What are the memories that stay with you about your school years? The research is pretty clear that it’s not likely to be an algebra class or a language arts lesson about main idea. Chances are it’s something outside the classroom, something that involves a real audience, whose judgmental presence immediately raises the stakes. Teachers’ memories are governed by the same law, so this is a partial distillation of my six years as teaching principal of the town school in Bennington, New Hampshire.
There were two events on the annual town calendar that never failed to draw the attention of Bennington’s residents – the oratory contest and the school play. Both were held in the Town Hall, a building that served as the school and town gym and also housed the town offices of a community whose population had not risen above triple digits for many decades. I recently visited a school in Chicago with a twelve-million-dollar gym addition whose floors and walls virtually glowed with fresh paint and varnish. There was nothing that glowed about the Town Hall, except for the children who performed in it. Everything felt old, with a bit of lipstick and rouge concealing a world of deferred maintenance.
The oratory contest was a 19th century holdover, straight from The Little House on the Prairie. Students in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades chose poems to memorize and recite before a packed house, seated in folding chairs arrayed on what was at other times the basketball court. Occasionally, a student would choose to forego the poetry in favor of a speech by a forefather or a famous orator, and, even more rarely, someone might deliver something they had written themselves. For weeks the students sweated over the selection, memorization and delivery of their piece, complete with dramatic hand gestures. The competition was fierce, and it was up to a panel of judges – school administrators from the district, spouses of staff members, retirees – to choose the winners at each grade level. The audience included all the early grade children who dreamed of the day when they could ascend the stage, restraining themselves from waving to their parents. Everyone clutched copies of the program containing the names of the orators and the titles and authors of their pieces. The smell of the toxic fluid that fueled the ditto machine that ground out the blue-tinted copies still clung to the paper. Winning the oratory contest for your grade before this audience was a big deal.
The plays were an even more highly anticipated event in town. For many of the students and their families, it was the only live theater they were ever likely to see. I wish I could have made it a more transcendent experience than it was, but the obstacles were many. The town hall stage was small and shallow, with a cramped back stage area from which any sound above a whisper from the waiting cast carried into the audience. There were no stage lights per se, although for some reason the balcony housed a follow spot which we probably used more than was called for, but it was the only toy we had. The scenery was usually painted on butcher paper attached to flats which could not always be relied on to stay upright through the entire play. The best of our costumes were borrowed from a very professional children’s theater a few towns over which was my daughters’ home away from home every summer.
The pickings are slim for elementary theater productions. Every year, I scoured the play catalogs, hoping to rescue a gem from the otherwise dismal, industrially produced pieces about classroom situations intended to teach a lesson about friendship or loyalty. That left us to choose among serviceable old classics which, like the work German translators, were often described as “condensed and improved.” We did Tom Sawyer, Androcles and the Lion, an adaptation of a tale by Tolstoy called How Much Land Does a Man Need? And of course, there was Peter Pan, perhaps our proudest production of my tenure. There was no way we were going to hoist Peter up on ropes and swing him above the stage, so we resorted to using strobe lights which created a kind of jerky motion that, in our minds anyway, created an illusion of flying.
The weakest link in our annual theater work was Me. I had no directing experience and little on stage performing experience. In sixth grade, I had been a seaman in HMS. Pinafore, and, more recently, I was the only adult in my daughter’s children’s theater production of The Phantom Tollbooth. I played Dr. Cacophonous A. Discord, and, to my great embarrassment, I was the only member of the cast who had trouble nailing his lines. My greatest support was a dog-eared copy of Improvisations for the Theater by Viola Spolin, a veritable bible of exercises to help students feel comfortable in their bodies and to inhabit their roles more expressively. Anyone who has directed a school play at any level has tales of nightmarish rehearsals marred by misbehaving kids letting off steam after a long day in school. All is forgotten and forgiven if the kids deliver when it really counts with family and friends cheering them on at opening night. I will bet anything that if I posed that question to any of my Bennington kids 40+ years later, they would point to pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw or painting that fence, egged on by that huckster Tom.
Later, I worked in a high school in Houston that had no theater program, no band, no chorus and no publications. These activities, along with sports, are the life blood of a school. They provide the only opportunities for really consequential performance for an audience larger than the single teacher who reads your assigned paper. It’s no surprise that they are what students remember when they look back on their school years. They are not reflected in the mountain of test scores that officials mistake for the real fruits of our children’s educations. So here’s to more plays, more video projects, more school newspapers; they are the nourishment that sticks to our proverbial ribs. What are your most vivid recollections from your elementary, middle and high school years?