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A Tale of Two Teachers
by Nicolas Grandsen


It was 5 a.m. on a raw January morning. I glared at the middle aged man's mottled visage in the lurid fluorescence of the bathroom mirror. "Who is that grisly bastard?"  If the man knew he wasn't saying.

An older friend once told me, "After fifty, things get less corporeal and more spiritual." Not everything, pal. Lately I've found myself standing at public urinals, exchanging furtive yet empathetic glances with other greying ghosts. We linger in chagrin and silently beseech the ojo de dios to compel any prolonged dribble cease and desist. A consolation of sorts: A younger friend recently told me "You don't smell old."

I had just quit my boring but cushy teaching job; twelve hours, three days a week, and my own office. Plenty of cloistered time to come back to myself. That gig was looking mighty sweet as I contemplated the reality of leaving Korea and putting down roots yet again. If plants are moved around too much they wilt from constant re-orientation. Not a very adventurous attitude is it?

And the job market has changed since I became a straw professor almost ten years ago. Now having a graduate degree in fitness management or cosmetology isn't enough. Colleges and universities, even in underdeveloped countries, actually want an English related diploma. That could go double for pedagogues of a certain age. So I thought I'd better upgrade my credentials with an on-line training course. Also I was hoping it would get me jazzed about teaching again. I love the language. I just can't stand the schtick. Not to mention that being busier might help keep the Ghost Of Penurious Futures at arm's length.

Taking the course only achieved the first result, but it did force me to think about plying the teaching trade. So while I'm fueled by the epidemic of habitual industry churning up from the street below, let me tell you a tale of two teachers.

Miss Westby was the most frightening English teacher a kid at West High School ever had. A kid who still shopped for traditional threads at Dad n' Lad. A kid who snuck off to the school library to pour over the Life Magazine articles on the sacred, or impious depending on your cosmology, emerging San Francisco scene. A kid who desperately coveted the extravagant rapture of the Summer of Love's official commencement.

"Today like every other day we wake up empty and scared." Valiant Diggers burned money to blow minds on Bay City street corners. "Take down a musical instrument and play". The Thirteenth Floor Elevators ecstatic call to arms beguiled embryonic flower children in the psychedelic splendor of the Avalon Ballroom. "There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground". And novitiate feminine dervishes spun blissfully topless in Golden Gate Park.

Back in profane mid-America, our chronically dour school principal measured the length of male students' bangs and female students' skirts with a tape measure every morning. Hard to imagine now isn't it? If the sallow bloke ever got a cheap thrill out of either activity he certainly never showed it.

Barely over five feet tall and middled aged, Charlotte Westby ruled her classroom with an iron, albeit withered hand. She favored garish, late period Bette Davis style make up with ominously thick penciled eyebrows. ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ comes to mind. She was inclined toward chiffon dresses in aquarelle tints that would be at home with a Sunday go to meeting cloche hat and white gloves.

Miss Westby's students were expected to write three compositions per week. With absolutely no exceptions barring the direst of circumstances. If even one composition was missing or incomplete, the offending party was denied a cap and gown. And her teaching methods were very rigorous for acne plagued, self-conscious teenagers, whose raging hormones prevented even the tiniest bit of serenity. She displayed all students' compositions on an overhead projector painfully larger than life. And in a loud voice would call out, no one escaped, "Comments!" When we hemmed and hawed, she would encourage us by using a pointer she held in her good hand, articulately pointing out errors in composition, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Miss Westby had a palsied arm she often used with great aplomb to further intimidate already quivering adolescents. She was very theatrical and from time to time would swing her arm so it rested on the small of her back. Then when we least suspected it, she would swing it back around so it dangled ominously at her side again. Already a film junkie, I was convinced she was emulating Peter Seller's bravura performance in Dr. Strangelove. 

I suspect that early on in her teaching career, Charlotte Westby realized that as a compact woman with a physical disadvantage, she had to take control of her classroom or the students would quickly fill that void. Why did her students often come to have deep affection for her? Because she was as relentless as she expected us to be in pursuit of our own level of excellence. She would spend an exhaustive amount of time after class with any student who needed it. I remember waiting while she helped a pupil who was on the cusp of developmental disability. It was quite laborious for both parties. The student finally achieved a miniscule breakthrough. There was a palpable relief, followed by a spasmodic burst of joy from both teacher and pupil that is still vivid for me today.

Almost a decade later, I walked into my first modern dance class at the advanced age of twenty six. Starting late, I was so ravenous to "do it all", I jumped right into intermediate level classes; much to the distress of mind and body. I had been studying for just over a year when one of my conservatory teachers announced as he passed me in the hall, "Olympia Theater needs people." Then he pointed to an announcement on the school bulletin board. That afternoon I bussed down to the city's warehouse district. The neighborhood was just in the process of becoming gentrified. Affordable warehouse space was transmuting into artists' lofts, performance spaces, and bars/restaurants. I remember feeling acutely anticipatory on that sublime May day. Actually scared shitless might be more accurate.

Entering the shabby, third floor space I could hear grinding and clanking sounds from the machine shop below. The sour taste of metal stuck in the back of my throat. I spotted a burly Mediterranean man dressed in work shirt, blue jeans, and a black beret that battled a tangled mass of dark, wiry hair to stay on his head. He was sitting in one of the makeshift performing space's shop worn theater seats auditioning an actress. Peter Scangarello, Olympia Arts Ensemble Artistic Director, Pall Mall dangling from his lips, squinted out at me from a nicotine haze. Then he smiled broadly and indicated I should sit down. I had the sensation of arriving at a familiar destination.

Thus began a five year tutorial. I got to dance, act, write, choreograph, direct, plus design and help implement teaching and publicity programs. All the while Peter, and his prodigiously gifted partner, actress Mim Solberg, guided me in whatever theatrical pursuit I chose. They schooled me in voice, acting, and movement classes. They comforted me when a temperamental lad wasn't "getting it" fast enough. They offered inspired direction when I gave a less than coruscating performance. Allowing mistakes to point the way to doing it better next time. "You've got to be bad before you're good." And eventually they let me help them run the theater. When a notated theater critic referred to us as, "A rag tag bunch of motley warehouse desperados who go where angels fear to tread", I was mighty proud.

Whenever I would manically talk to Peter about some new brainstorm he would reply in east coast patois, "Go for it man." Peter hailed from suburban New Jersey. His Sicilian family was right out of The Sopranos. Although his father had a legitimate insurance business, an uncle or cousin would periodically be on a vacation, "courtesy of the state of New Jersey." An exotic background for a white bread mid-western boy to contemplate.

Even when I woke Peter up at eight o'clock in the morning, edgy as hell after deliriously scribbling down my "theater improvement" notes during the hour of the wolf, he was always cordial and reassuring. Voice husky from the two pack a day habit that would eventually kill him. I was so ardently self-involved that it was a while before it dawned on me that Peter was a night creature who routinely stayed up until at least 3 a.m.

One week before the opening of our first production, Genet's Le Balcon, the fire inspector arrived with bad news. He was shutting us down because we didn't have a rear exit and fire escape. Fortunately, Peter had moonlighted as a building contractor for years. Seeing him the next morning, jackhammer in hand, slogging through a nine inch thick stone wall, uniform work shirt, jeans and beret covered with a patina of fine grey dust, only enhanced my admiration. I wanted to help, but was not remotely dexterous. So when Peter asked me, indicating the gaping hole in the wall, to hang the fire door, I was anxious. With a lot of help I managed it. Not perfectly, it was off-center, but it functioned. Peter somehow understood it was important for a fatherless young man to complete a traditionally masculine task.

Now I fondly think of that door, with it's inherent flaws, and settle into a comfortably sardonic equipoise; then go back to gnawing on the hardscrabble turpitude that too often passes for post modern life a la mode.


March 29 , 2005

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