A Salute to Intangible Rewards

saluteOn Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.

yearbooksThis brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.

One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”

taking testsYou see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.

star trekThese two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.

standardized test answer sheetAfter nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.

be-preparedThis guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.

raise handI’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.

Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.

NunsenseI’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.

away in a mangerWe weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.

I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

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The Fatal Bite

I didn’t go looking for drama; it came to me. In early 1984, I was at a very low and dark point in my personal and professional life. I went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, and repeated that process for weeks-no, months-on end. My only foray out of my apartment was to Mass on Sunday. I was not sleeping well, not eating well, and generally, not doing well. And then one Saturday in April of that year a friend came to visit. I was horrified to have an unexpected guest drop in on me and see the way I was existing. In fact, my half-decorated Christmas tree was still up (barely standing) in my living room, a carpet of pine needles surrounding it.

My friend took stock of the situation and sent me upstairs to shower and get dressed. “We are going out,” she said firmly. There was no negotiation allowed. I dragged myself upstairs and did as I had been instructed. When I came back down, my living room was spotless, dead Christmas tree dragged to the dumpster, decorations stacked neatly on my dining room table. That was when she made the announcement: “I’m on my way to audition for a part in the musical South Pacific and you are coming with me. After the auditions we are going out to lunch.”

Uh, no. No thanks. No way. Not happening. But, as friends come, this one is a real spitfire. At this juncture, we had been friends for ten years, after meeting in 1974 as freshmen during sorority rush at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

My Phi Mu sisters and me at our National Convention in 1976, Charleston

Here’s my Phi Mu sisters (including my friend) and me (standing, first on left) at our sorority’s National Convention in 1976, Charleston, South Carolina.

She was involved in theatre back then, too. She was an actress, with a great voice, and lots of what I later learned was called stage presence. She had won the lead in the school’s musical as a freshman. Yes, she was good.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, I realized resistance was futile and I followed her to her car. She drove us to the campus of our alma mater and parked at the music building. We went in and she signed the clipboard for those auditioning. We then took our seats in the theatre. I have to admit that once there, it was fun sitting in the dark, cool theatre, watching the people go up on stage under the bright lights and sing a song for their audition. Sometimes, the director or the music director would speak to them or ask them to do something additional. A few were asked to dance a bit or read lines. I had never seen anything like it and I was intrigued.

Eventually my friend was called up. She did a great job (or so I thought, but what did I know, never having been in a play before). Then the most shocking thing happened. The woman with the clipboard called my name over the microphone. WHAT? I didn’t sign up for anything! I just sat there stunned. My name was called again. My friend literally raised me up by my elbow and said, “She’s here!” I blubbered something about just being there to watch but I soon found myself being “escorted” by my friend up the stairs to the stage, the music director shouting at me, “What piece are you singing?” My friend then said, “Oh, she didn’t prepare anything, she’s just going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

I cowered next to the baby grand piano parked stage right, waiting for further instruction. The accompanist started playing and I just stood there, mute. The music director shouted, “Are you going to sing or what?” So, I sang “Happy Birthday”, badly and I am sure pretty off-key.

You can imagine my shock and surprise a few days later when I saw my name on the cast list, under the ensemble group, Frenchwomen’s Chorus. I was even more shocked to see my friend’s name in the same ensemble group. She was so good, how could we be given the same part? By this time, I had been “convinced” that this would be good for me: I would have a place to go in the evenings, meet new people, try something different, and have the opportunity to act and sing and dance. So, I was thrilled to see my name there, even though it was a very small part, singing just one song, “Bali Ha’i”, and later in another scene, singing its reprise. My friend was not so thrilled at being cast as ensemble but we vowed to hang in there together, me the novice, she the veteran.

Along with music and/or stage rehearsals every weeknight, there were costume fittings, shopping trips to purchase stage make-up and character shoes, props to find, sets to build and paint, and of course, the requisite nightcap at a local bar after rehearsals on Friday night. My friend was right. I made a lot of new friends and had fun while doing it. TheatreBug1-copyright200And, as they say, come opening night, when those bright lights hit me in the face and I basked in the applause during the curtain call, I had been bitten by the theatre bug.

For the next five years, I was a fixture with that theatre group. I joined the group officially, ran for office, headed up committees, volunteered for anything and everything under the sun, and auditioned for each and every play that came up, even when there wasn’t a part that was really right for me.

The place where my best high school memories took place, that's me in first row left, in white drum major costume

The home place of my best high school memories, marching band. That’s me in first row left, in white drum major costume.

Dracula

Cast of the Columbia Theatre Players’ 1986 production of Dracula. First row, far left in grey suit, me as Professor Van Helsing, a male role recast as female just for me!

I parlayed my four years of high school band and two years of childhood piano lessons into being able to read music well enough to get a part in the chorus of the summer musical each year. I gave it everything I had but in return I received much more. While I never got a major singing role, I did get the female lead in two straight plays and had the opportunity to direct two plays during my time with that group. My five years of performing in front of audiences taught me self-discipline and problem-solving as well as improving my self-confidence and public speaking skills. Serving as producer for several of the large joint productions also gave me great experience at organizing a major event involving significant sums of money. Being the editor of the group’s quarterly newsletter gave me a creative outlet for burgeoning writing skills, as well as experience in marketing and public relations for a non-profit group.

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henleys e Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987. That is me seated on the right, second row.

In 1988, after over twenty productions with the group, I had to say goodbye to my friends at Columbia Theatre Players. My “day job” as a paralegal had also brought me success, and eventually, a cross-country move for a job with a Fortune 500 commercial real estate development company. Soon after, I married and had children, and my long evenings in a dark theatre came to an end, paving the way for watching our daughters in school plays and encouraging their creative talents.

After twenty years in the legal field, I decided to become a teacher. Hoping to find a teaching position where I could marry my love of theatre with my love of literature, I attended a Catholic schools job fair, with a large silver brooch of the Greek comedy and tragedy masks on my suit jacket. comedy and tragedy masksI stopped at all the booths of schools showing an opening for a language arts teacher. At one booth, a woman said to me, “Is that the symbol for theatre?” After I told her yes, she said, “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” She returned shortly with her principal and they told me that the teacher who had directed their school plays had recently retired. “Would you be interested in doing that if you were offered a teaching position?”

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disneys High School Musical J

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disney’s High School Musical Junior, April 2015. That’s me in the teal jacket.

And, so, for the last eight years, that is how I have fed and nurtured the theatre bug that bit me so many years ago. It makes for a very long day, teaching all day and then holding auditions, running rehearsals, building sets, searching for costumes and props, coaxing shy students to project and sing out. After rehearsals are over, there are still lesson plans to make, essays to grade, tests and quizzes to create, parent emails to respond to. It leaves little time for leisure with family and friends, and energy for my own creative endeavors is short-changed. TheatreBug2-copyright200But, how can I give it up when I have been given so much in return? It seems that the bite of the theatre bug is indeed fatal.