On Writing

Why I Will Never be a Teacher

I’m crazy about teachers. They are selfless, fun, ridiculously dedicated, and a wee bit nutty. I should know, for I have been surrounded by teachers — either by choice or design — my entire life. Both of my parents were teachers. My older sister is a teacher. My wife, Ellen, is a teacher. And, for the past 15 years, I have worked in schools.

But I do not teach; I write and edit alumni magazines — and this is for the best. I would not be a good teacher.

To best explain why I feel this way, I need to tell you a little story:

***

Back in 1995, one of my short plays was accepted into a one-act festival. The cast and the director were selected without my input, which is pretty common. I also found everyone to be pleasant and fun, which is far less common. I especially liked the director, a weather-scarred longshoreman named Joe who was built like a vandalized brick house. He was tapping into his artistic side, apparently – and was very successful in doing so. He came up with many excellent ideas that I embraced without reservation.

The cast was also a pretty good fit. The actress playing the lead – let’s call her Marla – was playing slightly against type, but Joe, who had nothing to do with the casting either, was addressing the problem. He figured Marla would work out just fine. He turned out to be right; Marla was a quick study, and the rehearsal process proceeded apace.

But, as you probably guessed by now, something happened.

Something always happens.

On the week before opening night, the play was on its feet and the actors were off book. Now Joe was just working on little things — sharpening the timing and making sure that the actors not only remembered their lines but also understood why they were saying the lines as written.

It was at this very, very late point in the process that Marla started to forget large swaths of the play.

This surprised everyone — for Marla had her dialogue down pat for weeks — but no one was more surprised than Joe, who I discovered, to my delight, was even more control freaky and detail oriented than I was.

Joe decided that an interrogation was in order. He called for a break and pulled Marla aside while the rest of us sat around pretending to not eavesdrop. After a few minutes, the two of them broke away and, with a sigh, Joe called me over.

“She quit smoking,” Joe said.

“Does that affect memory?” I asked.

“It does if your brain keeps yelling, ‘I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette!’”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Marla could never find any spare brain real estate for her lines. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Short of pinning Marla down and blowing smoke into her mouth (and I’m pretty sure Joe considered this option), there was nothing any of us could do.

Our fears were realized on opening night as a jittery Marla regaled the audience with an improvisational nic-fit fueled monologue. It was quite remarkable, really; what she uttered was so dissimilar from any of the lines I had written, that the rest of the cast was too fascinated to interrupt. Their silence only seemed to prompt Marla to spew more words in the hope that something coming out of her mouth might eventually sound familiar.

It took a while — a very long while — but Marla did find her way back to the script. The rest of the cast lunged at this opportunity and wrestled the play away from their co-star.

At that moment, I heard Joe, who was sitting two rows behind me, groan, “Oh, thank God!”

Joe’s outburst prompted me to giggle like an idiot until the play was over.

***

I recently told that story to a teenage actress I was interviewing for The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine. After she stopped laughing, I asked her, “Do you smoke?”

“No,” she replied.

“Great!” I said. “Don’t start.”

Then I added, “But if you do start, don’t stop.”

Something tells me a teacher would never urge a smoker to keep on smoking.

But I do not teach; I write. And, as a writer, I stand by this advice, now and forever.