Tag Archives: NCS

To my students, upon their graduation from high school, May 2015

Script for the commencement address at New Covenant School,
May 22, 2015

Friends, parents, students, and—most importantly—NCS Class of 2015:

It is with deep gratitude that I take the podium tonight to celebrate your completion of a very long race. I am honored that you asked me to speak at your commencement, and as a return favor, I promise to keep my thoughts short and to the point. It’s no light calling to stand in front of talented, bright young people and say anything that might be considered ‘wisdom.’  Even a fool, when he keeps his peace, is considered wise—so Solomon tells us—so I will keep my words few.

To return to the school where I spent a decade of my life teaching is an emotional experience this evening. I taught many of you as far back as that awkward junior high phase, when all of your friendships were messy and the boys were still playing with plastic Army men while the girls, having grown a foot taller and discovered “real men,” whispered in the corner about all the hott guys in the movies.

Therefore, we share some of the same fond memories from the years when I taught you Shakespeare and Dante and Greek mythology, or dragged you kicking and screaming into a new Latin conjugation, or taught you how to survive “Honey If You Love Me Smile” without cracking up in drama class.

Several of you were in the 7th grade class who performed that Sherlock Holmes play that was just a bit outside your reach for performance—but I was so proud of you for trying.

DSC01822You dressed up as cave men for Barbarian Day that year too and, if I remember correctly, recorded an adorable video of Beyonce’s “All The Single Ladies,” rewritten as “All You Cave Ladies.”  I’m pretty sure I’ve still got that video footage tucked away on YouTube, for bribery. Just in case.

And although I wasn’t here to take you all the way to the end of your high school journey, I can see that you’ve grown into a fine group of young adults, capable of tackling the challenges you will soon face in “the real world.”  I imagine it feels like you’ve learned all the things, taken all the tests, survived all the projects, and swum through all the drama. Drama in the interpersonal sense, not the cooler “on stage” sense, though you’ve done that too.

Now you’re sitting here in these seats at NCS for the last time, on the cusp of the biggest transition you’ve ever faced—to this point at least.

What I want you to remember, above everything else you will hear this graduation season about your accomplishments and your future and your potential, is this:  Your life is not for you.

Did you hear me?

Your life is not your own.

This simple idea flies in the face of everything the world is telling you. Around every corner you will hear people telling you to follow your passions (a good idea, really) and to pursue your dreams (sure) and to make sure you select a major in college that will make you a lot of money (a riskier gamble, in my opinion).

I’m here to tell you what is a much less popular idea, but very true.  Your life decisions affect more than just you. They affect everyone around you.  And that’s important.  If you’re going to accomplish anything in this life, you’ve got to recognize that you cannot do it alone. And you cannot do it for yourself alone.

The Apostle John records Jesus’ words:  “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (Jn 12:24).  And in case we missed the point, Matthew tells us,  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).

You’re not living your life for you.  You’re not picking a career just for your benefit, though your life’s work will bring rich benefits to your life and your family and your community.  You aren’t on this planet to make yourself happy, though a life lived in the Grace of God and for the Kingdom of God will most likely be a life of Joy, for God is a Father who loves His children.

You’re here to love.

Jesus, when asked to name the “greatest commandment” that we all should ‘focus on,’ replied with an answer that you know by heart:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the Law and Prophets.”

You weren’t put here to love yourself.  You were put here to love God as hard as you can with everything you have all the time, and to love other people.

It’s easy to make this mandate complicated than it is. We can get all caught up in arguing over who we’re supposed to love and whether we think they “deserve it.” (Not that any of us deserve the Grace that God pours out on us every single day; He sacrificed Himself to absolve our sin and loves us fully and completely when we were absolutely unlovable.)

We can argue over “who is my neighbor,” when really the answer is simply to love the person in front of you, the people around you, the people in your way, the people you’d rather not have to deal with.

If you invest your life in other people, if you focus your career goals not on money or fame or power but on bringing the most good to the people you’re supposed to love, then you will find what you really want out of life: fulfillment. Meaning.  Joy.

If you came to NCS when Coart and I taught here alongside Jack Knipe and Joey Thames and Debbie Smith and so many others, you might remember some of the “catch phrases” that peppered our conversations in class and at recess and as we sat around the lunch tables.

Remember this?  The “good kid” isn’t the one who stays out of trouble. The good kid is the one who does good.

Goodness—righteousness—in the biblical sense is active. It’s not passive. It’s not wimpy. It’s not sitting back and allowing other people to assume all the risks or finding a way to get what you want without getting caught. It’s impossible to separate being good from doing good.

Your highest calling, dear ones, is not to “achieve greatness.”  It is to walk the path that your Savior already walked, the path of the Cross, the path of sacrifice and hard work and sometimes tears in pursuit of loving God and loving others.

It is your choice. But the call—the vocation—I set before you today is the call to live a life centered on the love of God in your life poured out into the lives of others.  It’s ok if you don’t know what that means. It’s ok if you aren’t settled yet on who God is or how He fits into your life. If there’s one thing God is very good at, it’s making Himself known to you at exactly the right time. He will find you.

Pursue a life calling that matches your talents (what you’re good at) with a deep and difficult problem in the world that you’d like to help solve.

Start now. Don’t wait until you’ve gotten your college degree or “know enough” or have earned enough money to be “stable” or figured out what you’re supposed to do with your life. I’m 20 years older than you and I’m still “figuring out what I’m supposed to do with my life.” But I do know that whatever my job title may be, whatever your job title may be (and remember, your job might not have even been invented yet), our mutual calling is to Love God and Love Others.

Because the incredible thing about Love is, the more you pour out, the more you have to give.

God bless you as you walk your journey. I cannot wait to see where you go and what you do in the power of the God who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:6). Thank you.

To My Students: Please Remember

I guess nothing is more terrifying for a teacher than the realization that 99% of what you say will be forgotten (but much of what you DO makes a deep impression, and mistakes you make — along with how you handle them and whether you’re willing to apologize and repair the relationship — make the deepest marks).

Here I raise my Ebenezer (my “stone of help,” the pile of rocks referred to in the OT as a reminder for something to be remembered).

I hope that, regardless of all the literature you forget and authors you ignore and grammar concepts you massacre in future papers, these ideas will stick:

 

A “good kid” is NOT the kid who stays out of trouble. A good kid is the one who DOES good. 

Christian schools easily breed Pharisees and hypocrisy and judgmentalism apart from the daily reminder of the Gospel. The kids who stay out of trouble but add nothing to the life of the community — these are not the “good kids.”  In my experience, it’s been the broken, screwed up kids who “get” the Gospel. They are the ones who learn that Grace always costs the giver, deeply. When you find yourself sitting back on your laurels and judging your fellow students for their stupidity, hypocrisy, sin, or failures…. remember that Goodness is active, not passive.  Avoiding trouble doesn’t earn you any medals in God’s economy.

 

Your job in this life is to leave this world better than how you found it, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the hope of the Gospel and for the sake of the Kingdom.

Want to find a career that’ll feed your soul more than your wallet? Find the intersection of your talents and some gigantic problem in the world. Then find a way to make it better. THAT will be a fulfilling, meaningful career. Anything less — especially a paycheck — will suck the life out of you.  Your life is wound into the Kingdom. Live it. Love it. Throw yourself into it with reckless abandon.

 

God didn’t screw up when He made you. So stop doubting your gifts, talents, interests, and abilities.

I can’t explain why God creates dyslexic hyperactive photographers, moody musicians, happy-go-lucky carpenters, generous poor people, intellectual poets, or pensive filmmakers. But I’ve taught all of those and more.  See the point above. Your gifts will lead you to your fulfillment. Trust that your heavenly Father isn’t a jerk.

 

Never be afraid to ask the Truth the really hard questions. If it’s really the Truth, it can stand up to any question you ask it.

I worked to make my classroom a haven for hard questions, difficult problems, the ideas that no one really wants to speak out loud. I know my students have faced failure, pain, suicide, depression, hatred, temptation, isolation, despair, rejection.  I know that some of you cry out to God in anger or hate or confusion because The Problem of Evil isn’t just a theological textbook exercise to you. You’ve lived it… or you’ve watched a friend live the paradox of a loving God and a world full of pain.

Jesus Christ IS the Truth. He is so big and gracious, He can handle the questions. Go read the Psalms. David beats down the door of heaven with his cries at times. Take your deepest, darkest problems to the Throne of Grace and shut up and listen….until you find answers.

And for the love of God (really), please don’t dump pat answers on the head of someone else when they’re hurting.

 

The only definition of Sin that matters is the biblical one.

Culture and Christianity both offer lists of taboo actions and thoughts. Those lists don’t matter unless they’re biblical. The South may say, “A good man doesn’t drink or chew, or run with those who do,” but that’s not actually a Scriptural definition of righteousness.  It’s not OK to put man’s laws in place of God’s, or add to God’s boundaries by redefining them more “safely,” or try to sanctify yourself by laying on a thick layer of rules.

You are the worst person you’ve ever met. If I lock you in a room by yourself, I’ve locked you in with the worst sinner you know.  Don’t you dare blame your actions on your friends or the bad kids who smoke behind the school building. You’re a sinner. You.

Parents, don’t play that game either.  A Christian school isn’t “safe.”  Stop making your school choice based on the people you’ll let your kid hang out with. Instead, make your family life centered on biblical definitions of sin and a love that’s so solid, it can handle the worst of people’s sin without falling apart or tearing those people to pieces with your judgments. Live before your children the love of Christ, and they’ll be a force for good, wherever they go to school.

 

Love God as hard as you can with everything you are all the time.  Love your neighbor like you love yourself. These are the great commandments, and they encompass everything else.

Want NCS to remain awesome? Love others. Want to deal with the kid who annoys the snot out of you? Love them. Got a problem with someone? No doubt the problem is with you. So get over it and start loving … because you are confident in God’s love for you.

We used to say that NCS ought to limit its rulebook to 50 rules. As soon someone comes up with a 51st, then one of the old ones needs to be thrown out.  Rules cannot replace the positive demands of God’s Great Commandments. You can’t wiggle out of them.  I don’t care who started it.

 

Stop imposing your ideas onto the text. Let the words speak for themselves. 

One last dictum for my English students.    It’s the biggest weakness of every student of literature — they jump to unfounded conclusions, they quickly form opinions that aren’t warranted, they skip the little details that make all the difference, they arrogantly run rough-shod over the authors WORDS.  Trust the WORDS.  Slow down.  Take time to think.  Don’t tell me what you think it says. Tell me what it says. 

That is the foundation for all interpretation.

 

Go forth, and LIVE. 

Mnemosyne: Headmasters

We Americans don’t have a good mechanism for memorializing and remembering big moments. The Israelites had their Ebenezers — the “stones of help,” a literal pile of rocks that would serve as a string-around-the-finger of one’s mind, a trigger for the memory of what God has done that’s good.

I have a lot of those that I could build from my decade at NCS, and hopefully I’ll find the words for them here from time to time.

Tonight, I’m pensive. Bittersweet.  Joey’s imminent departure and Jack’s leave of absence remind me that I’m winding down my own career at a school I’ve loved and labored at for so long.

I think it’s impossible to envision NCS apart from the men who have led it. Not that a headmaster can pull the cart by himself; the faculty do the day to day lifting for sure. But the headmaster sets the pace and tone of the staff, and his enthusiasm (or lack of it) plays a huge role.

NCS opened its doors about 13 years ago under the direction of Mr Maurice Lopez.  If I had to rank human beings in order from least to greatest, Maurice falls only a couple spots below the top. He’s gracious, humble, wise, experienced, patient, even-keeled, calm.  Everything you want in a headmaster.  Later, he slid seamlessly out of the headmaster job and right into the math classroom, where he was able to teach ANYBODY math.  It was amazing.  And he had one of the most effective differentiated classrooms I’ve ever seen. Whiz kids sat in the corner and worked on a totally different advanced book while the class learned a different idea and struggling kids got all the extra help they needed. Incredible.

After about 18 months, Maurice handed off the lead job to Dennis Bills, who came to NCS with both pastoral and Christian school experience. His previous Christian school, The School Which Shall Not Be Named, had baptized him into administration through fire and hell. I’m not really sure why he was even willing to do the job again, but I’m so thankful he did.

Dennis was the headmaster who recruited us to be teachers, recognizing that a classical school needed teachers with strong humanities backgrounds and broad educational experience. He was the first person to introduce me to a school without demerits. I imagine my jaw hung open when he tried to explain that he didn’t need to hand kids little pieces of paper with quantified levels of sin…. try talking to them. Correct them. Find the underlying issue and address the cause rather than the system.  My first-year inexperience tempted me to lust after the easy road of demerit slips, but I can’t imagine going back. Once you’ve tasted the power of Grace in your classroom, you can’t go back.

Dennis had such a presence in parent meetings. I would come into a meeting sheepish that I’d bungled a situation, making it worse due to inexperience or just bad decisions on my part. That never showed on his face.  He had our backs, and we knew it.  But he was also the consummate diplomat, finding a via media in thorny situations so that both parties left the room satisfied.

Dennis stuck with us even when he wasn’t sure we were right. Huge changes began to take root in 2005 and 2006; those were the infant steps in the direction of relational teaching, teaching redemptively, or Grace-based discipline. On paper, Grace-based education looks like a naive fool’s errand.  “What? Make friends with your students? That’s stupid. Unwise. Dangerous. Teachers don’t do that.”  Well, that’s where the Holy Spirit was dragging us…. and it was uncomfortable for everyone.  Now I can look back and marvel that Dennis had the patience and forbearance to walk with his faculty down a road he wasn’t even sure of, because he trusted that God was at work through his co-laborers. (And it was cool, on our end, to see God take Dennis on his own journey into Grace-based education once Dennis left for WV….but that’s his story and he should tell it.)

It was hard to see Dennis go in 2006.  I mean, we’d been living next door to them our entire time in Anderson to that point! We’d shared suppers, Halo games, cheesy horror movies, and anti-cat rampages. (I refused to participate in the cat hunts.) To lose a man with so much stability and experience…. well, it was frightening.

The headmaster search committee of 2006 returned with the name Joey Thames and a photo from the CPC church directory of a half-Koren, all-redneck youngster toting a shotgun. I kid you not.

It’s hard to meet Joey and not like him instantly.  His laugh infects a room with joy and optimism. He tackles work with both hands, digging in and forcing everyone around him to join him in believing, “This is good!”

I admire Joey for taking his entire first year at NCS just to listen. How many organizational problems could be solved through simply hearing what people are saying?! He listened, he learned, he watched, he supported.

And Joey “gets” Grace.  He instinctively understood that teaching must be relational, or it will be ineffective.

I must admit, I nearly cried with joy in those early weeks when he didn’t attack me for opening our home to students or building relationships that extended beyond the classroom. (I was battered and bruised and bloody by 2006, after a veritable mob of angry people with pitchforks had attacked my motives, reputation, methods, and “wisdom.”) To hear him say, “Well, duh. Of course you will build relationships with students and families outsidethe classroom! That’s exactly where those relationships belong” meant that NCS would be able to fully embrace a direction God had set before us. I think it’s THE central distinctive of NCS, the aspect that students mention at every exit interview and every feedback session. “We want a school where we know our teachers, where we know they care about us, where we get to hang out with them.” How crazy — and cool — is that?

And wow. To hear students talk about Joey’s influence on their lives is to see Grace in action. Troubled kid? Joey really does love them.  Frustrating child? Joey won’t stop setting boundaries, calling out rebellion, correcting in love.  He and his friends (James Bendowsky, George Elder) brought with them a joyful masculinity that relished hard work, good poetry, cold beer, beautiful craftsmanship, and humble courage.

NCS was badly in need of a school “culture” by the time Joey arrived in 2006, so that became one of his passions — to provoke the students to love one another and to strive for all things good.  We saw the Holy Spirit answer prayer and slowly mend a broken and fractured student body into a cohesive upper school. The students now love their school with a fierce and joyful pride. They aren’t perfect, but the unloved kids of this world, the castoffs of the public system, the weirdos who don’t fit, the artists and musicians and nerds and jocks and hippies — they’re all able to come together in a building where God is glorified and people are loved.

Today, in 2012, I see Joey’s marks everywhere. And Maurice’s and Dennis’s as well, but Joey’s is the most recent coat of paint. (Maurice is definitely the foundation. Dennis framed in the building so the sides would be true.)

I freely glorify God for the good HE has done at school through His servants. And I am so thankful that God placed me at a school where I got to see Him grow the headmasters along with the school.

On this last day of Joey’s career at NCS, as he heads off to Clemson University where his ministry will be possibly more covert but no less important or effective, I am proud to call him my co-laborer in the Gospel and my friend.

God bless.

…and thanks for all the fish

Dear friends,

On Friday, Joey announced via email to the NCS family that Coart & I will be moving into new jobs at the end of this school year.  We are excited about Coart’s opportunity to pursue his UGA PhD in Social Foundations of Education full-time.  For him to be able to be in school full-time, I need to pursue more lucrative employment. And after 10 years in one place, this is a good time for a change. So here we are.

We want to say thank-you to many families down through the years whose support of our ministry at New Covenant School kept us going through the hard times. Education is an incredible ministry, but it’s also an exhausting one, both physically and emotionally. When we could not see our way forward, people stepped forward to love us, support us, feed us, hug us, offer help, or forgive us for our mistakes with their kids. It’s that last one that stuns me. Such a precious gift. Only the forgiven can forgive.

I came to NCS 10 years ago knowing little about formal education. Neither of us did. NCS barely had a high school, but it had a solid headmaster and board who wanted to see a great foundation laid for the upper school. Those early years lacked the cool “culture” that so many NCS upper school students cite as the reason they love this school. All of that work was still ahead of us. It was tough.

I have told some of you this story:  the first 4 weeks I taught …ever…. I woke every morning wishing I could quit. It was THAT hard. I don’t know why every 1st year teacher doesn’t just quit. Teaching is an incredible blend of artistry and science, of people management and content delivery, of academic prowess and interpersonal skills.  I didn’t know how to keep the 8th graders from talking nonstop (they were bored and hungry — now I understand); how to teach Romeo and Juliet to the freshmen (we survived somehow); how to get 6th graders to understand grammar (they won’t get it till their brains develop enough to grasp the abstract nature of the concepts). My curriculum was handed to me from the Logos School’s curriculum guide, and — honestly — most of it was totally inappropriate for the age level.  But that’s why you can’t just hand off a pile of textbooks and expect a teacher to plug herself into the gap. Teaching isn’t about the textbooks. It’s a dance, a long slow waltz of content and skills and relationships.

Those early years, I was rescued and mentored and loved by incredible people like Maurice Lopez, who still ranks just below Jesus in my book. With 40 years of experience in education and a lovely Andersonian accent, Mr Lopez helped me relax and take it one day at a time.  I also leaned on Dennis Bills, our headmaster and friend who had hired us for this high-school-building adventure.  He and his family lived next door to us (a happy thing), and we enjoyed many meals around their table discussing anything from Halo to the difficulties of getting any middle schooler to want to learn Latin. (I think it might be impossible.)

We met some incredible students right out of the gate. Like … Darby Wilcox is simply indescribable.  She still plays guitar and sings in Greenville several times a month; you should go hear her. I first met her as a misplaced 10th grader in a school that only went up to 9th grade. She and Liz Noblitt and Mallie Settle used to have the most epic cream cheese fights during lunch…. none of us interfered. Who wants to get attacked by a crazy cream-cheese-wielding adolescent?!

As Coart said during that first year, “I expected I would like teaching, and that I might even like teaching high school and middle school students. I never expected I would actually LOVE them.”

It was this realization — loving others for the glory of the Kingdom — plus our master’s education at Covenant College that forged our philosophy of education. Education is discipleship. By nature, it is relational. You cannot expect to accomplish anything in the classroom if you do not love your students, or if they are unable to respect you. People absorb the worldview of people they love, not people they tolerate or spar with. And education must be bathed in Grace.  Otherwise, well-intended school structures become a horrible form of legalism that traps students in a performance-centered Gospel.

Further, beginning under Dennis and continuing with Joey, NCS became a place where broken, hurting kids could find some shreds of safety, a harbor where their battered lives could rest and repair. I was never prouder of our student body than I was a few years ago when they were able to open their arms and love one of their peers who had sinned deeply. While adults whispered nasty things about that kid in the hallway, the students chose to love the broken and bind up the wounds.  It took yeas of hard labor by many NCS faculty and students to get our school culture to that point, but it was incredible to watch. (Shout-out to Joey Thames for being an integral part of building that culture of Grace among the students. His influence will be greatly missed next year.)

We’ve seen the student body become a resilient, caring group of sinners.  Yep, sinners.  I shake my head still when I see a class ripping into one another — these things ought not to be so among the family of God. But we move forward.  NCS has been able to minister to kids who were hurting, depressed, cocky, shattered, abused, confused, doubting, cutting, starving, uncaring, and broken. God is mighty. The Gospel is true.

Like Jesus, we’ve never had much success with the self-righteous. So it goes.

A culture of Kingdom-service and loving concern will not survive unless the caretakers watch over the plants carefully. It’s the nature of education that we work with new students and families every year. You can’t ever stop teaching or stop talking about what the Gospel means in the context of learning.  Always repenting, always renewing, always reforming. The gardening metaphor fits.

For all of these lessons and thousands more that I haven’t written — we thank the families and students and alumni of New Covenant School. It’s been a great ride.

Now we’re headed into a new, undiscovered country. We covet your prayers for us that God would provide the jobs we both need and wisdom to sort out the logistics of a two-income family perhaps spread across two states.

Our desire is to end well. We want to work hard right until the school year ends, then joyfully pass the baton to the next runners. Pray that God provides the educators to fill our shoes.

And no matter how far we go, you’ll always be able to find me right here. I’ve got too many cooped-up words not to blog once in a while. 

No, Really, Two Is More Than Enough

I think I’m beginning to understand in a TINY way how ridiculous it is that life boils down to Two Great Commandments. Love God with everything in you as hard as you can all the time, and love your neighbor like you love yourself.

Such a straightforward mandate really scares some people, the folks who really want a school defined by a large number of very clear rules, a structure prepared in advance to handle any situation that could arise, a holiness code that guides all students in all situations.

They are afraid, I guess, that God underestimated man’s sinfulness or our need of rules to make us better people or whatever, and we need to help Him out by creating a few more than His ten.
Joey and I were talking today (it’s time for me to wrestle a class schedule into place for the upper school) and at one point it occurred to me that his job demands much servant-hearted love from him to us, the teachers and students and parents. I mean, teaching is heavily relational at NCS (a style that I am bold enough to call biblical, and perhaps normative) but we teachers aren’t called even to the level of sacrifice that Joey is.

I thought of the verse in either Matthew or Mark where Christ tells the disciples that while the Gentiles make a big deal of leaders by lifting the up, Kingdom leadership is marked by self-sacrificing servanthood. “Truly, I say to you, he who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all.” “Except a corn of wheat fall in the ground and DIE, it cannot bear fruit.”

This love stuff isn’t for sissies.

As a teacher, I can’t really help a student unless I “own” his problems as my own. Human nature says, “Sink or swim, kid, I gave you the tools, now make it work.” Grace-based education says, “Even the classroom must model Christ as the Master Teacher.” And that means I can’t just leave behind a set of directions and walk off.  I have to get into the trench, shoulder the load, invest the time and attention to determine the right course of help.

Truth is, I’m a terrible lover. I love all the wrong things: my own comfort and happiness, my satisfaction and success, making things easier on myself, the easy road, the whim of the moment. To actually keep the Great Commandments is going to rip my heart out.

love iceAnd that’s the Grace of it. A new heart is exactly the point.

Biblical living isn’t rocket science. It’s putting myself out in order to work actively on someone else’s behalf (not merely “do no harm”).

It means DIE so that I can live.
But I don’t want to “die”……..not like that, anyway. I want a death with glory and pizzazz. There’s no pizzazz in plodding along, loving people. It’s hella inconvenient, messy, difficult, unrewarding at times, thankless, exhausting. Did I mention inconvenient?

Oh, God. Who is going to save me from the bondage of this death? 
Thanks be to God, there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are IN Christ Jesus, who walk not in the way of the carnal nature, but in the way of the Spirit.  (Romans)

Love God with everything you are as hard as you can all the time.
Love your neighbor like you love yourself.

That really does encompass it all, folks.
God help us all.

Cross-posted to Teaching Redemptively, a space where several of us are trying to write and think about Grace-based education and relational teaching

On All Things Directorial

...Musings on theater, life, and directing…. seasoned with a bit of “after midnight.” And written in the crucible of preparing the Advanced Drama students for their production of And Then There Were None.

I don’t “do theater” for a living. (See, the proof is in the fact that I generally spell “theater” the American way instead of the fancy-schmancy artistic old British spelling with the -re ending.)

I do find myself “doing theater” — as I have for the past 6 years — as an interesting side path to my work teaching English to middle and high schoolers. What started in 2005 as a 7th grade unit on dramatic literature (culminating in some in-house performances that simultaneously brought a measure of healing and comradeship to an otherwise brutally-fractured class) has grown into a foundational stone for the upper school at NCS. Who would have foreseen it? This spring finds us doing two major shows (unwisely, probably, but that’s how it turned out). So my soul has belonged to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, knowing that January 27th is breathing down my neck. (Opening night.)

That's me working to letter the big "Ten Little Indians" poem that ties the play together.
That’s me working to letter the big “Ten Little Indians” poem that ties the play together.

Tonight I finally made it to my couch weary of body and exhausted in mind sometime around 9pm. It’s been a long week, coming on the heels of horrific schedule headaches from the big snowstorm and before that, several illnesses in my cast members. Coart likes to say “Anything worth doing is hard.”  I’m not sure that the converse of the statement is necessarily true (isn’t that a logical fallacy anyway? lol) but it’s certainly one of the pithy aphorisms that’s pulling me through the long days. “Anything hard must be worth doing” … right?

Working with students always teaches me far more than I teach them. I was struck today by the wonderful good-naturedness of this group of 7 students who have survived auditions, reading rehearsals, blocking, hours of work memorizing lines, illness, losing a cast member at the last minute, and now long “full runs” … all stacked on top of their normal school day and wedged into “free hours” they have before tackling homework.

I’m not sure I would be so charitable were I in their shoes, but these older, more experienced students chose this play as their semester project and they are still very excited about putting on a good show.  They’re so excited that most of them volunteered themselves to go paint the set tomorrow because they want it to look better. This is righteousness outworked (not just thinking, not just critiquing… but doing.)

The kids came in to paint the set.
The kids came in to paint the set.

I love projects that blend faculty (or adults in general) with students. We sharpen each other — the young’uns bring enthusiasm and energy and a strong impetus against the stodgy inertia that seems to overtake adults, while the adults anchor the cast with seasoned calm and a rich flow of life experience with which to flesh out characters.

In fact, I’d say the student-faculty partnership that pervades NCS culture is more important than anything else we do. Should we not perceive Paul’s inspired wisdom when he directed the Cretan church under Titus to value mentoring relationships as the backbone of Christian discipleship?

People generally don’t understand exactly why Coart & I bother “doing plays” at NCS.  ….It’s not because we love doing theater. (It’s not that we dislike it either; but neither of us were trained in this and sometimes the learning curve slaps us around pretty hard.)   I don’t try to correct the crowds who assume I “love” acting, directing, or performance in general. Actually, I have to fight against every fiber of emotional control built into my personality just to begin thinking about playing a role.

It’s also not because doing theater is easy, or a cop-out for teaching — anyone who chooses a 60+ hour workweek without better cause is probably insane.

And I have no desire to shut out music or art or dance or any of the other creative arts from the lives of students (though life quickly teaches all of us that we have only so many hours to spend). Lucky or unlucky, our students “benefit” from the package of gifts endowed to Coart and me, which lie more with speaking than art or music. So. Theater it is.

Rather, I pull myself out of bed and through an over-full day of teaching (this week: Norse mythology, Latin noun plurals, American Realist literature, Hamlet Act 2, poetry, and basic script analysis) and into a long afternoon of rehearsal by remembering that my greatest joy as a teacher is to see a young person grow from shy un-confidence (is that a word?) into a fearless, friendly soul: a person who has learned the art of observing human nature and recreating it; of one who soaks up the Story in the hopes that some bit of Heaven-Redemption finds its way to earth whenever Story Truth strikes the heart of the performer (first) and the audience.

I really don’t have a clue what a director is supposed to do.  Well, some details are obvious project management — find a performance space, select a script, make the casting decisions after auditions, develop a plan for studying and interpreting the text and then bringing that text to life by creating a “safe” space where actors can take themselves through a journey of discovery within the story and setting and characters. It’s all quite nebulous, really…  “The best in this kind are but shadows,” Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I find play directing immensely energizing (the creative output required delights my right-brain) yet intensely discouraging.

A play doesn’t succeed at NCS because the director did a “good job.”  We tell stories well when I succeed in getting the students to understand first and then internalize and finally transmit the soul of a tale.  Unfortunately my cast members lack buttons, knobs, or efficient input devices.  Most rehearsal days simply serve as a reminder of everything I haven’t accomplished.  I think I’ve bandaged my ego 12 times this week. 

For us, the “product” isn’t so much the point as the “process.” This is education, not theater business (though I still have a budget and it needles me). I want our shows to be qualitatively good: an engaging experience for the audience and worthy of their time. But that has to take second seat to my deeper goal of raising up men and women who understand Kingdom living.

These goals have to work together. The kids must learn to invest great labor in a project whose outcome is out of their control (and mine, to a large extent).  We are only as strong as our weakest cast member, yet seeing students rally around a kid who’s failed them is incredible. The missteps and inexperience of students slowly mature into something beautiful. The Story begins to shine, a sum greater than the actor’s parts. And it’s magic.

These past 3 hard, frustrating, difficult, sleep-depriving weeks brought me a deep gift as compensation:  the opportunity to see the mettle of our seniors and juniors tested.  Their kindness, enthusiasm, willing hearts, hard work, joyful wit — all have lifted my spirits.

To see them grow, individually, in a skill that isn’t “natural” for most of them reminds me that we often “need” what we don’t particularly “want.”   I love my job in all of its exhausting, stressful avenues.  And I love my students.

We offer to you the work of our hands because God created Story-lovers.
Nothing would thrill us more than for you to share in our joy.

Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis
Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis