Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Prize

My eye had been on the prize for more than ten years. Over a decade of planning and anticipation, of maneuvering in place to claim the reward. After thirty-seven years on the job, the founding head of my school finally announced her retirement and I knew I had put myself in great position to assume the mantle.

I alone, I believed, had the vision to carry this school forward for future generations. I knew the philosophy like the faces of the children I taught. I had built excellent relationships, not only with the students and faculty, but with the movers and shakers in whose hands this decision lay. I understood that this school had a spirit like no other. I embodied that spirit and I was uniquely qualified to articulate it and give it opportunities to thrive. I had the energy and the passion to be the leader and the visionary whom the school was seeking.

The search committee asked for a cover letter and references. I gave them a portfolio to knock their socks off. It was indexed and cross-referenced, a feast of essays, anecdotes, photographs, and dozens of letters from every corner of the community. I hand-delivered it to the committee chair, feeling like all he had to do was hand me the keys to the new job. I bought a fine suit and aced the first interview, dazzled them with charm, knowledge, and grace. I was confident and proud to be taking over the reins.

A second interview never came. The chairman of the board called me the afternoon that school was out for winter break. Not qualified. Better candidates. Lacking the experience. I was numbed into silence. And then I collapsed. Hurt, devastated, I let out my anguish. Ten years of built-up anticipation and preparedness came crashing down in the space of a single phone call. This had been the grand plan. There was no other. Humbled and dispirited, I later watched as other candidates were paraded in front of the faculty. I could hardly stand it.

Before the school year was over, the intense pain lifted and a voice called out. “You’re not an administrator,” it said, “you’re an artist!” And I listened. Over time, the voice became clearer and more playful. It told me of a new path. A path of theater and of writing. It convinced me that leading a life of meetings and long range planning, of financial analysis and the buck stopping here was not for me. I like our new Head of School. He’s a good guy and clearly the best man for the job. I thank divine spirit every day that I’m not wearing his shoes.

Instead, I create. I bring stories to life. Three weeks after the phone call, I took my family to a pottery studio for my daughter’s birthday. I wrote about the experience, my first piece of creative writing in twenty-five years. I read it at the Deadbeat Coffeehouse and before I knew it, I was in the newspaper. I’ve been writing ever since. There are so many stories to tell, so many words to share.

I bring stories to life on stage. I write, adapt, direct, envision. Seeing thirty or one hundred and thirty kids act, with common purpose and joy, on a play that I have guided onto the stage is truly an awe-inspiring experience.

I am a writer and I remain ever thankful for the twist in the road and this creative life that is my prize.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Beginnings

It’s been a tough old year. My writing dried up for a while, and with it my attention to this site. I’m glad to be back.

Thank you to my friends and family for being there through the year, and to my new community of writing friends at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for helping me to jumpstart my writing engine.

I have posted three new essays this month with more to come.

A Sommelier of Semantics is a light-hearted look at how we use different language when talking and writing to different people.

Seven Thousand Miles is an intimate portrait of a school I attended as a child, the one where I teach now, and the personal journey that lies within.

A Whole New World is an amusing take on how the books I read as a child might have affected my choices as an adult.

Enjoy these words and feel free to sign up to follow this blog, to leave a comment or two, to send the link to this blog to those who might be interested, and to check back here when you have a free moment.

Thanks for visiting.

A Sommelier of Semantics - in search of the perfect language

There was a time when I was always from somewhere else.

In Denver where I live, I used to open my mouth and people made a wide range of guesses at where I might be from: Australia, Massachusetts, South Africa? Close, but no cigar. In my native land of England, when I visited from my home in the States, they wondered but often could not place me – maybe Newfoundland? On either side of the Atlantic, I felt like I was always from somewhere else. And maybe I was.

That was a decade ago. Now that I’ve been an emigrant for twenty years, my spoken English is firmly on the American side of the water. I’ve forgotten some of the British colloquialisms I grew up with and I’ve been speaking like a Yank for some time now. I even noticed myself using the adjective “good” in place of the adverb “well” the other day. Crikey! My haughty boarding school English teacher would be turning over in his grave. Have I really replaced “Terribly good show, what, old sport!” with “You did good!”?

One of the advantages of being a classically educated Englishman in cowboy country is that I occasionally sound like I know what I’m talking about – even when I don’t. But I’m fascinated to think how differently I sound depending on whom I’m talking to.

My nine year old came into the bathroom this morning, still half asleep, and lapsed into baby talk. Never one to encourage my girls to grow up too fast, I went right there with her. Like all families, mine has all kinds of words left over from the toddler years. My two favorites are hep, which is what my older daughter used to substitute for except and ambliance. No one can park in the hospital parking lot, hep the ambliances. This is the stuff of family legend.

When I teach my graduate students, I use entirely different language. When I speak to my class of third graders, different again. I choose a wide range of vocabulary, cadence, tempo, and tone depending on my audience: my hard of hearing neighbor, my children, the jerk at the post office, my buddies at the bar, my boss, my wife. Imagine using one form of our spoken language in place of another. What if I whispered sweet nothings when I’m trying to return a salad shooter at the mall. Ugh!

The same goes for written form: e-mails and letters to friends, job applications, school reports, sticky notes left in the kitchen to remind my kids to take out the trash. All with a very different purpose and I adjust my language accordingly. As an essayist, my written language varies according to topic and intended audience. When I am trying to inject humour into my work, I tend to write in a more conversational tone. I like to imagine my essay as a speech, my audience sitting there before me, guffawing along with me. When my subject matter floats towards the more serious and emotional, so does my language.

When I was thirteen, my Welsh grandmother gave me a paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I still have it and use it frequently. It’s dog-eared, bent, and falling apart at the seams. That amazing volume of vocabularious lexiconality (okay, I just made those words up) has got me through many a stumbling point in my writing adventures. I don’t know who Mr Roget is or was, but his store of knowledge will always be more meaningful and beneficial than the electronic versions they have nowadays.

As I writer, I love to ponder the nuances of meaning, selecting just the perfect word or phrase at the perfect time. I imagine myself as a sommelier of semantics, an owner of a vast array of delectable flavors, savoring each old friend, trying to discern exactly which one will hit the spot with each course. I don’t always find the right mark, but I enjoy the game immensely.

Seven Thousand Miles

April 1975. Summer term at a traditional English boarding school. A former mansion, tucked away into the thick woodlands of the southeast. The greystone edifice perched atop a hill casting a foreboding eye on all it sees. A small and sensitive seven year old is left for the first time at the grand front portal as his parents, young and unknowing in the ways of child development, drive away. He would see them every other weekend while school was in session - for the next eleven years. He is trying hard not to let others see the fear and hurt in his eyes.

It is a school where rote learning is standard; where good study habits mean copying pages off the board verbatim; where the art teacher gets angry if the boy doesn’t do it her way; where he is told to stand facing the wall for two hours after getting caught talking after lights out; where he must wear shorts even on the most biting of winter days; where no one knows his first name, only his last; where bullying is regarded as an acceptable form of character building; where missing chapel results in a beating; where untrained teachers rely on the pedagogy of their own post-war school experiences. The small and sensitive seven year old has no opportunity to find out who he is. He simply hides himself away.

That same April 1975. Seven thousand miles away, at a small school attached to Montview Church in Denver, Colorado. A teacher, trained in that same post-war England, is watching and listening to children. They are just returning from spring break. The sun warms their faces. All around her there is joy and laughter. A few of the children are seven, small, and sensitive.

These children, however, are painting glorious pictures; they are pouring water and digging in the sand; they are reading and writing - anything they want; they are sewing, building and gluing; they are playing dress-up and make-believe; they are learning math with blocks and color; they are learning how to give and take and share; they are celebrating each other’s successes; they are hugging and being hugged. The English woman does everything in her power to help these seven year olds find out who they are. And they sparkle.

The teacher’s name is Carolyn. She has recently arrived in Colorado, from England, with a young family of her own. She is in the process, although she doesn’t know it at present, of founding a school that would later grow into a beloved institution, educating thousands of children. All of them touched personally by her strong principles, her guiding hand, and her love.

The boy’s first name is Steve. Me.

Everyone calls me that now, even my students.

Fifteen years after those humble beginnings, I stumbled upon Carolyn’s school. She hired me and I have learned. I have been a teacher and theatre director here for almost twenty years, the length of a childhood. Her school, now known as the Stanley British Primary School, has taught me well.

I invite you to walk into my classroom. I am proud of the joy to be found. Children feel safe, knowing there are clearly defined limits and high expectations. They are free to be themselves, to explore while learning, and to find success. They are encouraged to take risks and they are guided as they learn from their mistakes. We work together to find out more each day about what kind of learners they are. They learn to articulate their strengths and they work to strengthen their weaknesses. They know they can make a positive difference in numerous ways. They are supported, trusted and loved. They are on the pathway to discover who they are.

I think of John, a third grader who has been diagnosed with a severe form of dyslexia. Reading is an immense struggle, as he meets familiar words for the first time again and again and again. His writing is almost impossible to read. Letters are misshapen or reversed. He occasionally forms entire sentences in mirror image from right to left. Expressing himself on paper is the hardest thing anyone has ever asked him to do.

The class is studying pre-Revolutionary War America. One group decides to make a dramatic presentation of the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party. John is one of the kids volunteering to play the part of Sam Adams. This needs to be improvised. They have been given ten minutes to produce a skit. There is no time for further study. To my surprise, his peers pick John for the role. I am unsure of what he knows. The kids know better.

With barely any practice, John gives a fluent and knowledgeable oration, recounting all the reasons that taxation without representation is unjust, why the tea on the ships floating out in Boston Harbor represents all that the colonists found so wrong with British rule, and what steps the American militia should take to unseat the occupational forces. It is an extraordinary moment. John has since gone on to star in theater in high school. Learning lines is still hard for him, but he has figured out that if he records his part and plays it back, he can memorize without too much trouble. He knows who he is as a learner.

My classroom is a place where parents feel welcome, included and appreciated, where they are free to give opinions, ask questions and participate fully in the education of their child. Their questions are answered honestly. Knowledge about child development is dispensed freely and without judgment.

I think of Lisa, the parent of an only child, a librarian by training. She grew up in San Francisco with a deep-seated phobia of math and no confidence in her mathematic ability. She mentions to me that she is struggling to help her daughter with her homework on subtraction and borrowing. She knows how to do it, just not how to explain it. She and I spend a delightful hour, one afternoon after school, playing with base ten blocks, looking at subtraction from various conceptual angles, and talking about the differences in experience and learning style between herself and her daughter. Homework now breathes more easily in Lisa’s house.

I invite you to come to a play rehearsal or to see children performing in one of my productions. Anywhere from thirty to one hundred and thirty kids working in harmony towards a common goal. As in the classroom, I am proud of the joy dancing through the theatre. Children are encouraged to reach outside their comfort zone, to strive for something they did not know they had inside them. Humour and delight abound.

I think of Katie who, a few short years ago, squeaked out a couple of barely audible lines in Peter Pan. She later starred in a major role as Alice in Wonderland, to rave reviews. I think of Will, who in the past has lacked confidence and brought a slight awkwardness to social situations. He recently played the lead, all 400 lines of it, as Sheridan Whiteside, the outlandish curmudgeon, in The Man Who Came To Dinner, and emerged as a true leader among the cast.

There is a unique spirit at Carolyn’s school. It recently hosted a statewide meeting of independent schools heads. Administrators from some of the finest schools in Colorado entered the front lobby of the school and the reaction was universal: “There is such a feeling of warmth.” Later, they toured our campus. More comments were heard: “What a delightful place this is; how happy the children are; look how the children’s work is everywhere; there is such a relaxed atmosphere; the campus is beautiful; the students are so comfortable in their environment; there is a spirit here I haven’t experienced elsewhere.”

I am overjoyed to have been a part of growing that spirit. Yet, more importantly, I am overjoyed at how the school has been part of my growing spirit.

It has taught me how to watch and listen to children. It has taught me what a joyful place school can be. It has shown me that the process is more important than the product. It has helped me understand what it means to be a lifelong learner. It has surrounded me with color and creativity, laughter and friendships.

While my formal schooling in England taught me dates and facts, Latin and Greek, competition and one-upmanship, there was so much I did not learn. I never learned about support, justice, cooperation or trust. I never learned joy, gratitude or love. I never learned the importance of play. I have learned these things at the Stanley British Primary School. I have learned them from Carolyn, from colleagues, and from parents. But most of all, I have learned them from the children. I watch them and listen to them and they teach me. Every one of them. My first class of five year olds as an intern twenty years ago, my current class of third, fourth and fifth graders, and the middle and high schoolers, many of them former students, whom I direct in theatrical productions at the school each summer.

I now know that I did not stumble upon Carolyn’s school. I was guided here for a reason. Within this safe, warm and inviting space, I have at last experienced everything that Carolyn’s kids were participating in, and that I was missing out on, all those years ago. This school has quite simply allowed me to experience my childhood.

It has brought me out of hiding.

I have finally discovered who I am.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Whole New World

A childhood spent on a small island in the North Atlantic watching the cross-dressing antics of Bennie Hill and the Pythons must be regarded with a wary vigilance. I fondly recall my first purchase of a .45 record. In the early seventies, while others were snapping up the first hit singles by ABBA or the last by the Beatles, I saved my pennies for a oddly appealing little number called The Funky Gibbon.

I learned to read by devouring the classic ‘Ladybird’ series, small hardback books with vaguely sexual titles like Dick Whittington, Peter and Jane, Puss in Boots and The Enormous Turnip. They innocently portrayed an idyllic version of my rural English upbringing, complete with the joys of nippy seaside holidays under grim skies.

Tossed into my reading mix were freshly imported American authors like Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry, who nuzzled their way into my favorite nook and opened my eyes to an alien world. They introduced characters with ridiculously exotic names I’d never heard of like Aaron and Pop. They showcased peculiar scenes of happy farmers building impossibly red barns, growing fictional vegetables such as corn and pumpkins. How could this be true? Such produce didn’t exist in my world. They lied about footwear called sneakers and kids who wore their pants on the outside. Didn’t they know that pants are what I called underwear? They depicted towns with gobbledygook names for familiar objects like garbage truck, and mail delivery person. Whoever heard of such poppycock? What’s wrong with rubbish cart and postman? I learned that people in America weren’t even people, but bears and foxes and pigs and they traveled by railroad or station wagons, whatever those were. What nonsense! And the dogs were uniformly brown, had droopy ears, and wore T-shirts. What a strange country this America must be.

And then a funny thing happened. Later on, I met an American, and married her. I moved to this bizarre land and discovered a few things for myself. The temperature varies by more than twenty degrees between summer and winter – shocking! It is a country plagued with wildfires, tornadoes, and mudslides. Camping means driving an RV complete with microwave and satellite TV. Portion sizes in restaurants could feed a European family of four for a week. Quick is spelled K-W-I-K and internationals news covers stories from as far away as Canada and Louisiana.

Even though I’ve been on this side of the pond for almost two decades now, there are still a few things that puzzle me. Why is it that when I compliment someone on their sweater, the unwavering response is never “Thank you” but always “Macy’s, on sale, 19.99”? Who needs the supermarket to be open at 2:36 a.m. and can I really buy pickled pigs’ feet there? Do people honestly drink Super Double Big Gulps? Why should I tip when the service is mediocre or worse? In public restrooms, who exactly wants to see the feet in the next stall?

Such are the unanswerable questions that stick with me as I navigate this American life of mine. I never guessed I would end up here or that my first forays into reading were hinting at the madness to come.

What a strange country this is.