Friday, October 19, 2012

Thank you, Ms. Meeks

For whatever reason, I don't have a lot of "Mr. Holland's Opus"-style fuzzy memories of teachers from when I was a kid. I don't remember my years spent in classrooms defined by passionate people who cared about helping us as individuals do what was necessary to find our talents and develop our potential, prone to heartfelt motivational speeches and empowered by a "follow-your-dreams" philosophy. I remember people who seemed frustrated and irritable, pushing groups of us through sequences of mandated tasks, prone to looking really tired with an "everybody-needs-to-be-on page-53-by-Thursday" attitude. They didn't seem to want to be there any more than I did, and I didn't want to be there at all.
I know, teachers are among the most overworked, underpaid, underappreciated professionals in America, if not the world. They have an extremely difficult job and a tremendous responsibility and most do it because they're dedicated professionals who sincerely believe in helping children. Since we as a society don't pay them what they're worth, we should at least do a better job of acknowledging the job they do by saying "thank you" more often. I get all that. 
Still, I can only speak for myself and things like this happened to me...
ME, 9th GRADE HONORS ENGLISH STUDENT AT BENTON HARBOR HIGH SCHOOL: "Excuse me, Mr. Garrison. I have a question; Pip's ambition to improve himself motivates his best and worst behavior, so is Dickens saying..."
Okay, that was weird. Weird enough to have almost completely derailed the point of this blog post and maybe weird enough to merit one of its own. My point is, even though I still don't know what the hell that was all about (What exactly is wrong with French toast? Is it bad to smell like French toast? I like the way French toast smells. I wish I smelled like French toast right now!), my relationships with teachers have always been poor. Granted, I was a screw-around-in-the-back-of-the-classroom kind of kid ("disruptive", "doesn't pay attention") but I rarely felt engaged. When I did try to absorb knowledge into my wee sponge of a brain, I was told I smelled like fancy breakfast.

Ms. Meeks was, and continues to be, the notable exception in my sad, sorry history with educators. She was my drama teacher in high school, teaching a class I enjoyed so much, I took it twice, by coming up with a fiendishly clever ruse to outwit Mrs. Carter, my guidance counsellor...

Mrs. CARTER: "You have to choose another elective. Since you took Drama as a sophomore, you can't take it again."
ME: "No, I didn't."
Mrs. CARTER: "Your transcript says you did."
ME: "That wasn't me."
Mrs. CARTER: "Oh. Well, okay then."
Like most teachers I was used to, when Ms. Meeks (her last name was Crumedy at the time) gave passionate speeches, she was usually expressing her annoyance with us as a class. She was the first person I ever heard invoke the phrase "my last nerve", as in "you are standing on" or "you are working". But her class was the first place I was not only allowed, but encouraged, to be really creative and make people laugh. We almost never opened a textbook, spending our time making stuff up and then acting it out instead. I didn't have to try to get away with screwing around in the back of the class; I was required to screw around in the front of the class, and my grade depended on it. My first efforts were comedic monologues, basically shameless rip-offs from Chevy Chase's Saturday Night Live schtick of delivering deadpan dialogue combined with physical slapstick. I used to get pretty banged up doing that nonsense. I found out later that Chevy banged himself up pretty good in real life too. I may have been a plagarising little hack, but I was a committed plagarising little hack. More importantly, for the first time in my life I was getting positive feedback from peers in the form of laughter. Not the kind of laughter I'd get from acting up out on the playground or in the back of class. That behavior had resulted in bad grades and nasty notes home to mom and dad. And not the hilarity that ensues when the other kids won't let you have a seat on the bus or when a group of girls would look at you and laugh loudly among themselves. I'd been familiar with that stuff for years. No, this was something that not only positively influenced my grade but was also something I could manipulate and control. I fell in love with it almost immediately. This, along with encouragment from Ms. Meeks, gave me courage to try new and different things, including (eventually) my own all-original stuff. I haven't looked back (or ripped off Chevy Chase) since.

The first stage role I ever auditioned for as an actor was the policeman who arrests Rosa Parks and drags her off the bus in a skit that was part of the annual Black History Pageant. Benton Harbor was and is a predominantly African-American city and school district (about 90%, as of the most recent census), and so the pageant was a pretty big deal. There weren't a lot of parts for white actors, but I really wanted to be in it. As drama teacher, Ms. Meeks was the director. A kid named Jerry Bishop was auditioning for the part, but when reading the script, he balked. "I can't read this. I don't believe in saying this word", he said. The word was "nigger". Ms. Meeks said, "If you want the part, you'll say the words that are written in the script." "Even that one?, he asked. "Especially that one", she answered. As Jerry stood there, debating the merits of selling out his deeply held personal beliefs for this level of "stardom", I offered assistance...
ME: "Hey, I'll say it! I'll say it!"
Ms. MEEKS: "Okay, Clark."
ME: "You want me to say it right now?"
Ms. MEEKS: "You'll get your chance, Clark."
ME: "Because I've probably already said it at least four or five times today. A few more times is really not a big deal."
Ms. MEEKS: "That's enough, Clark."
ME: "I'll say other bad words, too. All of 'em. Seriously, I do not mind. I mean, at all."
Ms. MEEKS: "Clark..."
ME: "Give me five minutes, I can probably come up with song lyrics!"
Ms. MEEKS: "Stop helping, Clark."
Jerry Bishop didn't get the part. I did and ended up doing more shows under her direction through my stellar high school acting career, including the play that was presented during the following year's Black History Pageant, "Steal Away Home" by Aurand Harris. I played seven different white guys in that one (my friend Ron Leuty played another five; we should have won some kind of awards). 

These days, Ms. Meeks and I are 'Friends' on Facebook and the other day, she 'Like'd something I wrote. She does that from time to time and it's always a thrill for me. As happy as any kind of positive feedback makes me, those 'Like's from Ms. Meeks mean much, much more. Probably because of the tangible connection between me doing what I do now and the very first time anybody in a position of authority let me believe that was even a viable option, that what other teachers had dismissed as disruptive behavior might be a strength and not a weakness.

So while I should have said it sooner and I should say it more often, thank you, Ms. Meeks.  


Clare said...

For me, it was Ms. Adcock. World Geography, World History, and 20th Century Europe (which she researched and developed herself). I'm a historian & teacher today because she made me understand that I had something to say and a way to say it. Best teacher I ever had.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Love your ruse and that it worked. Reminds me of Eddie Izzard's excuse. "I was on the moon at the time. With Steve."
I'm a ELA and History teacher today thanks more to my college professors. I had a 4 year mentor/friendship with my drama teacher but she got weird on me my senior year without any reason that I know of, so that sort of killed the fond memories.
My 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Garrett, believed in my writing ability. When I'm published, I hope to send her a signed copy.

Clark Brooks said...

What it comes down to is I've always been jealous of you and other people who have these great stories. It didn't occur to me til recently that I had one too.

Thank you so much for the kind words. Yeah, at that point I already kind of knew how to navigate lazy bureaucrats; they'll resist up to a point but they REALLY want to rubber stamp your document and get you out of their face.
I really enjoy "Hold On To Your Bloomers" too.