I owe you something extra for my half-post last week — so here it is!
A teacher finds their student at work in the library and approaches them.
Teacher: Chaucer, huh? Canterbury Tales. I remember reading that when I was your age. What, you don’t think I was young once? World’s full of surprises, huh? (Looking at the book.) You know, I never got The Canterbury Tales. I still don’t. And I have to teach it. (Beat.) But you get it. You’re smart. Good head on your shoulders. Which is why I know you’re going to come through for me. I know you’re dealing. (Student stands up.) Uh-uh. Don’t. Sit down. Nice and easy. We’re just talking. Don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do know. Now, relax. I’m not here to turn you in. I’m here to help you. You’re good in English, but you’re struggling in math. You need a tutor. I need a new supplier. You take cash, right?
I’m at a theater educators conference this week, and one of the workshops I took was in monologue writing for students. Part of the work was — you guessed it — writing monologues!
I wrote three over the course of the hour – this one in less than ten minutes – but this one was my favorite.
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.
It’s no great secret that I’ve been in a funk lately.
Take the general lack of confidence, the pervasive self-doubt, and the overall bewilderment that’s sort of the stock-and-trade of this entire website and multiply it out a few dozen times and you get the idea.
Still, there are rays of light in the dark.
For example, when I got to work this morning, I found this:
One of my students (I’ve no idea which one) just sunlight-bombed me out of nowhere.
And as a guy who, even in my ninth year (help!) of teaching, still feels pretty strongly that A) I have no idea what I’m doing and B) I’m probably screwing it up more often than not? This was the kick in the pants I needed this morning.
Momentum matters. Good vibes beget more good vibes. I wanted desperately to stay in bed this morning and skip my run — the skipping, I knew, would leave me feeling like an overturned dumpster all day, but I still wanted it, wanted the sweet oblivion of one more hour of sleep. In a weird way, I was almost craving the garbage feeling. But I forced myself up, and I’m glad I did.
And now this.
It’s Friday, and even though it’s dreary outside, there’s a little bit of sunlight in my soul.
I am moving rooms today for the second time since being at my current school.
Which is to say, as of next year, I will have been in a different location every year since I’ve taught here. (Future progressive verb tense is fun. English teachers, you feel me.) And that’s kind of a bummer. You get moved around every year, it’s tough to feel at home in your own classroom. Can’t put down roots. Can’t put your feet up too much. Like living in an apartment and never bothering to paint the walls because you’re gonna have to paint them taupe again when you move out, so why bother?
I didn’t make this connection for my first couple years. up went the posters (dozens of them). Decorative lamps in the corners. Personal pictures and bulletin board borders and all. I even hung stuff from the ceiling tiles. Deep roots sunk into the earth of the place.
Which takes forever to clean up and stirs up all kinds of emotions while you’re working for hours to do said cleaning.
So, I don’t put down roots anymore.
When I realized I could — and likely would — get moved at the end of the year, my personal touch became more of a tap. Just a couple of posters and only a few things in my own little corner of the room. The room writ large mostly blank or marked with a couple materials that we’re working with actively — to be pulled down again once we’re done.
Yet even without those personal imprints, I feel more at home teaching in this school than I have in any of my other schools.
The moving is frustrating, but it also serves as an opportunity for cleaning out and reflection, more perhaps than I would have had otherwise. Everything must be gone through, everything must be assessed, everything must be weighed and measured and either kept or discarded. Rather a lot like moving house, except instead of evaluating your memories and keepsakes, I’m evaluating practices and methods (will I teach that next year? Will this handout be useful again?)
So while the students are signing yearbooks and studying for finals (HAHA who studies for finals), I’ll be stuffing boxes.
Thing about teachers is, it’s hard to describe being one. I mean, in a vague way I guess people think they understand it — well, you babysit some students who are sort of vaguely jerkish, you write some lesson plans and quizzes, you grade some quizzes, assign some homework, take an hour-and-a-half lunch every day, and then you get three months off during the summer. Oh and THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, TEACH HAW HAW HAW. And that’s true, in the sense that it’s true that bees are face-stinging forces of evil. Sure, they are, but that leaves out the much more important truth that they power the agricultural engines of the entire freaking world.
Teachers are people. Flawed people. People whose work gets the better of them sometimes, just like anybody else, and people who look forward to their well-earned vacations with a gusto that borders on the psychopathic. Seriously — take a walk through any school building in the days leading up to a holiday. See if you can’t smell the desperation coming off them in waves, if you can’t see the frenetic ecstasy rimming their eyes.
But as much as we look forward to our time off, we always screw it up. (Or at least I do.) Here’s how this Thanksgiving went in my life as a teacher:
Organize a series of quizzes and essays to grade over the break. You have a week off; that’s plenty of time to fit in an hour or so somewhere to do a bit of catch-up work.
Stuff said papers in your “teacher bag” and carry it home.
On the short drive home, allow yourself to drift away completely from even the abstract idea that you are a teacher.
Bag o’ papers goes in the closet. Enjoy a nice adult beverage with dinner because it’s vacation, dammit.
Spend next few days doing house things and totally not doing teacher things. Bag o’ papers collects lint in the closet.
Organize for your trip out of town. Do not, even for a second, consider bringing Bag o’ papers with you.
Turkey and stuffing and travel whirlwind for a few days.
Arrive home and decompress from seven hours in the car with kids who do not want to be in the car for seven hours. Bag o’ papers is still in the closet, lurking like bad leftover green bean casserole. Nobody is interested in either.
Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Find that on your earlier trip to Home Depot, you got the wrong size staples for your staple gun. Go to Home Depot again. Get wrong size staples again. Give up and watch college football. (LOL what bag o’ papers?)
Last day of the break. Plan to hang Christmas decorations. Watch Inside Out with the kids instead. Remember that you’re a teacher and you have to go back to teaching tomorrow. Write a blog post about the things you did instead of grading papers over the break. Think about taking some time to grade papers today (there’s still time) and remember that the Falcons play at 1 PM. That means: morning for decorating, football in the afternoon, and by evening it’s time for the usual Sunday evening routine of dinner, bedtime, and sobbing over the lost weekend while sacrificing a goat in hopes of buying more time before you go back to work.
Wonder how in the hell nine days passed so fast. Drink wine until you no longer care.
Monday morning. Retrieve ungraded bag o’ papers from closet. Go to work in a panic. Resume regular teacherly duties.
I’m assuming it’s pretty much the same for all teachers.