What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Life Decided I Needed to Stop, Part 3

I had just left the Administration building after turning in my resignation notice, and placing myself a pool of teachers who would receive a financial incentive for saving the school district the task of firing us. The mood in the Human Resources office was understandably sad. I stood there with young and old teachers, all visably shaken and bewildered. The ones who were talking were rambling and flustered, unsure what the next move was.

The news of losing my job couldn't have come at a worse time. In late March, early April every theatre director in Texas is focused on the One Act Play contest. The week before our play had advanced past the first round of competition for the third year in a row and that Saturday, the day after I was told I was being let go, was the next level of competition. The year previous we had gone on to the third round and hoped to move even further this year. The play we were performing was August: Osage County, the play de jour for the theatre world at the time. I felt like we were really stepping out with this production, due to it's edginess, it's brilliance, but mostly because it had never been done before in the UIL One Act Play competition. It was right in the sweet spot of being well-known, but not overdone, and impressive without being out of range. Or, at least I thought so. The point is that I had very high hopes for our production's success at the competition.

By the time a play has already had been through 5 weeks of rehearsals including several clinics, and one round of competition, hopefully it is self-sustaining and the job of the director is over. If that were the case my own state of mind wouldn't have mattered much, as I would have simply told my students to do the great job I knew they were capable of and left it at that. Unfortunately, high school theatre, especially when traveling a show to a competition, is an ongoing process. That Friday afternoon and into the day of the contest, dispite the students' ignorance of my situation, there was an aura of chaos. The kids were a talented bunch, and very much wanted to do well. While no one has told me this, it's always been my feeling that they could sense something was wrong with me. I had a feeling they were cueing from me, even unwittingly, to be unfocused and haphazard in their preparation. There were missing props, confused sound elements, disorganization throughout the preparations on that Friday and the morning of the competition. Perhaps it was just because they are high school students and it's a lot to handle, but my feeling all weekend was that it was because of me.

As much as I wanted to continue our run of success and show the school district that they were getting rid of the wrong guy, we didn't advance that night. When we got back to the school after the contest I gathered the students and the parents that had stuck around and told them the news. There were a lot of tears and hugs and parents asking what could be done. I genuinely thought, at that time, that it was a done deal, but told them anything they wanted to do would be appreciated.

By Monday word had spread and the general population knew about my dismissal. I recieved lots of support from other teachers, students, and parents. Before I was told I was being let go my ego had elevated some, and I started thinking of myself as the goldenboy of the district's theatre teachers. Within some exclusive circles, this might be considered a big deal, but I'll understand if the gravity of this distinction doesn't quite land with all of the readers. After all, I had been in the district now for 4 years and had built a theatre program that consistently won in UIL, but also had made a reputation for producing daring materials and pushing students to go beyond what was typical for high school theatre. Being let go kind of put me in my place, as I was extremely humbled, left wondering if I had actually made an impact, at all. The support that I was being shown and the way that everyone seemed to think I was being wronged made me feel very good about what I had done there. Regardless, I knew I had some cosmic humble pie in my belly.

Nevertheless, I still didn't have a job for the next school year my focus now turned to looking for and applying for jobs in the Houston area and throughout the state. While only a few years back I was being approched by other schools wanting me to join them, now it seemed that the jobs were going to be very few and far between. Every school district in the state of Texas was cutting back and the arts were not in the sites of any school to be able to hire, let alone expand. So, I also began looking at other types of jobs doing other things. I had worked the previous summer setting up lights and sound for trade shows for an audio/visual company in Houston. The General Manager was a students' parent and he told me he might be able to hire me full time in a project manager or sales capacity. Maybe this would be an opportunity to see if there was something other than teaching theatre that I would like doing.

As it was, even without being RIFd, I had been considering a possible change in scenery. I taught at a very large high school and every year more students were signing up for theatre. My second year there they had hired another theatre teacher to take on a couple of lower level classes, but she didn't help out very much after school. The next year we hired an honest to God assistant theatre director, but after two shows, she decided that she didn't want to work with the theatre program after school and wanted to focus on teaching English. So, for the majority of my time there I was a department of one. The next year looked to be even worse as the other theatre teacher wouldn't even be taking theatre classes all of my sections would be filled to the brim, and overflowing. For the third year in a row, my advanced theatre class would have to combine with another class, making it very difficult to establish the high level of theatre I knew was possible. I had thought that I would just ride it out the best I could, but with this new development, I began to see returning as a very scary proposition, fraught with large inconveniences and even more time spent at school, away from my family. Leaving began looking more and more appealling.

While I was going through all the stages of grief, (disbelief, anger, blame, depression, acceptance... are there more?) there were apparently things working in the background. My students parents had organized a letter writing campaign on my behalf and were inundating the Human Resources office with emails and phone calls. The students went in mass to a school board meeting, along with band and orchestra students, who also lost teachers, to tell them what kind of teacher they were losing. Even more importantly, and to my surprise my principal was working behind the scenes to affect the final outcome. I was shocked when, only three weeks after I'd been told I wouldn't have a job next year, my principal stopped me in the hall to tell me that I had gotten my job back. She told me not to worry about why, but just to know, while it wasn't official, it looked like I would be back next year, after all.

But, in my mind, things weren't that cut and dry. I had multiple applications in to various school districts, including two districts in Abilene, where my wife was from. I had even lined up an interview for a theatre job at one of the high schools, where I would head up a much smaller program, at a smaller school, with less stress, teaching well-to-do, well behaved kids. I decided to go to the interview, which I was confident I could get, and then decide if I would take the job or stay in Houston.

But, as the year drew to a close, and the district was asking if I was going to accept the offer to stay in my position, I became more and more confident that I would be staying. After all, starting over at a new school, doing the same thing wouldn't necessarily fix my problems. Even small schools have issues, of course. I even decided to hold auditions for the first show of the next school year. On the second to last day of school I got a call from the principal of one of the high schools in Abilene. He had a job for me. It wasn't teaching theatre, but I would work with a new grant-funded program at the school helping struggling students recover credit they needed to graduate. It would be less hours, allowing me time to work on my Master's Degree, which I'd put off due to the hours I was spending at the theatre. The job didn't require planning, after school hours, or weekends, which I'd spent mired in for 4 years.

My initial reaction was a big "no." I couldn't see myself working in something not remotely theatre related. I felt like I would miss it too much. Furthermore I had a strong sense of loyalty to the students in my theatre program. It was my baby, after all. But, that was the problem. I had an actual baby at home. This new job would give me more time with her and with my wife. I had always been heavily involved in theatre, and as a teacher, I had always been very busy. But, over the last 4 years, my job wasn't just a part of my life, it had become my life. I was neglecting several things that I had always been passionate about. This included my family, but also music, exercising, writing and doing things in the community. I hated that I had lost all of this, and moving into this new job would give me time to do all of these things, again.

I talked to Amanda to get her opinion, but I knew what she wanted to do without asking. This was going to be my call. I thought about the stress of running a theatre program, and about how much I've always envied people who had time for hobbies. Then I thought about how the next year was already shaping up to be difficult and frustrating, with even more on my plate than before. I thought about how happy this would make Amanda. Every now and then in life, an opportunity comes along that a person just has to follow their gut and take a plunge. It was this same intuition that brought me to where I was to begin with.

So I took the plunge. I wanted to tell the school before we let out for the summer. I felt like I owed it to my students and my principal to let them know what I planned as soon as possible. I especially didn't want my kids to find out over Facebook or when they got back in the fall. So, on the last day of school I went into my principal's office and informed her that I'd been hired by another school district and would take the job. Later that day I gathered as many of my students as I could and let them know my plans. I thought they would hate me, but to their credit, despite their disappointment, they were happy for me. A few weeks later they even threw me a going away party.

I still went to the other job interview in Abilene. The job wasn't for me, and even though I didn't get it, I had decided that I would definitely take the position in the credit recovery classes. I figured that if I was going to take a break from teaching theatre that I needed to really take a break from teaching theatre.

The move was fairly painless. I know my parents were sad to see me move away from the Houston area. We had been there for 8 years and it had become common to meet them for dinner or to schedule a Sunday afternoon together with extended family. I knew I would miss that. Amanda and I had also become close with several people at our church in Sugar Land. It was sad to say goodbye to them, but finding friends in Abilene wouldn't be too difficult. We already had Amanda's sister and one of my best friends from college there. While I had never fully fallen in love with Sugar Land, I certainly would miss many of the people I had come to know there. With Facebook and Twitter we could stay in touch, but of course, it's not the same as being able to walk down the street and share a beer. It's not the same as handing your daughter over to the same person who has cared for her since she was born, then seeing that same person at school to work on costumes. It's not the same as knowing that any day you could just get in the car and drive less than an hour to see your brother. That is, if you have the time.

So, that brings me to where we are now. It's been 5 months since Amanda and I moved here. In that time we've rented a house, been to Fort Worth to see Amanda's sister, twice, started new jobs, and helped host a party for my 10 college reunion. Personally, I've lost 15 pounds by eating better and running, written the first few chapters of a novel and generally relaxed. I've also been working on my Master's Degree and read 4 books. These are all things that I wanted to do before, but didn't have the time or energy. Things are quantitatively looking pretty good. I would like to do more to meet more people, get involved in church and travel on the weekends, now that I have the time. But, all in all, I can't complain.

Sometimes I think about the stage at my previous school. I think about standing on the stage when no one else is there and looking out at the empty seats. From there I can look up and see rows of batons, hanging silently from the high ceiling above. Behind me are old set peices, placed against the back wall for storage until we need it again. The black floor, newly painted, clean and free of marks, is the perfect surface to recall some of the old tap moves I learned in college, made difficult by the rubber soles of my running shoes, that I rarely run in. I walk around the edge of the stage into the house and sit in one of the auditorium seats. Sitting in the dark, looking at the shadowy stage, florescent light from behind the curtains spill out and create an erie, but calming mood. It was never given to me by any authority, but it was mine. I controlled that space as if I had bought and paid for it myself. It was, without any sense of metaphor or exageration, a second home. And, when those students whom I had trained and watched grow in talent as well as character and maturity walked out on that stage and performed under the the halogen lamps (I had to fight tooth and nail for the district to pay for) songs and speeches and dances that would have never occured if not for a confidence they did not have when they arrived in my class their freshman year; and sound cues and scene changes happen at the exact right time, set in motion by students who had come to me only months before with only a vague sense of wanting to belong to something larger than themselves; when all these things happen at once and all I have to do is sit back and know that the whole process has been rehearsed over and over, and the students who are backstage barking orders into their headsets feel as much of a sense of responsibility toward the outcome of the production and the future of the theatre program as I do--when I can sit in the seats and feel confident that I have had an impact by setting these peices in motion, the sense of pride that builds in me is very real, even when the their existance only survives in my imagination and memory. And I miss it.

The past five months have convinced me of three things: One, I needed the break. The time I've had with Olivia and Amanda, not to mention the time I've had to run and take care of my health, has been extremely valuable. I don't regret this year and the break from theatre, at all. Two, I'm not finished with theatre and theatre isn't finished with me, and I will be back there someday, directing and teaching and building sets. The question a theatre major is always supposed to ask himself is, "Can I imagine myself doing anything else?" If the answer is yes, you shouldn't do theatre. I can honestly say that, for me, the answer is no, I can't. It's what I'm meant to do on this earth and the legacy I should leave behind. Finally, when I do eventually get a chance to either teach theatre or run a theatre company, or wherever I'm led, I need to learn to control the program and not let the program run me. Theatre is what I do, and it's what I know, but it won't always be there when I need it. The theatre program I ran, the job that I left and the art form itself may run through my blood, but my heart will always be lying next to me at night and bringing me coffee on Sunday mornings. My soul will greet me tomorrow morning with big blue eyes, a wisp of blonde hair and a big grin saying, "Wake up, Daddy!"


Mary Lou said...

God bless you, Son. I have always been very proud of you and your accomplishments. Of course, I'd love you even if you didn't do any of it. You are a good husband and daddy. You are my son. I love you and really do miss the little 45 minute ride over to Sugar Land. What I want most is for your happiness. You made the right move. BTW, great short story in 3 parts, well written. Sell it to a magazine!

Matthew said...

Good stuff. Keep yer writing going too.

Kim said...

I'm glad you've found some fulfillment in your "sabbatical" from theatre, but I'm equally excited that you feel it's where you will eventually, and soon, return. I know I can say, while looking back at my long and winding career through theatre, that it is a very fulfilling life mission. I never regret the lives I've influenced, the challenges I've helped others meet and overcome, and the contributions I've been able to make to my schools and community. As I now work toward building a new inspiring theater facility in my hometown, I honestly can't imagine a more fulfilling legacy. I love that you can envision that sort of life mission for yourself.

Nellie said...

Well done, Kyle! Glad you have had the opportunity for reflection and really know your heart and passion. God truly works in mysterious ways, and He often uses what appears to be a valley to take us to a mountain top. Wishing you, Amanda and Olivia a most blessed holiday season filled with joy!