Teaching John Steinbeck, Part 4, The Door Opens

Lois blogsThe door opens.  Short teenagers, tall teenagers, teenagers of many colors, shapes, and intellect enter.  I am introduced.  On the first day I am always introduced as ‘Lois the teaching artist with The Acting Company,’ otherwise they might think I am an administrative person.  Lord knows that is not my role.  That role is for those who make the rules, or even worse, who follow the rules.  I break rules.  I challenge rules.  I tell students to challenge authority.  I invite students to learn through exploring their emotional landscape, their personal world.  They learn from their families, they learn from the world around them, they learn from the world they imagine, they learn from each other, and finally, they learn from the teacher who stands in front of the room, or in my case, the teaching artist who sits with them in a circle.  I do not sit in the middle of the circle.  I do not stand inside the circle.  I sit in the circle… with them.  I pull up a chair.  I sit next to some unsuspecting student.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

Usually, the student shrugs his or her shoulders, responds, “No.  I don’t mind.”  Or, the student looks at me as if I am crazy for having asked the question.  Students are not used to being asked if they mind anything, especially by adults.  Who made up that rule?

“Do you mind if I sit next to you?”  This simple question evokes a deviation in the rules and roles of classroom hierarchy.  That is why I am a teaching artist in the first place; to evoke a deviation in how students perceive themselves in relation to their defined world, a deviation in how they perceive themselves in relation to the remarkable world of story and character.

 

We explore a number of themes.  Ms. A+ is right.  The ninth graders are good kids, smart kids.  They engage, they explore, they engage fully in the world of “Of Mice and Men.  The boys hands are not inside the girls panties or up the girls skirts.  Instead, the boys, the girls, their hands come alive in mid-air.  They feel, they sense, they touch their world just like Lenny feels, senses, and touches his world.

 

I say.  “Touch, feel all that is in the room, all that surrounds you, all that is part of you; your clothing, the walls, your hands, your face, the face of another, whatever turns you on.”  Imagine saying that to a group of teenagers?  “Whatever turns you on.  Touch it.  Touch the air, the earth, the water, the walls, the sunlight, touch space.  What is your relationship to these, with these elements?  How do you interact with these elements, touch these elements, let them touch you?  Steinbeck understands man’s interconnection with nature.  Do you?  Do you?  Steinbeck understands the misery man brings upon himself, because man distances himself from nature, separates himself from nature.  He is convinced he is not part of nature, which is why he can not come to terms with his interdependence with nature.

Feel your interdependence with all that surrounds you, all that is part of you, all that you are.”  The students begin their personal journey with touch.  Touch is their guide.  “Now, one person at a time, reach up, reach up.  There are stars up there.  Reach up, touch those stars, push those stars aside.  Touch God, or heaven, or whatever it is you need to touch, whatever you need to reach for in order to feel you are with nature and nature is with you.  Push, push the stars aside.  Make room for your dream.  What do you see?  What do you feel?  What do you sense?  What do you want?  Where are you?  What are you reaching for?”

 

What are we reaching for?

 

They walk the room.  They create a phenomenal world within the room.  They touch the walls, the windows, the floor, the air.  They touch each other’s cheeks, lips, hands, hair.  They touch each other’s clothes.  They touch their own clothes, their own skin.  They wander around the fantastically charged room.  They touch objects, touch every day, taken for granted pencils, pens, paper, chairs.  They discover the aliveness of each and every item in the room including themselves and their forbidden bodies.  One person stands on a chair, another stands on a window sill, another stands on a book shelf, another on a stool, and so on and so on. Teenagers stand tall, reach for the stars, help each other open up the sky to find their piece of heaven, to find their piece of the dream.  It is a glorious sight.  I will never forget it.  And yes, much to my surprise, there are a number of ninth graders who reach for the stars.  I hope these students will continue to reach, to imagine, long after the exercise is over, long after I am gone, long after they have left the room, long after they have left the building.  I hope these students reach beyond the finite into the infinite.  Even if it seems a foolish dream, heaven, of one sort or another, is forever a possibility.  That dream seems beyond the ordinary reach, but that dream, that reach is what keeps us alive with possibility.

 

 

“The Trouble Exercise” is a high point in Ms. A+’s magical classroom. There is not a teenager alive who does not relate to trouble.  Actually, there is not a single person alive who is not in, running from, or headed for trouble.

George and Lenny are forever getting into or running from trouble.

“George says, “Lenny, you’re nothin’ but trouble.””

I ask the students, “What would your life be like without trouble?  What would life be without trouble?”

A shy boy whispers, “It wouldn’t be life.”

“Absolutely!  It would not be life!  Where does trouble live in you?  Can you see it in others?  Look around the room.  What do you see?  Nothing but trouble, right?”

A young girl raises her hand.  “When I go home, I don’t see anything but trouble;  my brother.  my sister.  They drive me crazy.”

“How do they make you feel?”

“Lousy.  They drive me crazy”

“I’m sure, but what if you could talk to that trouble? What would you say to it?  Think about it.  Everyone in this room.  I want you to talk to trouble.  Listen.  Then, let trouble talk to you.  Write a two character scene with trouble in mind.”  They scatter throughout the room.  As they walk by each other, as they look into each other’s eyes, they see nothing but trouble.  They are pissed off.  Bodies stiffen, jaws tighten.  They move quickly to a chair or a window sill where they will write. Trouble is no longer a thing outside of themselves.  It is a conscious state of mind.  Pens and pencils poised they begin the process.  The bell rings.  Damn it!  If only we had more time.  There is never enough time.

 

After school I walk through the noisy courtyard, walk down the stone steps, buzz myself into the garage, get into my car, turn on the local NPR station, drive those endless, winding freeways, drive the canyons.  I drive up and down those Hollywood hills.  I park my car under The Hollywood sign.  I walk through Griffith Park.  I realize that trouble has forever had me wrapped ’round its finger.  I know trouble.  I look for it.  I beg for it.  Trouble excites me.  Trouble is dangerous.  I like danger.  Like I said before, I am still a teenager.  When I stand on the edge of life’s emotional cliff, I am grateful for the view below me.  When trouble grabs me, and throws me to the ground, I know I am alive.

I drive east on Franklin Avenue.  I think hard about tomorrow’s school day.  “What’s next?  What do I do next?  How can I keep them engaged?”  I drive forever.  “Trouble.  Damn it!”  Twenty eight years ago I left California because of that word.  I left in a hurry.  I was out of control like a California wild fire as it jumps hills, jumps highways, destroys homes, destroys lives.  I broke hearts.  I played games.  I slept my way through Hollywood.  I burned my way through Hollywood.   There was nowhere to go but east.  It was time to tend unfinished, familial business.  When I left L.A., I left a ton of troubles behind me; random sex, psychedelic drugs, and a wild beast that gnawed at my soul.  I still love sex.  I will always love drugs, and though I have somewhat tamed the beast, I, to this day, crave the wild fire.  I miss the fire.  From time to time, I fan the flames of those ancient wild fires only to be reminded that it is not worth the trouble.

 

 

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