Today I showed my Creative Writing classes Sarah Kay’s fantastic TED Talk “If I Should Have a Daughter”. (If you’ve never seen it, please take 20 minutes and have a look.)

At one point she mentions how nervous she is and how much trouble she’s having keeping it cool. This got me thinking about how much I love being on stage, and how envious I am of her ability to talk to such a huge crowd. (Then I listened to the 60 Minutes story on the history of TED itself and got even more envious of all the people who have been invited to present there.)

This is all ego, of course. Were I properly humble, I would shun the spotlight and insist that other people get the attention and microphone time. But I’m not, so I don’t.

Bring the Ruckus

One of the best moments of my life — along with marrying Diane and presenting at the Writers’ Institute (which was itself a glorious opportunity for public speaking) — was a training camp held by the Ruckus Society in cooperation with Students for a Free Tibet. This must have been in 2000 or so, in some ashram about which I was woefully ignorant. (My zen-happy 2015 self would be giddy to spend a weekend at such a place.)

I was invited to discuss the lessons I’d learned in my years of activism in solidarity with East Timor. My talk came at the end of a long day of training related to nonviolence (in which I participated, and at one point was asked to pipe down so others could participate), climbing ropes to prepare for hanging huge banners (which I didn’t partake of, since it looked too much like physical activity), and outdoor living. (For some reason I remember vividly the kitchen committee playing ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” whenever a meal was ready.)

When the sun set and dinner was done, we all moved to an impromptu stage that had been erected near the campsite. Tiki torches burned hither and yon, giving the area an odd Lord of the Flies vibe. And there, under a beautiful moon, in front of 150 enthusiastic young activists, I gave a speech of incredible passion and power. I got down with my message, sparing no detail about the horrors of the Timor occupation, nor the strength I had drawn from the Timorese people. I remember ending with these words: “The question is not whether Tibet will be free, but when — and how many people must die before it happens.”

The crowd went nuts. I know I can’t trust my memory, but it was electric. I could tell this was a message they needed to hear, and I was euphoric to have the chance to bring it. Being a loudmouth had always been my thing, but in that moment it felt like a force for pure good. I was giving lifeblood to people who were changing the world, and it was simply glorious.

The evening afterward was great, too. I had been on the periphery of the training — clearly I knew about nonviolent protest, but I’d never risked arrest like the people leading the training. I didn’t climb the ropes or learn about tying knots. And I desperately dislike camping out. But after my talk, people were giving me dap and telling me how much they enjoyed what I’d said. It was rare then — and is still kinda rare now — for me to hear such things.

Director, Star, Fascist

This is a huge part of why I love teaching. It’s performance as much as any one-man show or standup gig. The difference is the compulsory nature of the audience; most of them would rather be in a dozen different places, and many of them will never enjoy the show, no matter how much I refine my stage presence or performance skills.

On the plus side, I get to be in (near) total control of the show. When the bell rings, the curtain goes up and I’m on. This can be intimidating, but after fifteen years I pretty much know the stuff and how to do it. I have to bring all my own props, but most of mine are electronic (I showed the students the weird Red Room scene from Twin Peaks, recently, for example) and it’s a smooth process.

The problem is that the teacher’s not supposed to be the star of the classroom, not really. But when I open the floor, I get silence. So if I don’t perform, we all just sit around being bored.

The other reason I work so hard on stage is that I have to get the students to behave and pay attention. The simple truth is that I prefer to use humor and energetic presentations over punishments and repression. Of course at a certain point I can ease off, but by then the patterns of classroom process are established, and besides I love being the center of attention.

I started wondering today about an alternative approach — suppose I started each class in the usual fashion, but then made it clear that over the course of the semester I would recede more and more into the background of the class. Would the students step up more, if I moved away from the limelight? Or would we have more awkward and annoying silences?

The other reason I’m reluctant to take this approach is because many students have let me know how much they enjoy my lively and extroverted performance teaching style. (I once had a student take the exact same class twice, because he enjoyed it so much.) And when I know I’m reaching lots of kids with messages they need to hear (like today, when I discussed some Things I Know To Be True, pursuant to Sarah Kay’s talk), it seems like my duty to keep hold of that microphone.

(I don’t actually use a microphone, by the way, although the school has seen fit to provide me with not one but two audio amplification devices. Let it never be said that our public schools don’t have money for what’s most important.)

Seriously, watch her talk. It’s awesome.

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