing, which basically means he looks at complicated problems and prescribes really simplistic solutions.

So he looked at the literacy rates and went: "Well, you have to test these kids." And he looked at the mathematics rates and said: "Well, we've got to get the scores up." What it means is that kids are being taught how to take these tests because funding is tied to the results, and it's just a disaster. So every teacher has to teach the same thing the same way, and it leaves no room for innovative, good teaching.

The teachers are totally frustrated, the classrooms are packed and the staff just told us, "Look, if you can afford to put her in private school, do it." Which was a real blow to my mother after a lifetime spent trying to advocate public schools. So we took her out and put her in a little private school, so she's the first generation of our family ever to go there, which feels kind of strange.

I was based in England making The Bourne Ultimatum earlier this year, and we had an amazing teacher for Alexia. You guys force people to retire at 65 and we found this brilliant woman with 45 years' experience and bundles of energy who had been forced to retire and so we nabbed her. She was fantastic, and my stepdaughter made huge progress. By the time we got her back to school in the US, she was ahead of her class.

Matt Damon won an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck, his childhood friend. He has starred in films including Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr Ripley, Ocean's Eleven, and the Bourne films. 

He was talking to Martyn Palmer, in 2007


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