Children Will Listen

From a very young age, I could feel what was happening in the adult world around me.

I am not unique. Yes, I am a highly sensitive person. But I believe we all are. I have no way to gauge another’s inner experience – just guessing.

Children have not yet developed the callous that life experience cam eventually create. They are sponges, picking up everything that is going on around them.

Why then do adults tell themselves that their kids “won’t know what is happening” and decide that is is best to “shield them” from “harsh, adult” realities?

There were pivotal events in my childhood that were never explained to me: my mother’s miscarriage when I was 6. My aunt and uncle’s divorce. The fact that my grandfather had had another family before ours. These things were never spoken of. Yet, I felt the energy around them and knew that something was going on.

Left to my own devices, I had no choice but to try to make sense of what I sensed, to piece together what I could as best I could with my emotional immaturity and my limited understanding.

I assumed my mother was dying. I thought she had stomach cancer. When she was taken away to the hospital, I thought it was forever.

When my uncle literally disappeared from our lives, I thought I must have done something to make him leave. I learned that people who you love can leave without reason or notice. I learned abandonment.

And as for my grandfather’s secret other family: my grandparents knew that there was a first wife and a son. They kept it to themselves. Boy, was that a heavy weight.

I could literally feel it in their presence. Their home, a place I loved dearly, always felt slightly “off,” and there was a barely discernible tension whenever the phone rang.

Years later, when the truth came out, my entire world clicked back into its rightful position. Living in the atmosphere of secrets gives added weight to gravity. It creates a denseness to the air one breathes. There is a physical and emotional tension of “readiness” you develop in that environment: you do not know why, but just under the surface you are on high alert, 24/7.

I’ve had to unravel these experiences. It has taken time, patience, professional help and love.

I have a friend who was an active alcoholic for the first years of his kids lives. After he got sober, he refused to consider that they had been affected by his drinking. He felt he’d hidden it well, that he’d been highly functional, had kept it from them.

I don’t know why he had such a blind spot around it. A kind of denial. Maybe it was too painful for him to admit to himself.

Maybe he, my parents, and my grandparents, were all well-intended and thought they were doing the best thing for their children.

Perhaps it was too complicated-feeling for them to try to guide their children through the truth so they opted to keep quiet and hope for the best.

All I know is that children do know – can sense – everything happening around them. And that if adults do not help the children make sense of what they pick up on, they will form their own conclusions about the world that they experience.

The prolific Stephen Sondheim captures this reality beautifully in his song, “Children Will Listen.” The lyrics are below. Here is one of my favorite renditions by the incredible Mandy Patinkin.

Who are your children listening to?

Children Will Listen

How do you say to your child in the night

Nothing is all black but then nothing is all white?

How do you say it will all be alright

When you know that it mightn’t be true?

What do you do?

Careful the things you say

Children will listen

Careful the things you do

Children will see

And learn

Children may not obey

But children will listen

Children will look to you

For which way to turn

To learn what to be

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Not free

Careful the spell you cast

Not just on children

Sometimes the spell may last

Past what you can see

And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell

Children will listen

How can you say to a child who’s in flight

Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?

What can you say that no matter how slight won’t be misunderstood?

What do you leave to your child when you’re dead

Only what ever you put in its head

Things that your mother and father had said

Which were left to them too

Careful what you say, children will listen

Careful you do it too, children will see and learn, oh

Guide them but step away

Children will glisten

Temper with what is true

And children will turn

If just to be free

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Children will listen

Children, children will listen

Songwriter: Stephen Sondheim

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: observe

In His Hands

There is so much noise out there today about gun control and gun rights.

A colleague of mine, Mark Cirnigliaro, wrote a Facebook post yesterday that I cannot get out of my heart and head. I felt he really captured the realities that teachers are facing today. Not theory or politics. The actual human experience of moving through where things are in our schools today. He writes without blame or platitudes. He writes simply from his heart, and it was very enlightening to me personally in having some small understanding of what is going on.

On this day, when the shooter was in court and when school children across the country protested, I felt his words merited being shared beyond the platform of Facebook. I would like many, many people to read and consider his words as they consider the questions we are asking as a country around guns and violence in our country today.

I am having a hard time processing today.

PART 1: This morning at 11AM a member of Public Safety, our campus police, presented a video on what to do in the event of an active shooter, entitled, without irony, “If Lightning Strikes.” It’s what you would expect (if you could expect something like this) from an institutionally funded instruction vid. It’s a few years old, obvious and poorly acted, with a lot of bullet points and utterly terrifying.

In brief: 1) RUN 2) If you can’t run, HIDE 3) if 1 and 2 are unavailable to you ENGAGE THE SHOOTER

At the completion of this video we had a brief question and answer period. Then we were told we will be participating in an active shooter drill some time on the near future, but they haven’t scheduled it yet. It will be a presentation where someone will pretend to be an active shooter walking around my building with a gun pointed and ready to shoot (I am still unclear if they will actually shoot something to indicate if you’ve been hit). At this point I asked if we were going to practice the escape drill. The answer was as follows:

“We will be showing you your teacher vid tomorrow.”

There are two problems here. Two main problems. The first is, I don’t work on Tuesday’s, I am only an adjunct professor. The second is, I know from my theatre training that just telling someone what to do and then moving on without trying it is the best way for them NOT TO DO IT. You must rehearse it, put it in their bodies. Get them able to react in the moment, not think, act. Even the video said it should be rehearsed.

At that point the gentleman said his goodbyes and left me with a choice. So I chose to coordinate and rehearse my own active shooter drill with my students.

PART 2: I spend a good portion of my life contemplating worst case scenarios.

I read somewhere, late at night, about being in a yellow state (or something else, but the color was yellow) The idea here is to always be in a soft state of readiness. Know where the exits are. Assess your position in the room, who you are with, relationship to furniture, or other objects some of which might turn useful in an extreme circumstance. For some reason this idea planted itself for good in my brain. Since then I find myself casually doing this fairly consistently.

My class room is a 30X30 room with the two exterior walls covered in a series of large single pane windows. There is one large metal door that opens into the hallway and another set of doors the lead to the backstage of the small theatre performance space. The large metal door locks with a set of keys that I am not allowed to have and the other set of doors are locked always. Again, no keys. We are the first building on campus. I am in the first classroom in that building.

So my soft readiness tells me we are fish in a barrel.

The other notion this late night vid instilled was the idea of expectations. That the shooter will have expectations about how this event is going to go and any way to disrupt this expectation could not only save lives, but possibly end the conflict. Basically the shooter expects people to run away, not at him. So I make my plan.

For the last few years I have been living with the idea that I will rush the door (assuming he uses the door) and engage. Give my kids time. I realize this is a poor plan, but it is all I have.

PART 3: The new plan still involves me rushing the door, but now everyone else knows how to get the fuck out.

After the video I speak briefly to the students about how agitated I was by it. I express my concerns over having not practiced anything. They agree and we hatch our new plan.

At the top of class, one student is to check the typically locked doors to see if they are open or not. Another student is to check a temperamental window in the back of the room and make sure it’s prepped, a third checks another window on the other wall. If the doors are unlocked, one side of the room exits through the doors, over the stage and out through a side exit into the huge parking lot we are against. The other half through the window. If the doors are locked, then both sections of class escaped from two different windows. While this is happening I run to the door and brace myself to hold it closed (remember it opens out) while they escape. The doors heavy metal makes me believe we have a chance against a gun.

We run the drill. Some people in the adjacent building run out asking if something is going on (My students are committed to circumstance. It is an acting class after all). We tell them no.

We run it again.

We run it again.

We talk about it.

PART 4: Guns have had a large and very close effect on me throughout my life, but in an indirect way.

I don’t think I can write about this. Just trust it is true.

I talk to my students about some of my personal experiences. I express how completely fucked up it is we are doing this and I share my fears and sadness with them. I ask if any of them want to share. One of them interjects,

“I was labeled as a possible active shooter in my high school and it was devastating. I find all of this very upsetting”

The fear, and courage, and vulnerability of this student causes the room pause. He tries to continue, strenuously denying that he is or would be over and over again, but he is visibly shaken by this admission, and the emotional recall his body maintains begins to take over. I stop him. I assure him, no one here sees him that way. I applaud his courage and vulnerability. I remind him just two days ago he was making mini 2” square PB & J sandwiches for the whole class at their request (It’s a Meisner thing). The class laughs. His shoulders drop. Calm comes over his face. He says “Thank you.”

We talk a little longer. The students ask me to blockade the door every day from now on instead of running to hold it. I agree on principle to help them move on.

The door opens to the hallway.

The class ends and I remind them of their homework assignments. Something has changed in me though. The act of practicing has made a theoretical, reality. Now I am faced with a sobering truth; should this ever happen, I will most likely die.

I think that is what the teacher vid probably tells you.

PART 5: The true tragedies of today.

I spend 16 weeks, every semester, trying to help 36 young people understand themselves better. I try to help them understand their own individual truths, give them context and instill hope in a world that has basically told them they aren’t worth it. I try to help them be their best selves. I try to help them see humanity. I try to connect them to that humanity. If not that large scale idea, then at least each other. I try to change them, and in doing so, in some small way, change the world. A world I want my son to live in.

That sounds hokie I guess. It’s something I really believe I am doing. I don’t always succeed, but I feel good about my percentages.

Regardless, it takes 16 weeks. It takes the whole time I have with them to accomplish this change (give or take a class). I do this through a variety of subtleties. I use poetry, conversation, acting exercises, etc. I treat them with respect while also maintaining a no bullshit attitude about the class, their work and the world. I give them permission to say and do anything they want in the class outside of physical harm. Even if that means throwing a chair against a wall, or telling me to fuck off (and many have).

I spend this time earning their trust. Feeding the pieces of themselves left to die of starvation because of other peoples limited projected visions. I try and leave them with tools that allow them to continue growing, stay vulnerable yet protected, evaluate circumstances and see truth. I try to leave them with hope.

Theatre has the power to change people, performer and audience alike. However that magic is delicate, like ancient sea scroll, dust at a touch delicate. It takes time, nurturing and real care for the moment.

Barricading the door. Watching that video. Running these drills. They change them too.

It does it faster. It does it harsher. It is unforgiving.

PART 6: My confession is I wanted to run these drills the first class after Parkland and didn’t.

While I had been living with my soft readiness for some time, I hadn’t really considered this a reality. My school hadn’t addressed it. Student/Teacher alike compartmentalized that the shootings were the other. It’s not that we actively thought it wouldn’t happen here. We just didn’t think about it at all.

After Parkland something switched for me, where I knew I was being negligent. I really sat down with myself and considered how I was going to handle it. I went over the conversation and the actions again and again, but when it came time and that first class period started I didn’t.

I made a choice that hope was better than fear.

I calculated that creating an environment of fearful and tragic possibility was not one conducive to learning, growing, expanding and evolution. These are active pursuits in my class on a very visceral, personal level with each student. That positive message meant more to me than the preparation to fear an event that most likely will never happen to them. Maybe this was naïve.

What I know is this. We were changed today as people and as a unit. We will be changed for the rest of the semester. It may fade some. We may be able to focus on the work again. Maybe we will overcome. . . you know . . .I almost just wrote “escape.”

PART 7: I am not upset that we practice the drill.

I am all over the place right now. I am sad at the loss of innocence. I am devastated by the idea of dying. I am a rage machine that this is even a consideration.

I am not upset we rehearsed.

The world I am building is going to take a lot of work and a lot more 16 weeks and a lot more students. That world is far off. The world we have, is the world we have.

If I am to keep enacting change one student at a time. I need to make sure my students are prepared to live to make that change happen.

I will just find a way to do both.

 – Mark Cirnigliaro

Inspired by The Daily Word Prompt: noise

Pay It Forward

Commit yourself to a mighty purpose.

– H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

I was saved, in large part, by reading and acting.

Growing up, my friends, my hope, my pleasure, my education all came from what I watched and read. As this was before the internet, this meant books, magazines, television shows and movies.

I had friends, sure. And a family. But I didn’t trust most people, with good reason due to early trauma. So I turned to other resources for help. To what was available to me as a child: books and television.

Through them, I could enter into other worlds and become a part of them. This saved me from the intense loneliness I felt, the extreme “otherness.”

I have no doubt that were it not for books and movies, I would have descended into a kind of madness that might not have turned out so well.

Fortunately, I had a library and a television at my disposal. They brought me works that gave me hope that another life could be made for myself. They gave me company. They gave me connection.

Today, as I navigate my life as a performer and as a writer, I can think of no higher purpose for myself than to create work that can do the same for someone else.

I am on a never-ending quest to examine and understand both the light and the dark sides of human behavior. I’m drawn to works that explore and celebrate the human spirit. Stories of how people rise above the problems of life and the human condition to make change and follow their hearts. I have a soft spot for the seemingly ordinary moments and people in life: the underdog; the unsung heroes; the quiet, small moments that can sometimes hold a lifetime.

It’s my mission to collaborate deeply and bravely as an actor and singer with all of the people who make up a production, so that together we can create stories to inspire, educate, elicit, and evoke. To wake people up so that they may live life more fully and authentically and to embrace their lives.

I also volunteer as a reader with SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s BookPALS program. I read storybooks to kindergartners in hopes of sparking a lifelong relationship between children, reading and books that I hope will help them navigate the murkier waters of growing up, of life.

That is my mighty purpose. What is yours?

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: mighty

Priceless

The smell of a baby’s head

A small young nephew or niece reaching for your hand on a walk or fighting to sit next to you at Thanksgiving dinner

Watching your lover sleep

The way taking a breath in connects us to everyone who has ever lived and letting a breath out connects us to anyone who will ever live

The genuine eye contact and smile exchanged with a total stranger

The satisfaction of taking something you have just baked from scratch out of the oven

The way cooking a family recipe can conjure up sense memories and connection to past generations

The moment of relief when you sense what could have become a conflict dispenses

The time spent with a loved one during their end of life processes, sitting and listening, sharing precious moments

What would you add?

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: priceless

 

Dormant Child

I hear you now

From within, so deeply hidden you had no chance of being heard until now

I thought maybe you’d flown away with the night and my innocence

Or maybe you’d been crushed by the weight of his body on mine

I held a funeral for you inside and accepted the loss

And then, one day, there you were; and at first

I could not recognize you through the warp and woof that my soul became

 

Here you are now

And I found you, and though you were unrecognizable to me

I knew and loved you at first sight with every fiber of my being

I’d never seen anything more heart-breakingly beautiful in my life

I drew your little burned body into my arms, your flesh black and peeling

Raw, red skin angering through the seared pain of the past

I loved you until the dead flesh fell away, until you pinked up and began to flourish

In the fore of my heart I let you pick your own room and decorate it pink and kitty cats

Let the other girls invite you to play and read you stories

I gave you hot baths and fed you warm milk and cookies, told you I was putting you first now

And I realized that you were more me than any me I had ever been before or would ever be

 

Now you are here

And you are my everything, you are the key, finally – the center of us all

You carry my truth, my play, my freedom, my deepest self-song

 

Now I am here

The parent who will protect you from that kind of hurt ever happening again

The mother who will love you like you are my everything

The woman who sings a self-song so beautiful it makes me cry to hear it

 

I hear you now

 

For Suzanne, with Thanks & Love

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: dormant