“What do you mean?”
I pause for a moment, a bit unsure about the next words out of my mouth. “I’m sorry?” I say.
“I don’t know what you mean?”
Often in this situation there are two possible outcomes for Mr. Shelton. 1. The consequences from my initial reaction and the consequences from the appropriate reaction.
“What do you mean?”
[In my head.] “What do I mean? That is exactly what I’ve been explaining to you for the last five minutes. I have been doing nothing but explaining what I mean. I think maybe the problem here is that you need to listen better…aaahhhhhh….children these days… :)”
STEPPING OUT OF SCENE TO ADDRESS THE AUDIENCE.
Now, listening may be part of what’s going on here. It may be a significant part. This post isn’t about discounting how I feel or my in-the-moment-emtionally-charged-diagnosis of the issue. It’s acknowledging, and recognizing impact. My impact on others. Especially as an adult, in a position of power, working with children.
My own feelings matter.
My impact on others matters too. Can I get an amen?
SOLILOQUY [in the style of Hamlet, words by DMX]
“Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind. Up in here, up in here. Y’all gon’ make me go all out. Up in here, up in here.
Y’all gonna make me act a fool. Up in here, up in here. Y’all gonna make me lose my cool. Up in here, up in here.”
RETURN TO SCENE.
[Shelton takes a breath and goes with what’s behind door number two.] “Ok, ok. So, what did you hear?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Shelton. I think something about an entrance on stage right, no…no you said not stage right on stage left at the Moose line–”
FREEZE FRAME [Shelton Voice Over]
And here’s the important part if I can actually go with option #2. Here’s where we have growth, where we build relationships and where we open more equitable dialogue. That stuff about stage right and left. That’s not what I said. The student missed it completely. But now I know. Instead of legitimate feelings of, “why aren’t you listening?” Which is putting all of the work of comprehension on the student, I’m acknowledging my own responsibility in the communication process. What did you hear? Not, what did I say, but…what did you hear?
This puts the students in a position to explain what they DID hear. It gives them a voice and a chance for us to have a conversation.
This also puts myself in a position of 1. Listening for understanding. If I’m being honest, most of what I say makes sense in my head. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to the folks hearing it. Just because I know what I’m talking about doesn’t mean anyone else does. Just because I know how I define a word, doesn’t automatically mean others define it the same way.
We’re trying to get to a place of understanding through conversation. Articulating what we mean, need, hope for are building blocks to healthy conversation and healthy community. It’s hard work pushing for authenticity in ourselves and others. It’s also life-affirming and necessary work.
CUT TO CLOSE UP.
[Shelton speaking directly to the camera. Monologue style.]
My hope is that by doing the work of taking the time to have open and honest dialogue, to take the time to connect through personal relationships, to take the time to listen to understand we are helping ground our community in a healthy foundation.
We need to be okay with change. Theater, like life, is a journey. People change. Life changes. Economics change. Educational needs and goals change and that’s okay. As a theater educator I try to be purposeful in being the best version of myself for my students and…for me this is the challenging part…granting myself and my students some grace in the journey and using every opportunity as a growth opportunity. Despite my most thoughtful definitions and intentions within the program, sometimes I miss the mark. Sometimes the students miss the mark. We are all imperfect human beings trying to build something together and it’s not always pretty AND we can always, always learn from each experience.
If we allow ourselves and this is where the grace comes in. We have to allow ourselves and others to try and fail and try again. If harm has been caused we need to allow for forgiveness and meaningful steps for restoration.
Please don’t take this as advocating for low expectations. On the contrary this is about (within reason) holding ourselves to being the best version of ourselves. I am always amazed (though maybe I shouldn’t be) by the incredible heights students can reach. This isn’t about low expectations, it’s about grounding yourself in a structure that works for you and your students, clearly defining expectations and aspirations, working towards those expectations and aspirations AND having flexibility to shift as the needs arise.
Some of the most teachable moments, some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced have been when I mess up and I go before the group and own it with authenticity and humility.
One example of this was during a fall production of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine a few years ago.
I am constantly looking for ways to sustain and build our program and I had talked with other theater teachers about things they had done in their own programs to foster growth. [Yeah, I know. I mentioned many posts ago about decolonizing the classroom and de-centering whiteness AND here’s a story of me pursuing growth and feeding directly into those same values of growth is good. Growth defines worth, etc.] I hope if you’re reading this you appreciate the tension we all exist with on this planet. There is no “arrival”. I think the incomparable Maya Angelou frames this tension perfectly when she said:
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
In these various conversations the idea of having a double cast came up multiple times and I latched onto it. I thought it seemed like a great way to involve more students and continue to grow and growth is good, am I right? If we’re increasing numbers, I’m doing it right! (emphasis on “I”) am doing it right…right?
So, under the auspices of inclusivity I double cast Almost, Maine. The plan was for one group to perform the first weekend and for the other group to perform the second weekend. I can still see the vision in my head. It was going to be so glorious. I was growing the program, I was being inclusive by finding a way to include more students AND I didn’t have to cut anyone and deal with mad students and parents!
I’m king of the world!
You can probably guess where this story is going. It was a disaster. Now, I’m not saying double casting is a disaster. I’m saying in this instance, with this community with this group of student artists it was a disaster and that disaster rests solely on my shoulders. If I’m being honest with myself I felt it in my heart. I felt this wasn’t the time nor the needed group dynamics to double cast. I knew this particular group of students and their brand of relationship wasn’t conducive to the type of dynamic needed to pull off a double cast. I knew I didn’t yet have the relationship with the students for them to fully trust my vision. I did it because I was new to the school and I didn’t want to cut anyone because I wanted them all to like me. I wanted to stand my ground and force my value system of inclusive theater on them.
So I came up with a way to do that. A way which I justified in my head from here to there to everywhere as the “best” decision when really it wasn’t the “best” anything.
I didn’t want to cut anyone so I came up with a way not to cut anyone.
And even though I eloquently used the examples above to support my reasoning, it was a sham. The kids knew it. I knew it. We all knew it. I was trying to manufacture something which turned out to be inauthentic and inequitable because of my own insecurity. My own lack of humility. My fear at de-centering my own self as the focus of the space.
Let me tell you. Theater is rife with “cult of personality” educators. One of the areas of most growth I’ve gone through as an educator is learning how to “de-center myself from the program”. A healthy theater program, especially in high school, needs to exist in spite NOT because of the person wearing the title “director”.
BACK TO MONOLOGUE:
The show was a success not because of my gameship. It was a success because of the students and their commitment to each other and to excellence.
The story doesn’t end there though. Thank goodness.
Like I mentioned earlier, using each opportunity as a potential for growth matters and as difficult as it was, I used this opportunity for personal growth. Which in this case meant apologizing to the students for my arrogance and stupidity and having honest dialogue with them about who they were. How they saw themselves. What was special about the program to them. What they would love to see the program become; and fortunately for me we were able to re-set in a sense, continue to hold on to the foundations we had forged which were working, and refocus on what mattered most to all of us.
The “why” matters. It is important to define. Assumptions can tear down what took years to build. Intentions matter AND so does impact. My intentions were in the right place so I assumed everyone would see it my way and jump on the bandwagon. My intentions were good. My impact was not.
I was coming from a flawed foundation, one built around my own self, which, if I’m being authentically one-hundred, believed my value and my worth was intertwined with theater so much so, I was making it all about me.
If I’m honest, I was afraid to not be the center of attention. I was afraid to de-center my voice, my needs and my search for approval from others. Do I often wish I didn’t have to screw up in order to be my best self?
I’ve never been and never will be perfect at creating a culture in which the students and I can have meaningful dialogue about intentions, impact and outcomes in the breezy way so many of the professional development speakers and their PowerPoints lay out.
However, I have been consistent in continuing to press into relationship, uncomfortable-
ness and intention for the sake of my students and myself.
It makes a difference.
What matters is that the relationships are real. Because genuine relationships make a difference.
SLOW FADE OUT.