My Toughest Teacher by Deb Danielle

Here’s a story I’m not proud of, but it’s a good one as far as teachers and life lessons go…

It was my second year at McGill University and I’d spent the first in frustration at not being able to take any “real” acting classes. Finally, I could take Fundamentals of Acting and I couldn’t wait.

That first day we sat in a circle on orange/brown utility carpet that smelled vaguely of feet, and introduced ourselves. There was no stage in sight and I soon discovered that people with no acting experience had been allowed in—people who took it because it would be “fun.”

Still, I was excited. We were to keep journals, work on sonnets and study Stanislavski. There would be leading roles to play once my brilliance was discovered.

In week two Johanna (our teacher) decided we’d have class outside in the quad at the center of campus. Fine. I would recite Shakespeare (or whatever) in the quad, no big deal.

But there was no Shakespeare that day. Instead, we were led through a meditation that helped us imagine an animal and then, slowly, become and move around as that animal. When I realized where the exercise was leading I quickly changed my animal to an alligator. No way was I going to gallop around the quad and whinny like a horse.

I lay on my belly in the grass with my eyes half open (like a legitmate alligator) and watched in disbelief as the girl from engineering flapped her arms and clucked like a chicken. There was howling, hopping and all kinds of wild animal impersonating. Apparently no one was mortified…except me.

Maybe I shouldn’t be an actor after all, I thought.

After that, I approached Fundamentals with ambivalence. I’d always been a good student but I started skipping classes. Toward the end of the term we finally got to the “real” acting (scene work) and I’d figured out that there was a point to the earlier work on animals, breathing, rolling on the floor, etc. My enthusiasm began to return, but when it came time to hand in our journals, I found a nearly empty notebook and had to pull an all-nighter trying to reconstruct the term.

We got the journals back, along with our grades and a letter about our progress, before we went home for the holidays. I will never forget the letter I received. In it, Johanna stated in blunt terms that I was lazy, had a terrible attitude and was the worst kind of student—one who was wasting her intelligence and talent, letting people down and very close to failing out of the class. She was disgusted with me.

Rarely have I been so ashamed. Rarely have I had such an ugly mirror held up to myself. I wanted to be angry, but she was right. I had been an ass. I had been immature and irresponsible and I had sabotaged myself in the very arena where I most wanted to succeed. I was horrified..and mortified for real this time.

Short of quitting school or crawling into a hole and dying, my only option was to go back. I apologized and set about to show that the real me was the opposite of what I’d demonstrated so far. I did my homework, attended classes, kept my journal and worked my way back up from a D (my all-time lowest grade!) to a B+.

More importantly, I was profoundly and permanently altered by the experience. I won’t say I was perfect or never cut another class (please, I was nineteen!) but from that point on, in all my creative work, I tried not just to show up, but to show up on time, prepared and with an open mind. I’d learned that you get back what you put in and that to be taken seriously, you have to to be serious. These were crucial lessons and they have affected the course of my life.

So, Johanna Mercer, wherever you are, thank you.

19 Replies to “My Toughest Teacher by Deb Danielle”

  1. Danielle, excellent post. It’s a testament to you that you learned this important lesson early on. Some people spend a lifetime being disengaged and never figure it out. Life is not about just showing up, but being an active participant in your own destiny, even if it means flapping and clucking.

  2. Oh Danielle, I did method acting also! I had to be a table. The teacher would say “Feel the table. Inhale the table. Be the table.” But I actually think that method acting and writing have a lot in common. In fact those acting classes made me aware of how much I really wanted to be a writer. Great post! Very honest and thought-provoking as usual.

  3. Joanne–You’ve said it perfectly–may we all flap and cluck!

    Gail–You too, huh? I can’t say I ever got to like that part of method acting. Now if someone had given me a part and said: “You’re playing a horse, you need to learn how to move and sound like one,” I would have had a different attitude. There’s a great play called “Sylvia” where the husband, as part of a mid-life crisis, adopts and sort of falls in love with a dog. The dog is played by a woman and it’s a wonderful part.

  4. We had to be fruit for my Theatre for Children class. I recall, with more than a little amusement, being asked to feel the fuzz of my peach. I wish I could say I found enlightenment at the end of that tunnel, but no, the instructor really was batshit crazy. ; )

  5. Wow! I went from laughing to nodding my head in agreement at your lessons learned. I was terribly shy in my college classes, so I think I might have had a problem with method acting. Although I did do well in judo…

  6. I got a clear picture of you as that alligator. Brilliant choice of animal, even if your instructor noticed you weren’t offering it your all at that point.

    I’ve had a few tough teachers like that myself. In grade nine, I thought I’d write a short story for the high school literary magazine contest. For inspiration, I turned to what I thought was a little known work by Robert Frost. You know, the one that waxes on about the path less travelled.

    So I wrote a story about a bear who does just that, even adding as my last line, “Doubtless there are other roads.” The cheek! In a burst of artistic rebellion, I left my brilliant story untitled. My English teacher (and judge of the contest) chose to give the story second place and published it in the literary journal with a title he’d given it himself: “Frost.”

    You said you wanted to crawl into a hole and die when your teacher outed you. I thought about transmigrating to an alternate universe. But I learned a valuable lesson: don’t think some obscure poem hasn’t been read by half the populace and your English teacher. And never, ever plagiarize.

  7. OMG, Danielle, that story reminds me of that Chorus Line song, the name of which escapes me at the mo–it’s the one with the actress singing about how she couldn’t feel anything “except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd”! Funny as it is, I do get your point. Being an artist definitely requires you to do much that makes you uncomfortable…

  8. Kelly–I’m killing myself imagining you trying to “feel the fuzz of your peach.” I would have lost it.

    Maia–Your story is a blog in itself! I can totally picture the teacher reading your story and deciding to give it that title. A great lesson indeed, you cheeky thing!

    Bev–I know exactly the song you’re thinking of. I think she’s talking about being on a sled or something. “But I felt nothing…” is the chorus.

    Eileen–You’re right. The great ones can change the course of your life.

  9. Here’s to an insightful teacher and a great student. You learned a difficult lesson of life, Danielle, in that there’s no easy way to success and fulfillment. How sweet is that knowledge?

  10. Thanks Larramie. It is good knowledge to have and I’m lucky I learned it early on. It didn’t stop me from making tons of other mistakes through the years, but I’m sure I was never such a crappy student or cast member again.

  11. Great story, Danielle. My similar outing was Mr. Bush in Latin–when he caught me laughing and chatting with a friend instead of translating something that was no doubt less-than-compelling in class he told me to stop acting like such a bubblehead and live up to my potential. Man, was that a humbling life moment…
    p.s. I was at a fundraiser for a local theater and they did a brief vignette of that play Sylvia and I SOOO desperately want to see the rest of it now! It’s such a clever premise…

  12. Jenny–yes, it’s a great premise. And the playwrite is probably doing well with it as it’s a big summer stock fav. You can always read it, but reading a play is never quite the same as seeing it.

  13. Ev’ry day for a week we would try to
    Feel the motion, feel the motion
    Down the hill.

    Ev’ry day for a week we would try to
    Hear the wind rush, hear the wind rush,
    Feel the chill.

    And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
    To see what I had inside.
    Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
    And I tried, I tried.

    And everybody’s goin’ “Whooooosh, whooooosh …
    I feel the snow… I feel the cold… I feel the air.”
    And Mr. Karp turns to me and he says,
    “Okay, Morales. What did you feel?”

    And I said…”Nothing,
    I’m feeling nothing,”
    And he says “Nothing
    Could get a girl transferred.”

    They all felt something,
    But I felt nothing
    Except the feeling
    That this bullshit was absurd

    …….yup, been by inner turtle too many times. And in musical theatre school we did the same and sang about it!!

    Some of our biggest mess ups end up being our greatest lesson. It was when I blanked in musical theatre performance class and my teaching was THRILLED because you learn the most from your mistakes. Didn’t feel great at the time, but a good lesson…….sigh…

  14. Oh how you bring back feeling busted and embarassed by someone unafraid to speaking the truth about that side of ourselves we most like to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s a lesson we must all revisit from time to time and ask ourselves if we are indeed living up to our potential. Thanks for the reminder.

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