Monday, January 9, 2017

What We Learn

Finding A Place
It all started because I was trying to get out of gym.  Since I wasn’t a cheerleader, didn’t play organized sports, and wasn’t in the band, my freshman year I found myself in gym class with some of the school’s most unsavory characters.  With doctor’s note in hand (procured thanks to an Oscar-worthy performance) I marched into the guidance office of my over-crowded public high school and asked to be placed in drama.  That’s when I met Diane Maisel.

My transition to high school was not a smooth one.  During the summer months my old friends formed new allegiances with students from other schools and I found myself completely lost.  It was easy to do in school with around 2,000 students at the time.  Built in the 1926’s, the Spanish stucco school is on the National Registry of Historic Places.  At the time there was no air-conditioning, which made studying in the stifling southern heat a challenge.  We ate lunch on the front lawn of the school, which was peppered with historic oak trees and Spanish moss.  Many of the students were legacies whose parents and grandparents had also attended. 

The theatre department was legendary thanks to the dedication of their first theatre teacher, a woman whose name now appears on the auditorium.  But when she retired, she was replaced with a young teacher from Tuscaloosa, who was well aware that she had big shoes to fill.  Diane was in her early 30’s and single; the kind of teacher who guys crushed on and girls looked to as a cool big sister. 

If you’re lucky you can look back on your education and find at least one special teacher who had a meaningful impact on your life.  Diane was mine.  She saw that I was struggling to find my place, so she opened up the theatre and invited me in. 

Above and Beyond
There were pep rallies every Friday during football season, where the school would pile into the auditorium, which sat 1000.  We would arrive at 6:30 in the morning to find hot Krispy Kreame donuts waiting for us.  Diane taught me how to hang and focus lights, re-patch a light board, and set up a stage manager’s bible.  When I was struggling with geometry she decided to let me do the math required to build the set for the spring showcase, giving me practical use of sine, cosine, and tangent ratios (skills I have never used since).  The goal was to give me confidence and help me apply something that terrified me (math) to something I loved (theatre).  Her faith in me meant the world.  Unfortunately, no one thought to check my math and all of the wood had to be re-cut.  But it was an exercise indicative of a teacher who was always looking for ways to connect to her students. 

Like me, Diane is an only child.  She grew up putting on shows for the neighbors and her parent’s friends.  On huge rolls of paper she would paint scenery and then recruit friends to perform.  But she didn’t become serious about the theatre until she was in college.  She followed a friend to an audition at the University of Alabama and fell in love.  She ended up changing her major to theatre before getting her teaching certification.  When I asked her what she liked about being a drama teacher she said, “I get to help my students find inventive, new ways to tells stories.  And I still get to play make believe.”

More Than Just A Teacher
Diane has played different roles in my life at different moments.  She has been a teacher, a big sister, and a surrogate mom.  She knows how to drop the truth bomb and follow it up with a hug.  In my mother’s absence, she hosted my bridesmaids’ luncheon (which was really just lunch with dear friends, male and female).  And then when that marriage ended, she was there to assure me that I would be ok. 

She went on to have twins at 40 and raise them to be amazing young women.  Over the years the girls have been kind enough to share her with me.  Both of them excelled in school and are great role models for my daughter.  Diane has stepped in as my daughter’s Auntie D, playing a role that is part Auntie Mame and part grandmother.  I love seeing the two of them curled up on the couch together reading a book or playing a game. 

We enjoy a visit over pizza and she tells me stories about growing up and how she found her way to the theatre.  We talk about teaching and the joy of watching our students grow and learn.  We talk about our girls, and retirement, and the possibilities that await us in the years ahead.  She continues to be my sounding board and a constant source of support.  When she returns home after lunch she’ll spend the rest of her day preparing for the next school play.  Her Saturday, like so many over the years, will be spent at school working with students.  

I was fortunate to have many great teachers over the years and to see first hand the time and sacrifices they make for their students.  They are the teachers who raise the bar. What we learn from our teachers often - if we're lucky - goes beyond what comes from the textbook.  They believe in us, guide us, ask the difficult questions, and help us find our own answers.   

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  1. Wow, what an awesome teacher! You are so lucky to have her in your life! I'm a substitute teacher and I would love to have an impact on someone's life.

  2. Thanks for reading. Now that I teach (college students) I have a whole new respect for the great teachers in my life. You never know the influence you may have.