It was August of 2003 and I had just turned twenty-three. After being hired to teach English at Cooper High School, I was following a member of the English department to my classroom.
She unlocked the door and we were standing in a black box theatre.
"This is my classroom?"
"You are teaching the Acting classes," she told me. "So I guess it is."
At first I was overwhelmed. Boxes of costumes and old props were stacked on stage. Lights were attached to catwalks. The space was immense and intense. My excitement grew as I walked around the room. There were so many nooks and crannies to explore.
"This is awesome," I told my colleague.
Over time, I learned that my mentor was far more linear than me. She preferred traditional school to building wild plays.
"I guess so," she shrugged. "I can see if we can get you a classroom near the other English rooms if you want."
"No, I like this," I grinned.
My creativity had led me to that teaching job. The previous spring, I taught two section of creative writing as a student teacher in North St. Paul. I loved it. My classes built a virtual universe of galaxies and planets. Each students was required to create a race of aliens and a science fiction story based on an interaction between their race and another in our collective universe. Such fun.
Spending my time with young people who were being creative seemed better than anything else I could think to do and so I applied for teaching jobs. From the very beginning, I would rather have my students write science fiction stories than work on grammar. So the idea that I would teach against the backdrop of a black box theatre was exhilarating. The context was rife with creative potential.
The year began. Like all first-year teachers, I struggled. Cooper High School was seething with racial tension. And managing a creative space turned out to be no picnic.
"Can I get up on stage, Mr. Tanner?" A kid would ask in the middle of a lesson.
"FUCK!" The kid would howl in front of their peers.
I would shrink.
Despite the challenge, each morning I arrived at school and tried to figure out how to build spaces that were interesting and productive.
My colleagues and administrators gave me permission to be creative and experimental.
"You are the new theatre guy?" Somebody would ask.
"You must be wacky."
"I guess so?"
I started to fit into my expected role. Even though I was an introvert, I could do wacky and creative. And as I learned to play this new person, I began to realize that theatre was a far more complex form of art than I had given it credit for. First, I had to convince students to take the risk of getting on stage and appearing silly in front of their peers. Next, I had to coerce them into doing this together. Theatre is entirely collaborative. Unlike an artist staring at a canvass, plays require groups of people to form their work as a group. This proved difficult.
"I am not creative," a kid would whine.
This statement has always bothered me. You are not creative? Bullshit. The human race is teeming with innate creativity. Yes, schools implicitly punish creativity and award passivity through bombarding students with testing, worksheets, and carefully crafted objectives but, regardless, people are creative. They just require a permissive space that will not shit all over their ideas. People love to shit on other peoples ideas. We are insecure. Anyway, I battled with this student's reluctance:
"Are you human?" I would respond.
"Then go make something."
Eventually, kids acquiesced and returned to me with some sort of product.
"Is it good?"
"Yes!" I learned to respond automatically even if I did not like it.
"Keep adding to it" was how I learned to follow up my automatic yes.
Still, the students resisted:
"I can't work with so-and-so or whose-a-whatzit or whats-a-bits-it because of blah, blah or blah," a kid would whine.
"And I don't want to work with you but I have to," I would laugh. "Figure it out."
And so I worked to make peace between them and their peers the same way I used to make peace between Mom and Dad when I was a little boy. My parents shared a great deal in common with my high school students. They were always fighting about something stupid. In both contexts, sometimes my peacemaking worked and sometimes it didn't.
That first year my Acting students built a functioning Children's Theatre for local elementary schools. Their plays weren't very good but everybody in the cast and the audience seemed to have fun. We were playing. And then twelve years passed. I wrestled with reluctance and struggled to make strange things with young people. I produced concerts, improv shows, student-written plays, professional plays, films, and musicals. Many of these projects sucked. Some were good. All of them were fun.
This week I put up a version of the musical Suessical Jr. in my Drama Two class and my Drama One class started to stage a student-written play about a boy who learns how to melt his enemies with his mind. Talk about wacky? Furthermore, The Tempest goes up this weekend. This seems like the final play I will direct in a high school for the time being. It is not a masterpiece but I am proud of it. I've learned a lot over the years. Regardless of quality, it was fun building the play. In fact, all of it has been fun. Making things with teenagers is fun. And it is meaningful and all of us were changed by building something together and if that isn't learning, I don't know what is.
I proctored an ACT test two weeks ago. Simply put, here is what I think after being a high school teacher for twelve years: building art with high school students is meaningful and testing them isn't. I know this intuitively even if I can't always rationalize this opinion explicitly. So come up with all the rhetoric you like. Use data-based research to argue for this or for that. But if what you are advocating limits creative potential, I'm not interested. Sell it to a math teacher or something. Or a corporation like Pearson that sees an untapped market. Me? I'd rather spend my time with people making new, strange things. That is my conception of education, naysayers be damned.
So forgive the rant. I am feeling nostalgic as my final play at Roseville hits the stage. I am thinking about the substance of the past twelve years as it is dissolving in front of my eyes. And I am reminded of something that has always been true in my work as a high school teacher: making plays with young people is fun.