“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation … Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker."
-- Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick
JANESVILLE—It started as an ordinary interview.
When asked conventional questions, Duncan Leckey gave conventional answers.
But when he started to talk about film, he was transformed.
Leckey, the son of Heather and James Leckey, Janesville, was picked by his teachers at Rock University High School as the school's standout senior. He and his classmates graduate Friday, June 9.
It's not a role Leckey wanted, but his teacher Angela Kerr convinced him to accept it. He didn't want his picture in the paper, either, but his mother told him it would be good for people with autism and good for the school.
Leckey, who has autism, started his high school career with a brief stint at Parker High School before transferring to Craig. He stayed there until the end of his junior year.
“I just couldn't adapt to the public school environment,” Leckey said. “I have a lot of anxiety. There were too many people, and I felt like I didn't fit in.”
He survived, but he describes that period of his life as “painful.”
Now, he wished he would have switched to Rock University High School “a lot sooner.”
The class sizes are smaller, and it lessened his anxiety, he said.
This hardly covers his success.
“Duncan has grown so much as a student and an individual,” Kerr wrote in an email to The Gazette.
On the first day at Rock University High School, he was pacing up and down the halls in an effort to manage his anxiety, Kerr wrote. Being in the classroom with the rest of the students—about 40 of them—was too much.
“He had to manage his anxiety by leaving the room, putting on his headphones or turning his back to the room,” Kerr wrote. “In a very short time, Duncan wanted to volunteer to lead presentations during seminar time.”
During his first presentation, he kept his head down, read from his slides and “looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown.”
Kerr expected he'd refuse to present again.
Instead, he ended up doing four more.
With each presentation, he made more eye contact. He started to interact with students and staff.
“He continuously told us how much it hurt his stomach to be in front of everyone, but his love of film and sharing that with the world helped him through the pain and anxiety,” Kerr wrote.
Students loved his presentations about films. In addition, many suffer from some level of social anxiety, and Leckey's bravery inspired them.
It is mesmerizing to listen to Leckey talk about films.
He sees all the layers beneath the story: the color palette, the use of silence, the promotion of ideas through imagery. He understands the idea of director and film as artist and art.
One of Leckey's favorite directors is Stanley Kubrick, the mastermind who created “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining.”
“Kubrick's films generally deal with human nature, thematically, and he's known for his cold and distant acting style,” Leckey said. “His films are generally devoid of warmth. There's not a lot of dialogue, and he's known for his distinctive color palette.”
For color palette, think of the expanses of white in “A Space Odyssey.” The color becomes part of the movie's structure and mood.
For lack of dialogue, think of “The Shining.” In one of the movies famous scenes, a boy rides his Big Wheel around the halls of the resort. The wheels hum over carpet then floor, carpet then floor, carpet then floor. It's just a little kid on a Big Wheel, but it infuses the scene with menace.
“For me, personally, I believe film can be elevated from entertainment to art. That's what Stanley Kubrick did,” Leckey said.
Leckey's favorite film is Terrence Malik's “The Tree of Life,” an experimental drama.
“There's nothing else like it,” Leckey said.
Leckey has already taken two classes at UW-Rock County and plans to continue there part time.
After getting his associate degree, he wants to go to UW-Stevens Point and major in communications.
His long-term goal is to become a filmmaker.
When asked, how he will reach that goal given his social anxiety, he once again became animated.
“When I went to the Beloit International Film Festival earlier this year, it was the most social I'd been in a very long time,” Leckey said. “I met with three directors of three films. I really connected with them. There's no stress, there's no anxiety when I'm around people who know their way around film. There's just that connection there.”
He'd like to be on the panel that picks the films for the festival.
Leckey acknowledged he has plenty of challenges ahead of him.
But he's driven by his passion, and that passion carried him through his difficulties in high school.