It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.