The song below seems a fitting way to start this post. I heard it as I was driving to school to deliver my last final. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day.
Five years ago this August, I received an unusual phone call. It was from the high school principal at Seattle Christian School. He had been one my favorite teachers when I attended there, but it wasn’t like we were close buddies. I hadn’t heard from him or seen him since a visit to his school while I was in college.
He asked me a question I did not think I’d ever hear:”Would you like to teach high school drama?”
It was unexpected because at the time I was a full-time pastor at a large church in Redmond, Washington. My job at the time was creating, producing, and directing large-scale outreach productions. I was not looking for a second job. But the elementary principal attended my church, loved my work, and suggested me when the job suddenly came open two weeks before school started for the year.
My answer was uncertain, but maybe, perhaps? Eventually, after some prayer, some conversation, and an adjustment to my work schedule, I agreed. I would teach a high school theatre arts class. One hour, Monday through Friday.
My first class was intimidating. The teacher I was replacing was well-liked and cared for by the student, most of whom were seniors who had had her for years. I hadn’t taught in a classroom setting since my college days, and I desperately wanted them to like me. I really wanted to be like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society, someone who would inspire his students with more than just lessons. Someone who would inspire them to seize the day–to do something more with their lives than just the expected. My hope? That even an elective teacher could inspire them to greatness.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with high schoolers–I worked with them frequently on my shows at church, after all–but this was a new setting. I was the interloper, the newcomer, and I was invading a space that was very dear to them. The room, a space we shared the octogenarian French teacher, was small. The only non-classroom furniture was an old green wingback chair which, I understood, made frequent appearances in the drama productions.
I had syllabus, which I had copied from somewhere on the internet, and a lesson plan–also copied from somewhere on the internet. And I was determined to teach the kids facts and history about theatre, how to do improv, stage design, lighting, marketing, etc.
After 5 years, I think I may have taught a little bit of all of that.
You see, that was not my forté. What I liked most, and loved to do most, was to talk and share and take my students on a journey into life. We did it through improv, through interaction, through shared experiences, and mostly, by being honest. My theatre arts students may have left my class without knowing every great playwright, and they certainly had very little “hands on” experience in stagecraft. But they knew a lot about being a real person–a real honest Christian–in a world that very much needed them to be that.
I have watched 5 groups of students graduate from high school. Some of them from that first class I am still friends with (via Facebook) today. Some have dropped off the radar. Every single class has had its share of amazing talent, awkward moments, and far more innuendo than I ever imagined on that very first day of teaching.
I knew I’d arrived–passed the test–when I achieved a nickname. When AJ’s affectionate shortening of my last name from “Montague” to “Monty” became the name I was called by every student–that’s when I knew that I had been judged, had been found acceptable, and was going to make it. I know this because the teachers that meant the most to me in high school–the ones who mattered most to me–were the ones I gave nicknames to. It was a true highlight of that first year.
There were other highlights that year. I was privileged to take the students to the annual ACSI Speech Meet in Idaho. In their 4 years of going, the students had never won. We had elaborate plans on how to steal the trophy, including using the stroller of my youngest child to stash it in and use as a getaway vehicle. When we actually won, it was a shock that made even my normally talkative students sit in stunned silence.
My first real play at SCS, Pure as the Driven Snow (or, A Working Girl’s Secret) was a classic melodrama with a moustachioed villain, a virginal heroine, and a manly hero. Because I was no longer working two jobs, I threw myself into this first play and dedicated myself to making it their best play in years.
Thanks to performances from students like AJ, Ciara, Trevor, Ian, Tiffany, Lauren, and a few others, the play was an uproarious hit. But in the midst of all the fun of the school play, the students were with me when I received a call from my wife right before class started one day. As I was about to begin teaching, I found out that the baby we were expecting was not going to make it–the miscarriage was going to happen at any time over the next week.
I walked back to class heartbroken. I couldn’t disguise how I felt. My students asked me what was wrong and I remember choking up as I told them. I was honest, painfully so, about how much this made me angry. How sad I was. And yet, I also knew that God would give Robyn and I the strength to get through it. The room was quiet after I finished, having talked nearly the entire class. I apologized to them, I think, for blabbing on for so long.
But that moment changed everything for me and my relationship with my students. No longer would I try to hide life from them. Life gets messy. Life can be painful. Sometimes hurts come your way, sometimes amazing things happen and everyone is happy. But these students deserved to have at least one teacher tell them the truth about life, their place in it, and the fact that God’s way was still better, still worth it.
That was a game changer for them, too. Now they could ask honest questions about things like faith and life. They could be real, and as they got real, our class got a lot more honest, truthful, open, and fun. Our art got better, our shows improved, and when we said that drama was holding up a mirror to life and showing it as it could–or should–be, we understood what that meant.
The highlights were different every year, but I enjoyed every single one. The Idaho trips, even when we were unfairly judged and lost, were worth it for the big dinner at the hotel in Couer d’Alene (and the big ice cream sundaes). The Christmas musical we did at Foster, and the Christmas musical we didn’t do because of snow which instead became a series of readings, awkwardly delivered but wonderfully received. Movie treatments never finished, lesson plans abandoned, and way too many rabbit trails during lectures. Strange large-scale improvs in creepy places, medieval mystery plays that should have been rated NC-17, the “Heaven/Hell/Purgatory” board, the ongoing battles with the French teacher, and improv scenes that always seemed to go dark–or creepy–or, well, you know. So many more wonderful–painful–awkward–fantastic moments.
From an administrative standpoint, I’m probably not the greatest teacher. I have rarely taken attendance, frequently struggled with keeping my grades updated in InfoDirect, and often pushed the limits of what students can do, or should talk about, in class.
Looking back over 5 years, I realize that that doesn’t matter. It’s not what the students walk away from your class with. What they do walk away with is hopefully more than just the fact that Aristotle was the father of drama, that Shakespeare was an amazing playwright, that Sondheim is, as one critic puts it, “the beginning and end of musical theatre.” If that is all my students have learned from me, than I have failed.
But if they have learned that life is a struggle worth fighting, that art can transcend the mundane everydayness, that sometimes it’s worth it to argue with authority, and–most of all–that a deep and abiding faith and relationship with God comes from going into the dark, yucky places of life, knowing He will go there with you and help you find your way to the other side? Then everything, all the hours, all the work in doing two jobs at one time, is worth it.
And if I, as a teacher, have learned anything from the students I interact with every day? Then that makes it even more worthwhile. To realize that dreams are still important, that friendships matter. To remember the feelings I had at the same age–feelings of unconquerable optimism, or fragile worrying. To take their experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears, and help them see them in a bigger picture? To encourage them to stay strong in their faith, to embrace the gifts God has given them. Worth it.
The seniors I had that first year of teaching are graduating from college this year. The freshmen I had that year are just ending their freshman year of college, and my final group of freshmen are now entering into that great unknown world out of high school. They’ve left the safety of the Christian school and are now venturing into the world where they will be tested. I truly hope that I played a small part in the victories they are now experiencing.
I hope when they watch a bad movie, they will remember the many episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 we watched together. Eegah!, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Outlaw, The Creeping Terror, and so many more wonderful, horrible memories. And I hope they remember that good art doesn’t come because you have good intentions. Every single one of those movies were made with the intention of doing well. Talent, effort, and a lot of hard work go into making “good” art.
I hope that when they think of the plays we did together, they will remember lines, moments, and memories that will bring back that unique rush that comes from putting on a live show for a live audience. Whether it was AJ’s appearance in a dress in Pure as the Driven Snow (an SCS first), the rickety ladders and bare stage of Our Town (my favorite play of all time, brought beautifully to life by my young cast)–and the onstage kiss during the wedding scene (another SCS first), the mistaken identities and brooding drinking (another SCS first) in The Bride of Brackenloch, the cross-dressing confused love in A Fate Worse Than Death (another SCS first), or the “to heck with it, let’s put on a show that confuses the heck out of everybody” of Hold Me!, every play is indelibly etched in my mind.
I hope that when they remember the long rambling conversations about faith, art, films, culture, and politics, they will recall that life is varied. It’s good to surround yourself with people who don’t always agree with you. It’s good to question things, to not be afraid of post-modernism, to challenge the status quo. It’s also good to be respectful, to find meaningful ways to dialogue about things that trouble you, and to be okay when things get messy and ugly. God is big enough to handle the questions they may ask.
AJ. Trevor. Ciara. Brianna. Kelsey. Shelby. Julia. Katey. Kara. Ian. Ryan. Blaine. Mackenzie. Tyler. Lauren. Pattie. Michael. Charlie. Nicole. Ali. Angela. Tiffany. Sabara. Beth. Riley. Jessica. Blake. Hannah. Melanie. Kristin. Benita. Tootsie. Sam. Madison. Megan. Noel. Allison. Jessica. Maddie. Morgan. Forrest. Kara. Dylan. Adrian. Bobby. Richard. Tyler. Joey. Cory.
I can’t remember all of their names, sad to say. Their faces are still familiar to me, and I am grateful for those who have stayed friends with me via Facebook. But I want them all to know, being your teacher was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I will never forget the memories we made, the laughter we shared, the tears we shed. I am grateful beyond measure for the experience of being in class with you, whether I was on time–or late–and seeing you every day of the week. I am a better man, and a better pastor, because you were my students.
Carpe diem, kids.
Seize the day. Seize the moment. Whatever you are doing now, godspeed to you.
And one more thing: