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The fourth wall


May 03, 2018

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Recently, a high school classmate posted a photo of the superlative section of our senior yearbook. There I am, bleach blonde, studio-issue velvet-cloaked, glancing over my shoulder in a way I never have in real life. Below my name: most talented.

Looking at the course of my life, there are a number of reasons I might have won that particular superlative, but the cause for its being bestowed upon me as a senior in high school was my acting ability. I was in every school play, most often in leading roles. I wrote a one-act that was accepted by a statewide theater festival and got to watch it come to life on stage, both before my school and the broader audience.  I went to nationals for speech and debate two years running, performing a dramatic monologue each time, and earning sixth place in my senior year.  I was an apprentice at a professional theater company and never cashed the measly check I received for acting a bit part in The Death of a Salesman;I believed it to be the first of many in a career of acting.

In college, I continued acting until I transferred schools. My reasons for transferring were plenty, academics surely one of the most powerful, but others were based on interpersonal conflict and heartbreak. I was literally running from my problems, and while it turned out to be the right decision in this case, the circumstances that caused my flight took me away from performance, turned me inward, made me almost shy. My time in the spotlight was over.

When I saw the Facebook post this week, it brought back many complicated memories, as high school yearbooks are intended to torture us later in life by confronting our former, sometimes more sparkly, selves.

I showed Nikki and she, never having known me as an actress, was surprised to learn not that I was voted most talented, but that I was voted most talented for a skill of mine that she has never encountered. I lamented the loss of that particular skill, that special ability for which I was once acknowledged and which is now unknown to most of my closest friends.

But Nikki said, “You are still acting, every day in the classroom,” and it, too, sent me into a spiral of nostalgia, this time for the not-so-distant past. For the first year I taught, I nearly vomited every day, walking into the classroom with butterflies and weak knees, terrified of the sea of young heads before me. I took deep breaths in bathroom stalls, and stared at myself in the mirror, challenging my own gaze into softening.

I don’t know if my students knew that first year just how scared I was of their potential responses to me, but as time passed, I began to enter the classroom with more and more confidence. Some classes are harder than others, of course, but for the most part, my students have been engaged and playful, participatory and respectful. They sit in their seats and watch me when they are expected to, and the best of them don impressive academic personas in response to mine.

Although it is technically my job to teach them such lessons, my students educate me daily on how to adapt to different audiences, to tailor my performance to the needs and responses of different spectators, and, what’s more, how to include them in the performance of each 75-minute class.

While part of my newly-minted confidence is based upon being comfortable as the focal point of the classroom, the relationships I try to foster within my classroom are really what have made a difference for me, in a way that transfers neatly into both my personal life, and my deeply private one.

My pupils have reminded me of something I had forgotten in the years since training so ardently for a career in theater, and that is that there is more to acting than speech; in order to be truly talented, you must also know how to listen, and how to react to what you hear.

As a result of this hard-earned awakening, these days, when I walk into the classroom, my students’ voices break down the proverbial fourth wall. I would argue that thanks to them, I am more superlative now than I was when I was winning awards, standing on stage, lit so brightly I couldn’t see those before me.


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