Once upon a time, I took a job that I thought I always wanted.
Almost ten years ago I left my fifth grade classroom at East View and I became a “gifted” teacher. I would spend all day, every day, pulling small groups of very intelligent children out of their “regular” classrooms and I would challenge them with higher concepts and more rigorous assignments. I was assigned two schools, two subjects, three grade levels each: Math and Reading, third, fourth, and fifth grade.
And I ended up hating it.
I only saw the kids an hour, maybe two a week. I was off by myself in a small room with no windows, in two different schools. There was a weird attitude that came with the job, a sort of “Oh, well you’re gifted, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you anything.” That very American kind of disdain for the intellectual set. The assumption that just because I taught “the smart kids” meant that I thought I was intellectually superior to everyone else around me.
(Those that know me well are welcome to now chime in and give me a lot of crap. That was an alley-oop right your way.)
It was a difficult three years of my life, partly because I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life, and partly because the job just didn’t wind up being what I had hoped it could be. It felt like a Band-Aid type of class, something to appease the parents of gifted children that really wanted something deep and different. My teaching job with Northwestern’s summer gifted program this summer showed me what it could be like, when I had a bunch of junior high kids devouring Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard in a matter of days.
But I’m getting off-point. What I really want to talk about is a group of students that became some of the most important people in the world to me.
In early September of 2005 I had recently returned from a disappointing trip to Ireland (although, ironically, that’s the summer I met The Dubliners, now also some of the most important people in my life), bought a house, and was starting Year Two in the gifted job. (We tend to call it A.T., for Academically Talented, but to be honest I hate both names.) I like to sum up the start of that year with this story: One day I headed into work, walked into my classroom and discovered that it’s been turned over to the School Picture People. The principal never bothered to tell me. So I took a sick day and went home to unpack. I had just bought a house a few days earlier and things were a little scattered in my life.
Sometime around then I met a group of five third graders and my life was never quite the same again.
(Before I go any further, I hope any other former students or former actors reading this know that EVERY student/actor I have matters to me. Don’t think I’m playing favorites. I could probably write a million stories about a lot of other students I’ve had, but tonight it’s about these five.)
Right away I knew this group was special. They loved talking about stories, and had a good head for the classic tales of Luke Skywalker and Rocky Balboa. They were officially assigned to AT Reading and AT Math. Two hours a week. That was it. Before long, though, we decided to add a third course that wasn’t on the “official” AT curriculum. They gave up their lunch and recess and we met for a weekly, unofficial AT Writing class for the next two years. We focused on that type of story Joseph Campbell referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”, and we learned about The Call to Adventure, The Ordeal, and The Reward. I gave examples of the best kind of storytelling, the deus ex machina, and I threw out the assigned reading curriculum to delve into Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.
That time we spent together became the purest example of what can happen when you’re left alone, you throw out the rulebook, and you let the kids help decide what they’re going to learn.
During one of our final sessions together we took a few photos and shot some film, some of which you can see in a video I made last year. I try to keep it quiet, but it’s a good summation of my life of travel and teaching.
I can’t even remember why we decided to take the photo* above. I do remember our last day together, reading “Instructions” by Neil Gaiman, having some tears, and understanding that there was a lot of love in the room. I was going to head back to teaching fifth grade, so I could have one school and one group of students. It was a rough, rough farewell, since we could have spent one more year together in that room.
Despite the traumatic goodbye, all five of them ended up joining my theatre company at one point or another over the next couple of years, so it wasn’t really goodbye. Although, as I look at that picture of us, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Morgan, and Cammy moved away to Ohio years ago. Attrition happens, and it’s down to Sam, Tyler, and Sydney these days.
So for the next several years we did plays together, or separate, and I vowed to Sam that I wouldn’t leave her twice. And then I went and did just that and left Limelight four years after I quit being her A.T. teacher. I knew I was heading to Dublin soon, and had to start making my farewells.
After Hamlet at OEHS. Sam played Ophelia after starring as Olivia in my final Limelight production of Twelfth Night, summer 2011.
Life moved on. Dublin had to wait for a year, so I did some theatre at a junior high and reveled in teaching them Shakespeare and Cleary. I prepared to start a (temporary) new life in Ireland, and during one of my final days in the states, I met Tyler, Sydney, and Sam for ice cream. They spent most of the time being giggly high school kids, but at the end they gave me this:
It had been five years, but they took the time to take the story they had worked on, collectively, for two years in our unofficial writing class, and had it professionally bound.
I took it with me to Dublin, and it sat proudly next to my copies of Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Friel.
And so now here we are in the fall of 2013. They’re juniors in high school, writing their own musicals, reading Jane Eyre, and obsessing about One Direction. Tonight we reunited and hugged and laughed and we were joined by so many others, Limelighters and Grande Park Grizzlies and Hermia and Helena and Oberon and all these kids I’ve known from so many different places. We were all there. Together again. I was called Life Coach, and Wizard, whatever that means. Sydney showed me the sketch of the tattoo she wants to give: “Deus ex machina” across the top of her foot.
So, so awkward in this photo, trying to crouch to match their height.
Sam and I have a shared love of The Lord of the Rings, so she’ll be the one to most appreciate these final comments. Oftentimes my friends and family probably get frustrated with me, wondering why I’m not around and available for them like others are. And I never know what to say to that. I’m a bit of an introvert, and after a day or week or month of teaching more often than not I just want to have some time by myself. It’s not that I don’t love my parents and my sister and my uncles and aunts and my grandmothers and my nieces and nephew and my friends old and new. Sometimes there’s just nothing left in the tank. Apparently I’ve got a gift, so I spend it on the people who need it the most. And so I end with this:
“Onen i-estel edain, u-chebin estel anim.”
An impromptu recreation. Cammy and Morgan are missed.
*As an appendix: If, for some reason, I die before I have the chance to weigh in on my own funeral, I would like this photo of the six of us to sum up my years as an educator. It doesn’t say everything, and certainly doesn’t feature the hundreds and hundreds of kids I’ve known through teaching and directing, but it encapsulates enough of what I was trying to say as a teacher. So print a big copy or display it on my tombstone or digital urn or whatever crazy stuff will be available when I shuffle off the ole mortal coil.