Monday, August 3, 2009

A Very Touching Thing

January, 2009

"They're adorable, really cute...."

As Rachel says this, she's backing away from me and flattening her hands out in front of her as if to reassure me she's sincere.

"I really like them...I do...and I'll probably...well, very here next week."

She's nodding now to further guarantee her commitment, but I know Rachel wants to run.

I know because after every meeting I want to run too. It's hard. It's a room full of kids wrestling for power and often getting it.

I have to finesse this carefully, so I don't move. I don't actually reach out and handcuff Rachel, which is my instinct. I just listen and wait.

"They're darling...really..." and her voice trails off. Her look drops to the schoolyard gravel.

"It can be overwhelming," I say. "They're not really that cute but they'll be great, you'll see. And you'll have made a difference. It's just at the start, it's not what you expect."

No one knows. As much lip-service as politicians, parents and concerned talk-show hosts give to teachers — and I'm glad they do — no one, until they've been all alone in front of a classroom, knows how very tough the war can be. And it is a war, make no mistake.

They want power and it's their job to get it. They want all of your attention and they'll find a way to get it. They want love and they'll misbehave until you give it.

"Russell, shhh."

"Russell, focus on your journal."

"Russell, close your eyes."



He's in third grade. Big chocolate eyes stare right at me when I have his gaze. He's a fired-up, wired-up action hero of a boy and all trouble.

Russell is bright: Off-the-charts academically, but he cannot stay with anything for any length of time. Russell is at the school from six o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night because he is the child of a single mother with a long work schedule.

"Russell, when I find myself saying your name more than William Shakespeare's, something is very wrong, know what I mean?"

We're having a private meeting, with Rachel watching.

"No, not really," he answers quietly.

"Russell, to be an actor you have to train your body to listen to your brain. You tell it what to do. You are the boss of you. And I need you to be steely-strong like a ninja in order to rehearse. Think you can do that?"

"Yes, Ms. Ryane."

"Okay, we'll give it another chance, but you have to focus and not chit-chat with others when they're trying to work or —"

"But, Ms. Ryane, it's not my fault when they want —"

"Eeek. Stop." My hand goes up flat. "We don't do the blame game in The Shakespeare Club. You are in charge of you. Okay?"



And he folds into me. I kneel before him.

"Russell, you have everything it takes to be great in 'Twelfth Night.' You are super-smart. You have a good, good voice. If you stay strong and focused you will change your whole life."

"Okay, Ms. Ryane." And he wanders off to play until six o'clock.

"So, Rachel, same time next week?"

"They kind of scare me."

"Yeah, I know the feeling."

"And what about the touching thing? I mean are we allowed to?"

"What do you mean?"

"My sister teaches here and she says, 'Never, ever touch them'."

"Really? Well, we're non-union....I'm sure it's fine."

Rachel and I part, but I'm troubled by what she said and by my weak, nonsensical response. This is my fourth year and I've never heard of the no-hugs rule. When I get home I e-mail my "go-to" person for an answer.

Sydney teaches fourth grade at the school. The kids think she's the coolest because she rides a motorcycle and I think she's the coolest because she gives me great tips and she gave us her room for club meetings this year.

Here's her answer: Never, ever — McMartin — ten-foot pole. They'll always believe the kids.

I sat at my computer, chilled. The McMartin trial in California was a famous pre-school case of innocent people going to jail as tiny kids were corralled into a miasma of terrible untruths.

Why had I never heard about the no-hugs thing? Why had no one told me? And what to do? How do I not hug them? They throw themselves into my arms and — sheesh — I like giving comfort.

"I guess we all thought 'She's an actress — she hugs — it's what she does,' " Sydney tells me. "Just be careful."

Teachers, I find out, maneuver their torsos in order to give side-hugs. Teachers, I find out, make sure they are never alone behind closed classroom doors with a child. Teachers, I find out, are very cautious. One angry kid can say stuff and it can't always be rubbed out with a Pink Pearl eraser.

My year starts with a little cloud of worry because I know I'll fail at the no-hugs rule. Russell needed a hug.

Three things I learned today is that Will's son Hamnet died at 11 yrs. old for the plague and I learned how to scan Shakespearean text. I also learned that Queen Elizabeth put white powder on her cheeks because she got the chicken poxs.
Alice, 5th grade

photo 4: Shakespeare Club photo

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