For a few brief weeks, I co-wrote a blog with my former professor and good friend Cal Pritner called “Thank You! Next?” What follows is a post I wrote January 9th, 2009 that I’d like to give a wider readership — something that might be valuable as we consider a revision of theatre education, of course, but also how we might reconceive the role of the artist. Perhaps artists might also help members of the commuhnity answer the three questions of the article quoted below. Anyway, a rerun:
As some of you may know, Cal is a retired university theatre teacher, and I currently teach at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Spring semester classes start tomorrow, and I have been busily preparing syllabi and writing introductory comments for my classes this semester: History of Theatre I, Principles of Directing I, Devised Theatre, and The Hero’s Journey in Film in Literature (at a prison about an hour from Asheville). For me, the night before classes start is one of anticipation and anxiety. Anticipation because it is a fresh start, an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and try my best to touch somebody’s life.
Over the years, I have come to believe that success is less about my own brilliance than about my ability to listen to what is going on with students and respond in ways that lead them to new rooms within their hearts and minds. I have come to see my quest as being that of a string in search of a sounding board: I sound whatever notes I have found that seem rich, and then I listen to see who is vibrating to that sound, who is amplifying it. Some notes I play resonate only within me, and no matter how beautiful I think that note is, I must try another one in the hopes that it will find resonance with someone else.
A couple days ago, I was reading the wonderful Yes! magazine and I reached an article entitled “Blessings Revealed” by Puanani Burgess. Ms. Burgess, who is a “mediator, poet, community organizer, and Zen priest,” wrote (and with apologies to Ms. Burgess, I am going to quote almost the whole essay — but please go and subscribe to Yes!):
One of the processes I use to help people talk to each other I call Building the Beloved Community. There’s an exercise that requires people to tell three stories.
The first is the story of all of your names. The second is the story of your community. The third story I ask them to tell is the story of your gift.
One time, I did this process with a group in our local high school. We went around the circle and we got to this young man, and he told the story of his names well and the story of his community well, but when it came time to tell the story of his gift, he asked, “What, Miss? What kind gift you think I get, eh? I stay in this special ed class and I get a hard time read and I cannot do that math. And why you make me shame for, ask me that kind question? What kind gift you have? If I had gift, you think I be here?”
He just shut down and shut up, and I felt really shamed. In all the time I have ever done that, I have never, never shamed anybody before.
Two weeks later, I am in our local grocery store, and I see him down one of those aisles and I see his back and I’m going down there with my cart and I think “Nope I’m not going there.” So I start to back up as fast as I can and I’m trying to run away from him. And then he turns around and he sees me, and he throws his arms open, and he says, “Aunty! I have been thinking about you, you know. Two weeks I have been thinking: ‘What my gift? What my gift?’ ”
I say “OK bruddah, so what’s your gift?”
He says, “You know, I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking. I cannot do that math stuff and I cannot read so good, but Aunty, when I stay in the ocean, I can call the fish, and the fish he come, every time. Every time I can put food on my family table. Every time. And sometimes when I stay in the ocean and the Shark he come, and he look at me and I look at him and I tell him, ‘Uncle I not going take plenty fish. I just going to take one, two fish, just for my family. All the rest I leave for you.’ And so the Shark he say, ‘Oh, you cool, brother.’ And I tell the Shark, ‘Uncle, you cool.’ And the Shark, he go his way and I go my way.”
And I look at this boy and I know what a genius he is, and I mean, certifiable. But in our society, the way schools are run, he is rubbish. He is totally destroyed, not appreciated at all. So when I talked to his teacher and the principal of the school, I asked them what would his life have been like if this curriculum were gift-based? If we were able to see the gift in each of our children and taught around that gift?
So much of education is about creating winners and losers. So many people believe that rigor means having a certain percentage of the class get C’s and D’s, as if success is teaching is reflected in the number of kids who fail your class. Researcher Robert Sternberg has created a “triarchic” model of intelligence that embraces not only our traditional, narrowly-focused analytic thinking, but also creative thinking (how you deal with new situations) and practical thinking (how you function within a system). But even that broadening, which would be an improvement, is still based on creating winners and losers. How much is the desire to learn, so strong in young children, damaged by this process of separation?
When I teach at the prison next Thursday, I will look around the room and wonder what the gifts are in that room that haven’t been recognized or appreciated. Will we separate these young men, cut them off from society and label them as failures? Or will we seek to identify the sharks they speak to and the fish they call to them?
Ms. Burgess concludes her essay with a few more questions that, like the questions above, resonate with my own internal sounding board: “What would happen if our community was gift-based? If we could really understand what the gift of each of our communities were, and really began to support that? So that for me is a very native approach—being able to see the giftedness in every aspect of life.” Perhaps like physicians, teachers’ should follow the Latin dictum Primum non nocere — “First, do no harm.” If we did adopt this foundational ethic, the entire educational edifice would have to be altered. Perhaps if we adopted this overall, our competitive society would likewise change to something richer, more humane, and more creative.