Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Teaching and Learning.

I was a teacher for about seven years, running the drama/acting sections of after school and summer musical theatre programs for kids for a non-profit. It was hard work, and it was good work, and it - as well as the company itself and the really wonderful people I worked with - is something I am very proud of.

There is, I think, a unique pressure that comes with being an educator and mentor, whether you run a full classroom all day in and day out or spend just a few hours a week with a group of students as I did during the school year, as well as three weeks each summer. As I grew into the role and it became my, "real job," I started to feel eyes and ears on me in a new way.

I was being watched as both an instructor and a person. What I said, how I said it, the tone in which I answered questions, the way I chose to handle frustration and discipline, even the way I dressed. It made an impact.

Sometimes I rose to the occasion - maybe even more often than not. But there was one day - not even a day, a moment - where I messed up. Badly.

I was running a rehearsal at an after school program. The script was one of mine - the first show I'd written on my own for the company, and the one I still feel is the best. It's my love letter to musical theatre, and highlights some of the genre's familiar themes, including romance.

Due to the ratio of girls to boys who had auditioned, an eighth grade girl had been cast as one of the male leads. I gave her the option of playing the character as a boy or a girl, and she opted for the latter.

However, it was a Catholic school, and this was one of the characters involved in the "love" act. Before scripts were printed and distributed to the students, I adjusted the language so that the two talked about unseen crushes rather than each other. It didn't feel good.

I had been out for a year and had just literally scrubbed myself out of my own work.

My only comfort was that the students would never know. But I had missed one reference, and during this rehearsal, the eighth grader raised her hand, "Were these two in love?"

It caught me off guard, and the words came out (as it were) before I could even stop to think about them: "When it was still a boy and a girl, yes. When we cast two girls, we had to change it."


I told the truth, but I couldn't explain it - couldn't say that because of the rules, this was what we had to do. Couldn't say that relationships - hell, the world for that matter - didn't need to be defined by, "boy," and, "girl." Couldn't say that I was gay.

The best I could backpedal was a lame, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Fortunately, this kid was one of the best. She paused, then nodded. "I believe that."

I would have been devastated at her age.

I stopped teaching in Catholic schools after that.

It wasn't just this incident - it was the same year the archbishop notoriously proposed adding what amounted to a "morality clause" into the contracts/handbooks for four schools in the archdiocese, and I'd stopped feeling safe. It didn't directly affect where I worked, and I wasn't technically a school employee anyway. In complete fairness to them, I'd always been welcomed and treated warmly by the staff members I worked with. But the rules - written and unwritten - weren't something I could abide by anymore.

What we say matters. What we do matters. There is a responsibility, and I did not meet it. I won't ever be able to let that go entirely.

But I did scrape one bit of positivity from it: I learned.

I started including sensitivity to and inclusivity of orientation and gender expression when I led our drama staff training for summer. The first year went okay. The second went better. I think it will continue to improve.

I also chose the same show for my last summer camp before leaving to pursue new things, and we had an identical casting scenario. However, this time we were operating as our own program, not a school's, and I was fully in control of the conversation.

I took the two students aside and presented them with their options: George could remain male and they could play the scene as written, George could be a female character and they could play the scene as written, or the text could be adjusted so the characters could be talking about people we never see. There was no right answer - it was about their comfort.

They were two of the best kids - mature and sensitive and a beautiful example of what the next generation has the power to be. And we had a conversation and reached a conclusion together.

It was easy. And while it didn't undo the sting of the first time, it was progress.

My mistake did not mean I could give myself permission to stop trying.

My improvement does not mean I get to stop working at being better.

Though I may not be a teacher in the came capacity right now, I hope I still have eyes and ears on me in the same way while I share - and, hopefully, live - that particular lesson.

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