“It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.” – Oscar Hammerstein II
If only I could have known what these words would one day mean to me when I played Anna Leonowens in our 8th grade version of THE KING AND I, and was rolling my eyes through the multiple verses of “Getting To Know You.”
In some wonderful act of karma, the girl who swore up and down that she would never become a teacher is devoting the bulk of her professional work to exactly that. I have learned that there’s so much more to teaching then working in a traditional classroom setting (something that I still don’t believe I have the temperament for). It started out casually enough. Some part-time work directing children’s theatre and teaching musical theatre classes. Then, one day someone asked if I taught voice lessons, and so it began. Eventually it was a three year residency as a teaching artist, plus a 20-student voice studio. When I moved to California, I got to stretch my wings a bit and explore more professional opportunities as a Music Director, Director, and an Actress. Ultimately, though, I always come back to teaching.
I’ve been struggling a bit lately with balancing all of the various aspects of my career. Taking care of email, phone calls, scheduling and the other “business” aspects of my work every morning. Teaching lessons or in rehearsal for the youth show I’m directing each afternoon. In rehearsals or performances for the professional show I’m music directing each night. Personal time has become a foreign notion. As I write this, I’m on an airplane en route to Michigan for a family reunion which will provide my first days off in nearly two months. It’s enough to wear even the most passionate, energetic person down! I love my work, but something has clearly got to give. Many people have heard me say lately that all I want to do is go to rehearsal with my kids and just forget the rest of it. So why are kids better?
I happen to be working with a particularly special bunch right now. Lightening in a bottle, as you might say. It was clear from day one that this was a unique group. They were attentive, insightful, kind, and enthusiastic. We talked about creating the best possible work space in which to crest our show. One girl added that we needed to “Be safe both physically and emotionally.” Our work has been fun, challenging, and inspiring. As I told a friend of mine, “No” just isn’t a part of what we do. Everyone is open to ideas and possibility. We end almost every rehearsal with a circle. Sometimes we give compliments, sometimes we talk about where we can improve, sometimes we just layout the plan for the next rehearsal. You should hear these kids! Thanking their counterparts (each role is double cast) for helping them learn a part they missed. Recognizing each other’s focus and effort. Even on challenging days, their insight can make my heart leap out of my chest. One recent day, we were talking about how they set the bar really high for themselves, and so the adult directors have come to expect a lot from them. I admitted that it would be unfair to expect them to be completely well-behaved and focused at every moment of every rehearsal. One girl piped up, ” We’re only human!” (And they’re only in 4th-6th grades, to boot!)
Our play opens on Friday and, while I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done and can’t wait for people to see the finished product, what I’m really going to take away from this project goes far beyond what the audiences will see. I’ve learned that lending someone your script can be the greatest act of kindness. I’ve learned that kids can be horribly cruel to each other without even realizing what they’re doing. I’ve learned that a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. I’ve learned that if you can ignite a child’s imagination, then anything is possible. It’s about seeing them smile and hearing them sing. It’s about that moment at the top of the show when they hit that first pose, nail every beat of choreography, and sing out with such heart that you can actually see them beaming. And you’re beaming right back. And it’s not because they’re particularly polished or Broadway quality. It’s because you all share the same secret. You’ve all seen the most incredible strides and learned the same lessons. You’ve all had the same hard days and amazing “aha” moments. And then the moment comes when you turn the show over to the actors and let them own it. And in this situation, it’s not just director giving over to the actors. It’s adults giving ownership to children. And the children, in that amazing way that only they possess, take it to a place of magic and imagination that adults can only marvel and and remember with envy.
I could say that I love teaching because it’s a selfless act, but that would be a lie. It’s actually quite selfish. That beaming feeling that I just talked about? That’s pretty much the greatest feeling that exists. And I pretend to be irritated, but it’s pretty great to say, “Okay, let’s make a circle,” and have them all flock around you. And I pretend to gripe about how demanding they are, but there’s a certain excitement in having at least ten people calling your name to ask you something the second you take a break in the action. Is my ego involved? Absolutely. But don’t think for a second that I teach out of some strange puppet master tendencies. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. You pour in countless extra, unpaid hours. You tend to tears and scrapes. You deal with parents (who are the worst of all!). But in the end, with any luck, there are 25 kids who come out happier and stronger in the end. With any luck, they’ll walk away from this experience remembering to always be “strong but wrong” and carrying little imaginary candy bars of “diction” and “yes” in their pockets that they can nibble on whenever needed. It’s the least I can give them in return for all they’ve given me.