I had a student ask me to fill out a psychiatrist’s evaluation for her. (Psychologist? I know they’re not the same but it’s not the point of the story, so we’re moving on.) Feedback on her performance in class, that kind of thing.
So I sent it in, and the next time she came in to class, she had this shocked look on her face. I had apparently marked that she has feelings of guilt and blames herself for things that are out of her control. This was shocking to her. “I never told you about that,” she said. “How did you know?”
Well, for one thing, isn’t that part of the human condition?
And for another, kiddo, you’ve been my student for three years now … of course I know some things about you. (For better and for worse!)
We have this disconnect with the people in our lives, and students — and all young people, really, but students especially — have this pressure to be this better version of themselves. It’s weird, I guess, when they learn that the mask can’t stay on all the time, no matter how hard they try.
It reminds me of when I was in school, the first time I saw one of my teachers out “in the wild” at the grocery store. It’s so jarring to see a person out of the context you build around them. I mean, of course they’re a real person who has to shop at stores … but you never think of them in that way. You don’t see the real person, you don’t consider them in that way.
But they’re real.
And I couldn’t possibly know this thing about her, but I did.
Makes you wonder what people know about *you* that you don’t go around telling them.
We got a gut punch in my state last night. Teachers, students and parents got the unbelievable news that schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. For those keeping track at home, that’s the two weeks we’ve already missed, plus this week, plus six more weeks (and our “Spring Break” week is there too, which is just hilarious to me because it just means we’re home like we’ve been for the past several weeks already but nobody can go anywhere). Nine weeks of class time, of face-to-face interaction, gone.
I’m shell-shocked right now.
I have feelings about the closure. I’m sure you do, too. But they’re irrelevant. The die is cast.
All I can think about is everything that’s broken, now.
I think about the musical we were in rehearsals for, which will now not be happening. Six weeks of rehearsal and months of building and planning, for a show that, at least the way we envisioned it, will not happen.
I think about my seniors, who will now miss out on their senior prom and their senior graduation and their final performances and bows on our stage.
I think about all of my students who are suddenly, shockingly, with no forewarning or preparation, deprived of their daily interactions with friends and teachers and coaches.
I think about our parents, likewise deprived of graduations and shows and sports; and oh yeah, they suddenly have to figure out how to continue their kids’ education at home while also struggling to keep making money in our trainwreck of an economy at the moment.
And I think about my fellow teachers, whose plans for the end of the year are shattered, who now have to figure out how the heck to teach their courses at a distance (and a bang-up job they’re doing, despite everything).
I look at all that, and it’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much to process at one whack; there’s too much pain and sadness and loss. We’re all sucker-punched, laid out on the mat, staring dazedly at the ceiling.
Good news is, everybody is laid out. Everybody is reeling. It’s okay to be messed up, blurry-eyed, exhausted, uncertain.
But we can’t stay there. We have to pick ourselves up off the mat, lace ourselves back up, and start swinging again. Even though it feels hopeless. Even though it feels like it doesn’t matter. Even if we’re just “going through the motions.”
At times like these, the motions matter. It matters that we get up at a decent hour. That we put some real clothes on. That we get a little bit of exercise, brush our teeth, shave, and put some work in. It matters that we set the standards for our students — for our children — not just in the form of expectations, that they still have work to do, but also that we set the standards in terms of how to act when things get rough.
Because, spoiler alert: we’re setting those standards anyway. When the kids see what we’re doing, we are setting the standard. When they see how we continue to put in work, continue to attack the day with energy, how we relate to each other with resolve and determination and hope (or how we don’t) — we are setting the standard.
We can’t forget that.
It’s okay to feel scared, to feel uncertain. It’s okay to take a moment while we’re down here on the mat to catch your breath, to reorient, to recalibrate. But even if we’re terrified, even if we give in to thinking that none of this matters, even if the best we can offer is to go through the motions, we have to go through the motions.
We have to get up off the mat. We have to keep punching. Even if we get knocked down again and again.
Around this time of year, the ol’ blarg here sees an uptick in traffic vis-a-vis this one post in particular: Tips for Writing a Graduation Speech. No great mystery, that. It’s graduation season. There are speeches to be given, and for a lot of these poor souls, it may be the first real speech they’ve ever given. Woe to them, but even more than that, woe upon their audiences.
I wrote that post five (help!) years ago when I was in full English-teacher mode, and I stand by those tips for the writing. If you’re gonna give good speech, you’ve gotta start with good words. But there’s more to a speech than just good words, and that’s what I want to talk about today, since I have rediscovered myself as a drama-teacher-slash-acting-coach. And that’s your delivery.
Your stilted, stiff, boring-AF delivery.
You know it, I know it. You go to YouTube and you watch your average graduation speech (or, god help you, you paid attention to the end-of-year speeches last year and now it’s your turn), and it’s entirely interchangeable with any other given graduation speech. The words could be entirely different but the delivery sounds exactly the same, because these poor bastards don’t know the first thing about giving a speech to an audience.
Well, that’s not going to be you, my soon-to-be-putting-high-school-in-the-rearview-mirror friend. You’re going to give a speech that, even if it doesn’t shake them to the very core of their cold, dark souls, at the very least it’s not gonna bore them to tears while they’re listening to it. Because you’re going to prepare for this speech like an actor, and I’m gonna tell you how to do exactly that.
Ready? Me either. Let’s dive in.
Who are You? No, seriously, who are you? Read the speech you’ve written. Out loud. Does it sound like you speaking? If not, it’s probably because you’re trying to make your speech sound like every other graduation speech out there. Which means you sound phony and cliched. Which means you have a problem.
But, for real though, Who are You? If you’re a quiet, dry humor type, it’s no good giving a speech full of puns and goofy jokes, or worse, a deathly-serious seize-the-day type diatribe. Your friends and family in the audience know you, and they’ll recognize that you’re putting on airs if you go down that road. But even those who don’t know you can smell a phony a mile away. Check yourself and re-write the speech if it’s not your style.
Breathe. The mind and the body are connected, for better or worse. The one can’t get by without the other, and your brain needs oxygen to function at full steam. So before you begin, do your brain a favor and focus on your breathing.
I’m not joking. Stop and breathe. You skipped the last step because you thought it was a waste of time, right? I know you did. You didn’t train as an actor, and this “just breathe” stuff is a bunch of hippie-dippie baloney. But I’m saying it again because it bloody well matters. Stop what you’re doing, stop rushing from one line to the next. Take a deep breath. Deep, down to the bottom of your lungs. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Close your eyes if it helps. Don’t think about the next thing you have to say. Think about taking a deep breath. Then take it, and focus only on that breath while it’s coming in and going out.
You still aren’t breathing, dammit. Stop playing around. I know this sounds like hot nonsense, and if that’s your mindset, it will be hot nonsense. Stop thinking about what you’re about to say and just breathe. Count to ten if it helps (focusing on numbers, or anything really, is a great way to block out other things — like anxiety and doubt). Do it. Just breathe, before you do anything else.
Relax. A few steps ago, I talked about the mind-body connection. You fed your brain when you took those deep breaths. (If you didn’t take those deep breaths, back up a few steps and TRY AGAIN.) It’s time to hack the system from the other side. Before you take the stage, relax the body. Lots of us hold tension in the shoulders. Tense and relax them. Likewise the muscles of the neck and jaw. Tense and relax. Scan the body, from toes to the top of the head. Wherever you find tension, tune in and relax it. Tension in the body takes up real estate in your brain, and you want as much brain power as you can get.
Rehearse to exhaustion. There’s no substitute for repetition. You have to know your speech backwards and forwards. I’m not saying don’t use notecards — by all means, use notecards to keep yourself on track. But you should know your speech well enough to cover 90% of it without even looking at your notes. If you don’t know it, and I mean know it the way you know how to brush your teeth or wipe your butt — which is to say, well enough to do it in your sleep, or if your hair is on fire — you’re gonna blank on it when you’re at that podium with a thousand or more sets of eyeballs trained on you. Archilocus said that “People don’t rise to the level of their expectations; they fall to the level of their training.” Be well-trained.
Make breathing and relaxing a part of your rehearsal. If breathing and relaxation are normal, regular events for your body, then the body will respond to the effects of those exercises much more quickly. Kind of like turning out the lights and brushing your teeth and bathing in the blood of your enemies cues the body that it’s time to go to sleep for the night, if you practice relaxation, you can relax the body with just a few seconds of focus. Like having a chill-pill on demand. Neat trick — but it takes work on the front end.
Don’t speak like a robot… I don’t know why, but when the uninitiated get up to speak in front of a crowd, it’s like they forget how people actually talk. They feel like they have to emulate MLK or JFK or some-other-K and they fall into this voice. You know the one. The one that’s loud, so that’s great, but that also has all the emotion stripped out of it in favor of a forced affect that “sounds emphatic”. That odd cadence that isn’t quite Shatner-esque but that isn’t far off, the forced anti-melody that starts high and finishes low on every sentence. That plodding pace from start to finish. Know what that does to people? It puts them to sleep.
Speak like a human. Ever actually listen to people speak? Not, like, to understand what they’re saying, just to listen to the music of their voices? Try it sometime. Listen to the patterns, to the ups-and-downs, to the way they use just their voices to add emphasis. Then emulate what you’ve learned. Okay, not in the sense of I-want-to-sound-like-this-person-when-I-speak, but rather in the sense of speaking conversationally. To help with that …
Don’t speak to the “crowd”… I’m not gonna say that one of these steps is more important than the rest, but if one thing was the most important in the list, it might be this. There’s a tendency to think you’re speaking to a crowd. That’s true, but the fact is, you don’t know the crowd, so you can’t speak to the crowd. And for that matter, when people speak to crowds, they tend to put on a manufactured voice. (See above.) Don’t do that crap. Don’t try to speak to everybody. Instead...
Speak to one person. A friend, a parent, a mentor, a younger sibling. Speak truthfully and honestly, as if you were speaking only to that one person you know very well, and your speech will ring true. Genuine. Not fake.
It’s okay to pause. For one thing, real people pause in conversation and — flash back a few steps — we’re going for conversational, here. (Unless you happen to actually be the next coming of MLK, which you aren’t.) Pausing creates what I call for actors “think-time.” Which is exactly what it sounds like. Time for you to think about what’s coming next. Also time for the audience to think about what you just said. Time for us to enjoy a moment of silence for once. As a speaker, it’s not your job to bombard our ears with words until we capitulate, it’s your job to communicate a message to us. We understand messages better when we have time to think.
Hold your place. Here’s an actor’s trick I love. I teach it for cold readings (wherein actors have to use a script but are expected also to show emotion and listen to their partners) and it’s even easier for you since you’ll be standing at a podium. As you speak, mark the next thing you need to say with your finger. This works if you have the whole speech printed out or if you just use bullet points. When you’re comfortable, or when you’re pausing, or while the audience is laughing (at the joke you just told, hopefully), mark the beginning of your next sentence or your next point. Seriously. Just plop your finger down on the page. The podium is hiding your hands anyway. That way when you’re ready for that next idea, you don’t have to look for it on the page — it’s right there ready to go.
Not to be repetitive, but — don’t forget to relax and breathe. Everybody gets stage fright. Everybody freaks out a little bit. Or a lot. But the actor’s tools are the breath and the body, and if you can master those things, you can master and tame the panic when it tries to take over. Just breathe, and keep breathing.
I promise, I’m not gonna do another graduation-speech related post around here, ever, because with this one I think I’ve tapped the topic out. That being said, I think if you take these tips to heart, your speech will be better than most of the speeches being given at most of the schools around most of the country in the coming weeks, and there’s something to be said for that. And as always — if these tips help you out, I’d love to hear about it.
It’s as inevitable as the sunset when you work in the theater — for every show that opens, the show must close. As the curtain goes up, so must it eventually come down. And as the stage was once a hurly-burly mass of activity and energy and joy, so it must revert to a hollow, silent room.
We’ve just finished the run of our spring musical, and if you hadn’t noticed, I’m feeling a little empty. I’m a lot relieved and a lot satisfied and a heck of a lot tired, but with all of that comes a little bit empty. You give so much of your life and your time and your thoughts to this one endeavor until finally, over one whirlwind weekend, it’s over.
But that doesn’t sum it up entirely. Theater is this ephemeral thing, fleeting and fragile and magical and then, suddenly, gone. It’s not like most other art forms. You write a book, or a poem, or a story, and the words are there basically forever. Whether they’re scrawled on the page or stored in the digital guts of a computer, the words — the fruit of your effort — remain. Write and record a great song? You can play it back as many times as you want, record as many versions as you want. Draw? Paint? Sculpt? Those things persist. But with the theater, you’re building a moment, a moment in time that must by its nature pass and leave no trace. The only evidence that the thing was ever there is in memory (and in the admittedly massive cleanup afterward).
I’ve had students coming up to me all week saying they’re so sad the show is over, that they don’t know what to do with themselves now. Some of that is in jest — with all the extra time, what can’t you do with yourself now — but a lot of it is genuine. Logging all these extra hours with these people, in this place, working together on this project … it’s the quintessential example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. So when it’s done, and the final bows have been taken, it’s no great shock that, for these kids especially, it’s a bit like losing a loved one. Even on the shows that are kind of a train wreck (and I’ve been involved in a few of those, let there be no doubt), the cast and crew become a family, develop a bond that’s a bit unlike anything else. And this show, to state it with humility, was far from a train wreck.
A colleague of mine when I was coaching soccer put it in perspective for me as we were bemoaning our near miss at the playoffs that year. The squad was all understandably disappointed, bordering on depression. And so was I. And he said,
“Sometimes you have great years, and sometimes you have not-so-great years. Every once in a great while you get the chance to catch lightning in a bottle, and those are the really great years. But what matters to the guys isn’t so much the win-loss record. It’s what they go through as a team. Are we teaching them the right things, win or lose? Are we making them better men? That’s what matters. And we’re teaching these guys the right things, coach.”
I left that job — and that coaching position — sooner than I would have liked for the sake of that team, in pursuit of another, deeper dream of mine — teaching theater. But I saw those guys again a few weeks ago, under some truly unfortunate circumstances.
One of our players from that season had died, passed away while on vacation. He was 22. And while the sadness and the hurt of that moment was still seeping in, I was greeted by his teammates — or, as they had taken to calling themselves, his brothers. In my grief, my players — my students — they comforted me. They reassured me that life goes on, that we have to live right and be strong for each other in the absence of those that have passed away.
My team of boys had grown into a crew of men, showing me exactly what we’d been trying to teach them back then. We did catch lightning in a bottle, then — I just didn’t know it at the time.
This show was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle experiences, but I think it became that — in part, at least — because of the culture we’re building at my school. We’re teaching the right things, forming the right kinds of relationships, showing these young people how to chase after what matters and how to be good brothers and sisters to one another in the process. And that’s what really matters, regardless of how good the show was or how many tickets we sold.
(Of course, it helps that the show was also excellent.)
So now, the blank stage, and the emotional vacuum that swirls in its wake. I’ve been telling my students that it’s okay — perfectly normal, in fact — to feel a bit sad. The set has come down, the costumes have gone home, the props are all back in storage. The stage is empty, and it’s not wrong to feel empty with it.
But I’m also pointing out to them how full of potential an empty theater is. All that space, just waiting to be claimed. All that energy, waiting to be tapped. The blank stage is just like the blank page — a world of possibility unsullied by past mistakes or fears of the future.
It’s there, an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.
Teaching is one of those jobs that carries all kinds of asterisks and disclaimers. And it’s not a job for the faint of heart.
But one thing it has going for it — that not many jobs do — is an enforced sense of renewal and rebirth.
You spend a year going through the mud with your students. You get embroiled in their lives. Sure, you find out all about their grades and their academic progress. Definitely you discover all their little behavior … quirks. (Let’s call them quirks.) Sometimes you find out about their parents and their lives outside of school. (Often, this answers many questions you may have had previously.) And depending on what kind of teacher you are, you find out a lot more. You learn how they talk to each other. (Frightening.) You learn about their relationships with each other. (Ew.) You learn what they think of other teachers in the building. (Yikes.)
But it doesn’t stop there. By the end of the year, you know what makes them laugh. What makes them upset. You know what they’re going to do before they even do it. (Tyler, in the fourth row, is gonna ask me what a metaphor is when I talk about this story, even though I’ve explained it a dozen times this year, and when he does, Tevin, next to him, is gonna sigh and roll his eyes — and probably swat him — because he’s tired of hearing my spiel.)
You come away from the school year, in other words, covered with their gunk. And not just the students’ gunk. Gunk from other teachers and their frustrations that you have to listen to in the workroom, the mailroom, before the faculty meeting. Gunk from the seemingly endless meetings, by the way, that could have been e-mails. Gunk from the unpleasant encounters you had with parents, from the stress about the extra time you had to spend in the building at the expense of your family time, from the piles and piles and piles and piles of paperwork.
And in most other jobs, you’re stuck with all that gunk — because as soon as one job is done, it’s right on to the next. No downtime, outside from the occasional vacation (which only puts the gunk aside for a little while, to be picked up and re-applied upon your return.)
But teachers get that summer break. And what I’ve learned in my eight years (help!) of teaching is that it’s a rare educator that comes back in the fall still gunked-up. The summer lets you really clear your head, lets you drop all the baggage of the previous year — the gunk, bit by bit, just falls away.
We get to start the new year, every year, clean and fresh. Maybe not smiling and bright-eyed (we’re out of the habit of waking up early after all, but this is why coffee exists), but at least optimistic that the year ahead could be a good one.
Maybe we make some changes to the way we run things; maybe we don’t. Maybe we’ll have a magic combination of minds in our classes that makes every day teaching a joy; maybe we won’t.
But whatever the new year brings, we get a chance to start it un-gunked. Clear-headed. Renewed, reborn. Maybe even a little bit hopeful.
My first students will breach the doors in a little under an hour.