Saturday, March 12, 2011

Forward to the Blog

This blog is about Teaching. As of this date, March 12, 2011, Teachers are the most vilified of beings in the United Fucking States, ergo today I start a reluctant blog as corrective. Dammit anyway.

To begin:

        I loved being a teacher. It was my dream from the age of four, before I even when to school, even. That, and being Judy Garland. I need that to be clear before I launch into the madness part, which was fifteen years, two high schools, two drama clubs, 8 preps, and 3,000 kids in the making.


        This blog on teaching is dedicated to Marty. Marty was a student of mine when I was a young student teacher. To explain, allow me a backstory to the forward.

My student-teaching was, atypically, like a real, actual teaching experience. By having this real experience, I was breaking long-established rules, in this case those of the Education Department of my university: I was student-teaching two preps (that is, two different classes, English 10 and Drama) instead of one; and five sections (three English and two Drama) instead of the usual two or three sections (of the one prep). Also, I co-directed an original musical at my sponsor-high school, and took two classes at the university (to catch up on my English education certification after getting my Theatre Arts BA).

All of this was against the rules for fragile, young student teachers, but allowed to me because I was

a) insane;
b) no, really, certifiable;
c) dedicated to learning all I could at any cost;
d) leaving town for a week and a half to act in a show that was going to the American College Theater Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I had to make sure that between that and any snow days incurred, I would not cause myself to fall short of the required number of teaching hours needed to get certified. In teaching.

(The answer is, you guessed it, b.)

First of all, after the allowances for rule-breaking, no one guided me much. The teacher whose classes I taught said she “trusted” me. (What does that mean? I KNOW NOTHING.) So while having never taught before, and without supervision in any substantive way beyond “teach this section of the book for nine weeks,” I planned my own lessons, made assignments, graded all my own papers, averaged my own grades. I got the feeling I wasn’t supposed to ask too many questions. When I did ask, “How” or “Why,” I often didn’t understand the answers. (I felt stupid most of the time--it’s an Alice in Wonderland world, baby.)

Second, and as a result of the extra preps and sections and the coaching, I had to learn more than twice the number of kids’ names as my student-teaching colleagues, plan twice as many lessons, grade nearly three times the number of papers, AND coach an extracurricular activity to the point of full-fledged public performance (which is actually how most teachers get hired--for the coaching), meaning more names to learn, too.

Third, as a result of being allowed to take two English and Education classes, I had to read, write papers, and pass tests. (As I noted, I’d graduated the previous June with my theatre arts degree and I had to finish up my English education minor if I wanted to avoid paying for another quarter. I also wanted to take the National Teacher’s exam in the spring so I could get hired in the fall. Whose head hurts?)
I watched, on the mock-job and in the weekly de-briefing seminar, as my fellow (mostly female) student-teachers wept, flailed, folded their arms tightly to their chests, or sort of fell to pieces--we all have moments like that in our lives; but it was the ratio of breakdowns to work loads that amazed me. Compared to the actual work they had to do--half of what I was doing, less than half, really, way less--they broke down probably three times as often. Here I was, taking classes, directing a play, acting in another one (for the experience--I wanted to teach drama, remember), on top of this seminar in the education department and other English education classes and...well, I still don’t know how I survived it.

A generous person might say, “Well, Lisa O', those other teachers might have had more going on in their personal lives than you did.” Did I mention that the guy I was going to marry quit speaking to me without any explanation beyond, “You are economically unfeasible”? Yeah, he did. And that I got nominated for this acting award thing and had to audition for this scholarship to help my college look good at the festival where our show performed? I was, and did. (FYI: My audition was a catastophe, though the show was brill.) And that my show’s director got Epstein-Barr virus and that’s when I was asked to help direct the musical she was going to direct as a favor to her friend, Annie, who wrote it for the high school? Yeah. That happened. And that I was looking for a job for the next school year and budgeting like mad and not eating as a result? *SNIFF* I also had to walk to the high school where I was student teaching, uphill both ways, because I didn’t have a car!!!

But about Marty. Remember this is dedicated to Marty? He was mature beyond his years, and what choice did he have, really, being brilliant, a bit round, and gay? He was out in 1987 before anyone his age, or most any age, was “out.” He was a good student. He loved theater and his friends. He was funny. (He does no t die in this story, so breathe.) Marty also helped educate me in special ways, showing me that little postage stamp of pale pink paper that is acid, explaining that the reason Jim and Dan and Jack (as Dylan Thomas might call them) were completely inattentive and disruptive in class that one day (causing my first classroom emotional explosion) was because they were tripping. Some things just weren’t about me. Good to know.

But that’s only partly why this is dedicated to Marty. Marty, god love him, was gay. I know I said this. But again, this was 1987, the height of AIDS, to that point: Rock Hudson died of it, my high school drama coach was dead of it (though everyone said cancer--these being the Reagan years, bastard, there I said it), a classmate had contracted it (and would die of it a couple of years later), and everyone was terrified of it. Marty was angry at Evangelical Christians and right-wingers everywhere for denouncing gays as abominations. I was a liberal-minded s mart teacher whose best friend was male and gay and had only come out a year before. So naturally when Marty showed me the Washington Post Magazine article about how the Christians were calling AIDS a punishment, he expected a certain supportive response.

Now look at my life at the time. I was as raw and over-worked, exhausted, broken-hearted, and beaten down as a middle class white American college girl of 22 could be (if way short of being an orphaned, diseased refugee in a war-torn region, starved and raped each day--I know that--stay with me here). But here I was. Right or wrong, I was feeling punished. I was. And here are these “good Christians” telling me that I, a gay-supporter, deserved all the death I was seeing, I was being punished for my sins, the sins of the world, God’s wrath for undeserving me. I believed them. They were disturb ingly convincing. I could only nod after I’d read the article. “It makes me wonder if we are being punished,” I said. Marty left the room and never spoke to me again.

Why dedicate my first blogpost to Marty? Because Marty was also another first: the first mirror to show me the dismal face of my complete failure. It was, for me, a failure of insight, a failure of kindness and compassion, but beyond that, it was a failure to see, once again, that THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME.
As a teacher, first you must know this about your relationship to your students: You, my angel, are barely a blip on their daily radar screen. You are not the reason they can’t concentrate, you did not cause their wrecked home lives, encourage their sexual proclivities, assign their genders, remove food from their tables, give them their parenting, endow them with religion or rip it ou t of their hearts. Your opinion matters not nearly as much as their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s opinion. You just don’t matter.

Except when you do.

Now, how can you tell when exactly it is that you matter?

Because they are sneaky, those kids who suddenly value what you say above all others’ opinions, they almost never tell you the moment you become the god of their idolatry; there is no balcony scene. But when you matter, and you blow them off, say the wrong thing, Marty walks out on you and your heart all over again.

It sucks.

All I can tell Marty now is that he taught me a lot. I hate “a lot” but it’s what I mean. Gradually--and this took years of practice--I became more attentive even as I learned to focus more professionally on my instructional purposes. I had to learn not to let my low self-esteem, and my terror of failure, block my vision of my students; I had to see them, and then I had to see myself as they saw me, figure out what they might need, and try to be that teacher, that person. I had to learn to be a better person than I actually was, and that’s what makes the professions of teachers, healers, and protectors so apart.

I will also add here: artists and evangelicals. (The “apart” part.)

Now there’s a pairing you don’t often see.

And who would have expected it after what those Evangelicals put Marty and me through back in 1987?

But consider the parallels, and I will use a theater professional as the example of the artist for simplicity’s sake:

EVANGELICALS                                THEATER ARTISTS
Put on a show for an audience of believers, or to make
         you believers.                                                                   Ditto.
The house is darkened and all focus on an altar.                       Ditto.
Some sort of response is expected.                                            Yep.
Tithing.                                                                                      Tickets.
Afterward, people go eat, talk, critique.                                     And drink.

I could also say something about the good book (Bible/Shakespeare), and the insidious appearance of politics into both mixes. Theater and church, as my History of Theater classes made abundantly clear, are really very similar, and often warring, enterprises. The importance of keeping an open heart notwithstanding, there is a deep div ision which it pains me to call out, yet call it out I must: While Church, to maintain its great power, depends upon the worldly ignorance of its followers, Theater, to have any power at all, depends upon worldly education. The less one knows, the more religion tempts. The more one knows, the more art calls. Art thrives among the healthy and intelligent; religion thrives among the oppressed and deprived. Look at a map. Think about it.

Obviously I generalize. Neither of these notions is absolute. Many of us have seen theater of the ego as rendered so painfully and gorgeously in Waiting for Guffman; others of us, in our educational travels, have had profound spiritual experiences at a ceremony on the Ganges, or in a cathedral, or in a country church, or on a mountain, for example. Theater, like religion, puts out there the great, ├┤the good, the bad, the mediocre, and the ruinous. I don’t think there is any great conspiracy in the climactic outcomes. Even enterprises that were set up to consciously dupe and brainwash for the sake of easy sex or a quick buck (Mormonism, Scientology, another Rush Hour sequel, or that drug that claims to get rid of belly fat, say) have often been adopted by people who really fell for it and still believe in its power. Most of us are decent. I know this from riding the New York City subway system day in, day out. Many of us really want to help others; several among us want to express something important to us; and a few of us try to find the way to say it that squeezes out every bit of meaning we can make of it. Without a witness, though, we are never really sure what’s happened or what it means, and that is the draw of the gathering place, whether church or pub or theater. Or school. And without moments o f solitude, we cannot process or use the experience to move us beyond ourselves.

Anyway, that’s what I think. For myself, if you are interested, I choose theater over religion, pagan love of nature over religion’s incense and dogma, knowledge over ignorance, evolution over creation, love over hate, curiosity over fear. I’m a lover of life, and I try to keep an open heart. What is the point, then, about religion and theater as far as the teaching life goes? Here the dilemma, as old as Tiresias: How can I teach if I cannot learn to see what is not in front of me?

So Marty, if you’ve followed me this far, I hope you will accept my apology for not being able to give you what you needed when you needed it. I was really tired. It’s no excuse. But it’s all I got.

Oh, the Humanities.

        And so, I will tell you my story.


  1. Hi Ms. O' - I have always held you in my heart as one of my favorite teachers. Two of my sisters are teachers and I marvel at the strength it takes to be one and am sad at how our culture treats other, less deserving professions, with more respect than it does teachers. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Thanks, V! It's something I've been reluctant to do, and yet out it must come. Let's hope it's useful. Love!