This One’s for You, Katie

My very first blog request.  With a subject suggestion.  Well, I don’t know what more I have to say about my current acting class, Katie, but I guess I’ll find out.

They asked to continue last night.  I’m not a super-effusive person, so expressing gratitude seems, well, so understated coming from me.  But I am grateful for more time with all of them.  Their plan is for me to invent the classes from my knowledge of who they are and what they need to grow as actors, which is a bit of a dream for me as a teacher.  I’ve been feeling that after the last 7 years of teaching Meisner pretty much the way I learned it, I wanted to branch out and really create curricula from what I see that actors need.  And also, of course, from my own interests in the boundaries of craft.

Dream class.  I truly hope it works out.  I would love 10-12 more weeks with them.  And it’s funny, because often at the end of the Full Training both I and my students feel it’s time for them to move on.  With these actors, I think almost all of us want to continue.

Teaching is a thing.  I’m the oldest of 6, and my closest sibling is 13 months younger than I am.  I pretty much took charge of him, they tell me, so he didn’t talk until he was three.  I was always like, “Peter wants more birthday cake.  Peter wants to play with that toy.  You should get Peter X, Y & Z.”  Let it never be said that I lack in opinions.  Let it not be said that I did not need some kind of codependency recovery at a VERY early age.

But I kind of loved it.  I taught them to walk, to ride bikes, to tie their shoes.  I heated bottles and tested the temperature of milk on my wrist.  Later, I taught my sisters about birth control (in our very Catholic family, they weren’t going to learn it any other way).  I helped one sister to get into shape for field hockey tryouts.  Then I taught 3-5 year olds how to swim when I was 14.  I taught aerobics in my twenties, and then taught ESL in Japan, and finally opened my own business teaching writing in 1990.  I started teaching acting in 2001, and opened the Meisner business in 2004.

Teaching is like breathing for me.  I do it without excess effort.  Because I grew up teaching and because teaching was always equated with loving someone smaller and younger, with being my very best for my siblings, the first time I stood up in front of a classroom, I knew what to do.  I remember being in Japan, with 50 of the lowest level English speakers who were my homeroom and who really didn’t understand anything I said.  I had studied a very minimum of classroom management and a semester of ESL methodology.  It could have been a total disaster.  I was 26.  I had been given, by the administration, the choice to choose 3 class monitors or to have an election.  Are you kidding?  I chose.  I picked the young man I thought was likely to cause me the most trouble, a girl I thought might be picked on, and another girl who seemed very centered.  There’s a thing–if you win over the strongest personality in a group, all the rest will follow.  Sakuro reminded me of Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter, played by a young John Travolta.  And he was mine from the minute I asked him to be the monitor.  He used to leap out of his seat if other students were talking and tell them to shut up.

I don’t know exactly what I did with that class, but I did love them, and they took me in, they chose to trust me.  I did dialogue journals and I wrote back to each one of them every other week.  By the end of the first semester they understood every word I said. I made bad mistakes with them, but what I remember is that warmth–50 students and me, sitting at our class party, everyone laughing.  It was a deal, because these were the kids rejected by the major universities, the ones uncertain about having any future at all.  They needed someone to be on their side.

Teaching, to me, is really kind of holy.  Opening the door to a language, to an art form, to creative freedom, to self-expression…people have to trust you if they’re going to walk through that door.  I’ve taught 60 and 70 year old women who wanted to write their whole lives, but who were blocked by the fear of claiming a voice.  They came to me like children, saying, “Can I?  Will I be judged?”  They asked me how to trust that what they have to say was valuable.  I knew this.  The lexicon was writing craft, the lexicon was, “Write a shitty first draft.  Don’t censor.  Find out what’s there.  Be curious.”  But what I was really saying was, “Yes, you have words inside you that need to be said.  You have a story that counts.  Let it come out any way it can.”  My female students talked about what it was like to have a feminist teacher, but really, I taught all male classes with the same approach and saw the same vulnerability everywhere.  Craft, getting good at it, finding the limits on your own talent, comes second to the human act of sharing, telling, being heard.  My students went on to publish, win contests, get into grad school, but the first movement of creativity is believing what’s inside you is beautiful or interesting or both.  I have never understood how anyone can teach and not know that.

I also believe that education in general is the way to a better life.  When I bitch about therapy, it’s because it doesn’t teach enough, maybe.  It’s all about relationship, not necessarily about learning when it should be.  To move from one economic class to another, to find a way out of destructive early life experiences–nothing is more important than education.  We all need to learn that there are many worlds within one, and that we are not fully entrapped in whatever experience holds us in the moment.

Also, for whatever it’s worth, my teachers, throughout my entire life, adopted me, advocated for me, helped me.

It came so easily that for most of my life I took it for granted.  But I don’t feel that way now.  I feel blessed to be a teacher, to have the experiences of classrooms where people learn and grow.  I can’t imagine not having this as part of my life.

Dream class.  Dream profession.  (Along with writing and acting.)

In the middle of the craziest year in recent memory, there is this.


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