From 5th Grade and Beyond

“I don’t know – must have been about 5th grade.” Whenever I remember something of any kind of importance from my grade school era, I say that sentence. Evidently, 1978 was a watershed year for me. I haven’t really had much insight into this personal peccadillo until I recently made an effort to pinpoint the wherefores of what I have come to call “my 5th grade default.”  In the course of thinking about this, I remembered something one of my 5th grade teachers did that has had lasting influence.

Mrs. Crone was one of my 5th grade teachers. If I remember correctly, she taught us English. Mr. Gift did science and math, and Mrs. Sauerman presented us with history lessons. But, it is Mrs. Crone that stands out to me because she took a personal interest in my writing and my dancing. She encouraged me; she asked me to stay after school on more than one occasion to talk about writing and dancing and music. She played music in her classroom. She was unabashed in her enthusiasm for the arts.

One day Mrs. Crone asked me – and I agreed – to dance for our class.  She had all of the kids move the desks to the edge of the classroom, played the music from a record, and I can vividly remember her smiling a true, genuine smile throughout my ballet performance and leading the applauding and the standing ovation.

I don’t remember my peers’ specific reactions, but I know that this was one of the last public solo performances I did until decades later. My peers thought Mrs. Crone was a little “off.” She was weird. And, man, in 5th grade, I wanted to fit in. Hanging out with Mrs. Crone was not cool. So, I decided she was weird, too. I quit going in after school or talking about dancing or music or anything creative. I didn’t want to be weird. I needed to be cool – even if that meant giving up a few things.

For the next few decades I did some creative stuff: I still wrote some things; I was in drama and band; I directed a couple plays. But, I gave up solo performance (unless it was in the basement and involved some bad pop music, I didn’t dance in public again). In some way, I had perverted my teacher’s enthusiasm and support of my endeavors into a need to hide and not be different. Oh, sure, my peers helped, but I acquiesced all too easily. I didn’t want to stick out.

Have you ever had a Mrs. Crone? Someone who really believed in something you were doing – someone who unabashedly supported you – someone who you turned your back on? I am chagrined when I think about that. I wonder what kind of friendship we might have maintained had I been willing to accept her love and mentorship. I wonder if I might have had more solo performances well before I was 47. I wonder if I would have known that Mrs. Crone sang soprano, was active in an opera house for over two decades, and was a writer herself – before I read it in her obituary.

Mrs. Crone was teaching our class that sharing your art – whatever form it takes – with the world is a wonderful thing. She was teaching us to love and support each other in our endeavors. Maybe fifth grade was a little too young  to learn that lesson, but I’ve got it now. I’m sure my performance back in 5th grade was not standing ovation-worthy, but Mrs. Crone believed that creativity was. And now, some forty years later, I think I’ve got it.

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The Eyes of the Beholder: But, What Does it Mean?

oscarThe Academy of Motion Picture Sciences released the Oscar nominees this past week. I listened to some commentary on the racial balance, the variety, the history of these awards. More and more I have found that I have not seen the films that are nominated for the better known awards. I am notoriously stingy in spending money to sit in a theater to see someone else’s story, but this season was different.

My sons and I saw a number of movies, as well as The Book of Mormon. In doing so, I learned some things. But first, one caveat: my children have accused me of finding meaning in everything from cooking to outings in the park to nonsensical poems to children’s movies. It’s true; I do that.  When it rained on the first day of school for my nephews and niece, I commented to my sister that I hoped it was not foreshadowing. She promptly noted that rain is, “moisture condensed from the atmosphere that falls visibly in separate drops.”   rain

I remember my eldest son at about age 9 criticizing me roundly for explicating how the message of Pooh’s Grand Adventure was a thinly veiled interpretation of the message of Christ’s resurrection, his return, and the epiphany. (For the record it was: even the place Christopher Robin’s friends searched for him was called “Skull”!) So, yes, I do look for personal meaning in everything.

The Theory of Everything, not unlike A Beautiful Mind and Searching for Bobby Fischer, made me realize that I have mostly likely used my brain in a less than efficient manner throughout my life. The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking’s life together was superficially fascinating, as was the review of his early work, but what stuck with me was toward the end of the film (and their depicted marriage) an exasperated Jane says something along the lines of, “How long was this supposed to last, Stephen? Two years? Two years!”

I understand. Some things last much longer than one expects them to: a cough, a project, raking the yard. It’s life. We need quadruple the time we have to really live, but parts of life drag on way too long.

Having seen Into the Woods first performed in a high school lunchroom ten years ago, I was interested to see different interpretations. Youngest son and I saw the community theater performance in October, and then we proceeded to the big screen adaptation the day after Christmas. I learned: a cow can be a good friend, betraying one’s good friends can have disastrous consequences; and, don’t trust the witch. But most importantly: no one stages the giant well – not on stage or screen.

Then we saw The Imitation Game. Again, my brain wept in the corner at the thought of its highly neglected existence. I know history; I have taught history; films are fictionalized history. The people who made the history are what makes the past so fascinating. If one can gain even a small understanding of the interactions of individuals, the society in which they lived, and the people with whom they co-existed, then one might gain some perspective on one’s own times. And, consequently, approach one’s own times with less extremism and more understanding.

PCTIn the film Wild (a book I have not read), there was an over-romanticized picture of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – or any trail for that matter. More importantly, I was reminded of the small and large griefs of life. It is really difficult to look grief in the face and grapple with it. I have a hard time dealing with grief in the comfort of my living room; put me in a tent with cold mush and falling off toenails, and someone might soon be grieving me. Still, we must all confront ourselves, ill-fitting boots or no.

The last film we watched was Unbroken. Not unlike the abovementioned intellectual films, the story of Louis Zamperini reminded me that I have endured little and survived less. I’m not diminishing my own life; however, perspective is gained in reading or watching about those who have very truly earned the title “survivor.”

The end of the holiday viewing season was a trip to see the Broadway show The Book of Mormon. A quick-paced review of a fictionalized Mormon mission world, the play was vulgar, humorous, and enjoyable.  As we exited the theater, eldest son remarked, “That was good, but there really wasn’t a lot of substance to it, was there? I mean, there was no real message.”

In mulling over his remark this past week, I thought of a response, in fact, a response to all of the viewing that I did the in the past month:

Writers, photographers, actors, directors, painters, cartoonists, singers, and even missionaries all have specific messages for their audiences. It does matter how that message is presented. But, whether the artist uses mathematics and physics, talking wolves and golden harps, or sweeping views of nature, ultimately the viewer gets to decide what they take away from a show. From a book. From a conversation. From a painting. There is always a message – it’s up to us to interpret it.

And that is the beauty of the arts.

Indeed, it is the beauty of life.