by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities
I have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.
It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.
Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.
The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.
It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.
At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.
Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.
Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.
Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.
I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.
My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.
* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”
Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “… of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”