Ode to Teaching as Performance Art

As a child I was drawn to magic: the surprises of the theatre; the progressive religion of jazz and folk music; the world of wind, fire, thunder and flower; of laughing mothers and of play, until wonder became a style, a natural conduit for living, loving and learning…. 

As a teacher I strive to create an aesthetic in the moment. It is a sprightly spirit. A rational opening often serves as prologue – an establishment scene of literary place/time or discourse on a resonant theme to prompt positioning and discussion – until a chord is struck and the cerebral yields as it must. 

Suddenly as if spontaneously a song is in the air, a key passage recited, an unannounced poem disguised as speech ambles on stage candidly at first for image and meaning, a chant whose repeated line begs for choral rendering finds a group ready to engage. There’s a palpable pulse. New soloists emerge, unheard from before, but all are also faces in the choir. Sometimes a class sparkles with humor and opinion and shared glee; at others quiets and separates for individual reflection. 

Or perchance this is a day for demonstration. A wad of orange clay appears, is softened, flattened as I rant – a pawn, a bishop, a queen is wedged into the clay, removed, upheld, and then wedged again…pauses impress the images into memory. Here the first coins, an early ledger (I owe you this much); there the origins of writing itself. Which way the wedge for female do you think? Which way male? Both ways at once, the six pointed star. Elohim. 

At home in the green room of preparation I practice all the roles, bedfellows with the bard, comedic and tragic, basking amid beauty like Paris in an artist’s rendering (to whom would you give the golden apple? I ask, seeking values.) 

Socrates turning his probing queries, hanging at the mall while the young men laugh at their elders. I turn the tables. Do you believe in Honor? Wisdom? Truth? Curiously, I aim to capture character by tone. Person-ified: Through sound shall ye know them. “If you will come, I will put out fresh pillows,” Sappho entices and smiles. 

Teaching by narrative – rhetorical, personal, and sacred – I cast images, my face and form plastiline, age and gender malleable. Or sculpt in mise-en-scène, the leit motifs eternal – the forest entered, the river crossed, (can you hear the bass guitar?) the light in the darkness, the shadow confronted…embraced. A shiver in the air…beat…beat….

Awareness can come in a day, in a moment – or it can take years to emerge unencumbered. We will not be there to measure our effects.  

We are the teachers, traveling Sophists at the core. Empowered by spontaneity and the possibility of awe, we echo great writers. We stand and spit in character, our favorite archetypes draped upon the walls, no matter the room, while hungry eyes surprised when they too see them, laugh and gasp, retreat and sometimes applaud – these inform our scripts – we pull the curtain back and forth, one moment indignant, the next all seeing, and not infrequently quite, quite blind – channeling:  

Old Priam kissing Achilles’ hand. Homer said that. “Kisses are a better fate than wisdom, lady I swear…” e e cummings said that. “They teach best what they most need to learn.” Richard Bach said that. Always listen to grunts, groans, sighs and whispers; the rest is only words. I say that. 

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