Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lessons Learned

I never ever planned to teach. Sure I'm bossy. My friends will tell you, I'm never shy about offering up 'my experience'.
But to actually do it for money seemed terrifying to me. 
And yet here I am,  already ensconced with my third course of storytelling students.
And I like it. No, I'm lying, I love it. 
It seems like it's the point of everything. That humans were meant to pass information from one to the other, like you are passing the baton in Nature's great relay race.
(Granted my feeling of euphoria might not be so clear were I trying to teach Latin in Inner City schools, rather than storytelling in a pretty little theatre in California.)
Anyway, the point is I'm enjoying the experience of teaching so much, I almost can't believe I haven't thought of doing it before.

I blame Mrs Dunbar. To most people reading this, the name Mrs Dunbar will mean nothing, but to anyone who attended Muirfield Primary school in the early 70s, it's the equivalent of mentioning Lord Voldemort - Like even saying her name will mean that she'll appear round the corner  - eyes glistening with fury, leather belt in her hand, calling you out to the front of the class for the inevitable.
Mrs Dunbar was the 'Infant Mistress' - a quaint term meaning she was like the School Principal for the youngest classes - in American terms, Kinder through to 2nd Grade.
I remember her as being short for an adult. She had curly hair and glasses and you should never look her in the eye, because if you looked her in the eye....
I don't know if she had family. When I first encountered her I was 5, which is not an age when you ask those sort of questions to an adult. 
And you would never ask questions of Mrs Dunbar anyway. 

She would belt you if "you left your schoolbag in the wrong place," or "until you learned to whisper." She would visit the classroom in the morning and, though there'd be a shiver down your spine, you'd politely say, "Good Morning Mrs Dunbar." And you had better be careful if you passed her in the corridor, because if she thought you looked like you had "a bad attitude"....

I lived beside a heroin store in the lower East side of New York in the 80s. I've done stand up in all sorts of clubs and pubs over the world. I've attempted cabaret in auditoriums crammed with pissed up rockers baying for a band. 
I think it's fair to say that in my, so far, given time on earth, I've taken a lot of chances in situations that a wise person would not have taken chances. 
For these experiences, I credit Mrs Dunbar. For in all the craziest places I've been to, I have yet to have met anyone who sparked with the same potential of unpredictable violence as she did. Unwittingly, she taught me not to be afraid of the angry guy with the tattooed face, or the girl screaming for a fight, because I will never be as scared of anyone as I was of her. 

But it wasn't all roses with Mrs Dunbar. She wasn't aversed to a little psychological work too. 
I was 6. I had been ill and was absent from school for a week. When I returned, I had been put in a lower reading group and my mother had called the school and asked that I be put back in the higher reading group as reading was something I was strong at. I knew nothing about it at all.
Then Mrs Dunbar visited the classroom. "Good Morning Mrs Dunbar."
But on this particular morning,  she wasn't furious. She was casually gleeful- in the way that psychopaths are, just before they kick a puppy.
The teacher, Mrs Ramsay, asked her with great ceremony, if there was a reason she was calling this morning, to which Mrs Dunbar replied that she had popped round because there was a "Very very special person in the room. So special in fact, that they were almost Royalty."
We were all silent. It was only a matter of time.
I waited for one of the usual suspects to be called out to the front of the class, but this time it was me.
"Tell everyone why you think you're special." she said. "We're waiting. Everyone wants to know why it is that you think you have the right to be different from anyone else.  Don't we all want to know why Lynn here is better than us all? You were able to tell your Mother, weren't you? Now we'll all just wait, until you can tell us all as well."
And everybody waited, relieved that it was my turn and not theirs.
"I'm not." I said.
"That's right. You're not. You're nothing. Understand?"
"Yes. I am nothing."

One of the things we discuss in storytelling classes is that often when you look at what a story is, you get to see it with the eyes of the person you are now, and not as the person you were then.

I am probably older now than Mrs Dunbar was when she terrorized children for a living, yet still when I'm in times of pressure or self doubt, I allow her to be there in my head.
"You're nothing. Understand?"

I had a whole load of other teachers through the years.
 - Mrs Borthwick, from whom I randomly found a love of all things Norwegian. Mr Stevenson, who taught me the importance of community. Mr Doig, from whom I learned that language teachers can be hilarious and Mr Morrison, from whom I learned that a great sense of humor can help you pass geography exams.
And they are just a few of a long list.
In turning to look at the story, I noticed there are many more characters than just the wicked Witch of the West, so she shouldn't get to have all the lines.

I really hadn't expected that teaching other people how to find their stories, would result in me looking at my own.
It's made me wonder if Mrs Borthwick found greater appreciation of her country by teaching people about it, whether Mr Stevenson found his community by watching students discover the importance of it, and if Mr Morrison survived his Geography degree by having a really great laugh. 

I almost began to wonder what had inspired Mrs Dunbar to so relish punishment. Then I stopped.
I've thought too much about her already. It's time to let her go.