Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classroom Curtain Call

Classroom Curtain Call
By Michael Kevin Baldwin

I am writing from my desk at Hunter College High School where I am currently a full-time Drama teacher.  The clock reads 4:02pm.  The school day is officially done.  I am the only faculty member left in my 8-person office.  The hustle and bustle of students in the hallway has been replaced by the mellow bellow of the custodial staff.  I pull a Chewy granola bar from my desk and reflect.  Reflect on my day.  Reflect on my week.  Reflect on my first experience as a classroom teacher.
            I started at Hunter a little over five months ago.  I am the replacement for a woman on maternity leave.  I was supposed to start on December 9, 2013.  Before that date, I subbed at Hunter four times.  This proved to be a great opportunity to get to know the crazy schedule, the incredible cast of characters with whom I’d be working (a.k.a. the faculty), and some of the high-achieving students.  On Monday, November 25th I arrived to sub for the day at 7:30am, and the English and C/T (Communications and Theater) Department Chair stopped me in the hallway and said, “Michael!  She is in labor.  Can you start tomorrow?”    
Stage fright set in.  What could I say, “Tell her not to push?”  
Game on: Mr. Baldwin reporting for duty.
            The faculty at Hunter was unbelievably welcoming and supportive.  They were always there to answer questions and offer guidance.  They truly set me up for success.  Additionally, my predecessor and I had previously met and discussed the units I should cover.  She offered me some broad strokes on what her curricula might look like were she to remain in the building.  In essence, she told me what to teach, but not how to teach it.  The how was up to me.  This struck me with both fear and excitement.  I was a professional actor for 8 years.  I’ve been a teaching artist for two and a half years.  I’m roughly halfway through my coursework as a graduate student at CCNY.  But this gig at Hunter was to be my first full-time teaching experience and it felt like my big break.  Here’s my chance!
“You’re on in five, Ms. Minnelli!”
            “Places!  Places, please.  Places.”
            Deep breath.  Make your entrance.
I plunged head first into five different classes: three sections of 7th grade Communications and Theater, one section of 8th grade Communications and Theater, and an upperclassman elective, Advanced Public Speaking.  My first week was a whirlwind.  Mostly I just wanted to be in the right place at the right time.  And names…….oh, the names!  I had 123 new students.  They all knew my name as soon as I wrote it in my sleek cursive on the chalkboard.  The odds were certainly stacked in their favor.  However, I was able to learn the students’ names quicker than I initially anticipated.  This is possibly because as a teaching artist you often don’t see your students more than once or twice a week.  As a classroom teacher, when interacting with students on a daily basis, you get to know them quickly.  If you don’t, the third time you point to a 7th grader named Minerva and call her Matilda, she will look at you with an expression that says, “How dumb is this guy?  He’s probably from Jersey.”  Minerva.  Got it.
            The 7th graders at Hunter are the eager, immature frosh.  It is their first year at the school and they are still getting to know each other and their surroundings.  This empowers them with a shameless sense of naiveté, and a never-waning eagerness to play.  They are sweet and savage all in the same breath, and I love them for it.  Just the other day I walked into class and a 7th grade boy said to me, “Hey Mr. Baldwin, what do you call a snobby criminal walking down stairs?”  I paused.  “I don’t know, what?”  With perfect delivery: “A condescending con descending.”  I guffawed and then beamed with pride.  Five months ago this student wouldn’t speak to me, let alone tell a joke.  
This year in 7th grade each student wrote an original 10-minute play including unity of time, place, and action, with 4-5 characters.  I did a play selection process that concluded with 4 plays being chosen per class to be produced.  Next up we hurtled head first into play production, mounting these four original plays, with students acting as directors, actors, and designer/stage managers. Ultimately, one play from each class was chosen to be performed in the 7th Grade New Play Festival on the main stage in the Hunter Auditorium.  Since the festival, I have done units on physical theater, improvisation, and storytelling.  The 7th grade year in Communications and Theater is all about building skills in concentration, cooperation, commitment, and collaboration.
The seeming gap between 7th grade and 8th grade is mind-boggling.  One would think that three years exists between the current class of 2018 and the current class of 2019.  Puberty probably has a lot to do with it, but there’s also the fact that the 8th graders cusp on sophomoric. They know each other, they know the school, and yet they still don’t know themselves.  The 8th graders are too cool for school. Lately, I’ve been getting many requests to take selfies with them.  They are taking notice of each other but still don’t know what to do with this heightened awareness.  What a wonderful age to spend a semester playing.  With the 8th graders I started with ensemble work and group play.  We then went into a unit on Shakespeare, including a field trip to see Fiasco Theater Company’s Measure for Measure at The New Victory Theater.  We then did an in-depth exploration of improvisation through Viola Spolin Technique.  We are now knee deep in contemporary monologue performance, with an eye toward auditions.
Then there are the 12th graders.  The 12 graders are basically people.  Wait, that came out wrong.  But seriously, the 12th graders are adults.  Most of them are 18 or almost 18, and some, if not all of them, are already accepted to college.  Thus, the Advanced Public Speaking Class was probably the most challenging class for me to prep.  It required me to revisit many content areas that I hadn’t encountered since college.  I got out my Freeing the Natural Voice text by Kristin Linklater and re-read it, cover to cover.  I scoured not only what noteworthy public speakers have said, but also how they said it.  I watched every Ted Talk that I could stomach.  This class was a wonderful opportunity to really explore and practice vocal effectiveness.  We had potent discussions and powerful workshops (some ending with the Latin teacher from upstairs asking if we could stop sending vocal vibrations into the ceiling).         
Well, that’s the tip of my reflection iceberg.  I could truly go on and on.  But “Brevity is the soul of wit” said Shakespeare (ironic that this line comes from Hamlet, his longest play).  Now it is 4:48pm.  The gentlemanly custodian just came in and emptied the trash cans.  He said, “Late night.”  I said, “Yep.”  He said, “Can I have some of your hand sanitizer?”  I said, “Absolutely.”  
I feel really good about our chat.
So, I’ve reflected.  I’ve reflected on my day.  I’ve reflected on my week.  I’ve reflected on the last 5 and a half months.   I’ve come to acknowledge something that I already knew: I love it here.  I love my job, I love the students, I love the faculty, and I love teaching drama.  I believe in the importance of teaching drama.  
However, what I have failed to mention thus far in this blog is that one week from today will be my last day at Hunter.  The woman who I am replacing returns from her maternity leave next Friday.  
“Places for the curtain call.  Places, please.  Time for your final bow, Mr. Baldwin.”
I don’t know how to say goodbye.  I don’t have a clue.  I feel paralyzed.  How do I leave a building that has come to feel like home?  How do I cheers colleagues whom I adore and respect but with whom I may never work again?  How do I say goodbye to students that have been a part of my daily life for nearly half a year and of whom I am so fond?  If I were at least teaching until the end of the year, but not returning in the fall, I could count on the summer as a buffer to soften the blow. However, next Thursday I will be their teacher and on Friday I will not.  There’s no weekend intensive course at CCNY called Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow that schools us on how to do this.  I’m nervous that I’m going to cry.  I’m nervous that the students are going to cry.  I’m nervous that the students aren’t going to cry.  
So far I’ve got one solution: I will focus on the luxury of not having to set my alarm for 5:43am Friday morning.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my final week as Drama Teacher at Hunter College High School.  It’s been an incredible ride and I am so thankful for this opportunity.  As the week progresses and comes to an end, I will focus on one very satisfying reality: if I care this much, I’m right where I should be. 


  1. What a great experience for everyone!

  2. Thank you, Michael, for this very personal experience of teaching at a high school! It's been a pleasure working with you in grad school! :), Kristina Caprio

  3. I liked this piece very much and it has definitely helped me fuel my passion in this city that can pull you in so many different ways.

  4. I liked this piece very much and it has definitely helped me fuel my passion in this city that can pull you in so many different ways.