Sunday, July 10, 2011

Allowing Ourselves to Reach

Elizabethan Stage @ OSF

Last week, a friend and I spent the week in Ashland, Oregon attending a workshop for teachers put on by the world renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  We spent nearly fifty hours attending classes and performances. It was an extraordinary experience on so many levels.  Both of us came away with a greater appreciation for our school, our colleagues, and the lives that we live.

Besides us, there were eighteen other participants divided between theatre teachers and English teachers.  Two women attended the first day of workshops, then disappeared, reemerging only for the five theatrical performances the group experienced.  On the other end of the spectrum was the first year teacher whose birthday-present request of her parents was half the workshop fee while she paid for the other half out of her own pocket.  A more joyful, committed and engaged classmate would be hard to find, in spite of the fact that she battled a migraine on the last day. 

The workshop facilitators were unfailingly patient and generous, far more patient than I would have been in their shoes.  Their murmured yet enthusiastic encouragements of “Excellent!  Good!” often made me laugh, but I have vowed to adopt both their words and their attitudes.  After all, if they could stay so upbeat in the face of some surprising ignorance from adults who purportedly teach this stuff, then I can certainly remain so with adolescents.  That is definitely not to say that all the participants were uninformed about theatre, Shakespeare or teaching practices.  The majority, in fact, were not only very knowledgeable, they were funny, insightful and deeply inspiring. 

Several told stories of teaching in districts so desperately underfunded that the only way to have the most basic supplies in their classrooms was to purchase them from their personal funds.  They spoke of administrators so rigid that all teachers were required to teach the same subject matter within the same window of time with no room to follow student interest or to explore thoughts or ideas that arose during discussion, and with no acknowledgement of the fact that a class of advanced students would inevitably move at a different pace than a class of English language learners.  They described the non-stop grading that accompanies teaching loads of two hundred forty students.  They talked of reaching out to engage the boy who showed so much promise, but who was being actively courted by a gang; the girl who lived in her car and who wondered what relevance Hamlet could possibly have for her; the kids who arrived at school hungry every day for whom the concept of homework was a joke—how do you do homework when home is not a safe place to be?

The fact is, of course, that Shakespeare has profound relevancy today even, or perhaps especially, for students suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  Hamlet may not live in his car, but he is a very young man who is completely alone in the world.  His father has just died.  His mother has no time for or interest in him; she is too besotted with her new husband.  His girlfriend blabs all his secrets to her father who turns around and reports them to Hamlet’s new stepfather.  And to top it all off, in order to prove that he is a “real man,” he is expected to commit murder.  He might as well live in his car.  At the very least, he would understand that young girl’s sense of isolation, meaninglessness and complete absence of any kind of security.

My friend and I kept reflecting on our own students, so eager to learn, so thirsty for the next idea, the next discussion.  How can one fail to appreciate the freedom and flexibility we are afforded to design our own curricula and set our own pace.  Last year during the popular uprisings in the Middle East, the ninth grade history teacher simply dropped his planned curriculum in order to focus on the history being made at the moment.  His students will never forget that.  How could he have done that if he had been required to stay within a fixed timeframe or to teach only what would “be on the test”?

At the end of the week, we drove the seven hours home.  We were literally minutes away from my friend’s apartment when my cell phone rang.  It was a colleague calling to tell me that she had just received a call from one of our students, a young woman in considerable distress.  Her home life had deteriorated rapidly over the weeks since summer vacation began and she felt under attack there.  She was, she said, hiding in some bushes and had to get away.  What should she do?  My colleague was calling to tell me what actions she had taken to help the student feel safe.

Welcome home.  Yes, welcome to the 24/7/365 anxiety over the health and well-being of a couple hundred teenagers.  But far more important, welcome home to a team of loving, dedicated human beings for whom teaching is so much more than imparting knowledge.  Teaching means dedicating oneself to the lives and safety of the children in our care, whether it is July or February.  No one can do that alone; it does take a village.  It takes a global village of every human being, ready to support, guide and care about every child and adolescent in every corner of the world.

My village has the added benefit of containing many remarkable human beings and one extraordinary dog.  My husband, though somewhat anxious about the prospect, was a wonderful daddy to Cleo during the week I was away.  But, oh!  What a thing it is to be greeted by an exuberant Bedlington Terrier.  With her arms wrapped around my neck, Cleo spread liberal amounts of puppy saliva over my face.  Finally, afraid of suffocating (her tongue kept plugging up my nose and I was understandably afraid to breath through my mouth), I peeled her off of me and we chased each other around the house before settling down to some good snuggling.

Just because billions of human beings do it every year doesn’t mean that growing up is an easy thing to do.  Growing up is hard; growing up well is even harder.  Training a dog, spending a week without your mom, being separated from your true love, learning to read and understand Shakespeare—none of these things is easy, but they are all worth doing for the richness they can bring to our lives. 

One morning when we were all bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, one of the workshop facilitators told us about Dr. Jerry Turner, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who transformed the company from semi-professional to  world quality.  She asked him, she told us, why people should still perform and attend Shakespeare’s plays when they can be such a challenge to understand.  This was his reply:  “We need things to reach for.  If we don’t have things to reach for our lives get filled with things that are meaningless—that are momentarily distracting but lack exalting possibilities.”  May we all dare to be exalted.

Maybe Queen Elizabeth wore those collars
because she couldn't help licking her stitches, either.

1 comment:

  1. Your trip sounded very educational, and fun.

    I can just see Cleo now welcoming you home, the bond they have with us is an amazing gift of unconditional love.