THE THIN CHALK LINE
Remember chalk? It was once used by teachers to illustrate things on a blackboard. Some older classrooms still have them, including on the main campus of ASU. I wonder if some teachers still prefer them. Me, I’m equally maladapted for handwriting no matter what the surface or medium.
So let’s imagine an old chalkboard in a class room. One piece of old yellow chalk. Draw a line horizontally across this chalkboard with that piece of chalk. Got it in your head? Cool. We’ll come back to it in a minute.
Over the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege and honor of going to schools where students of various ages — junior high to college — were in attendance to hear me talk about my novels. Here’s a sample of some of the things I’ve heard in that time:
English Teacher at a North Phoenix, upper-middle to upper-class district: “We know that if we built dormitories on this campus, we’d have students begging to be let into them. They’d rather live on campus 24/7 than go back to their homes and deal with the devastation there.”
Same teacher: “I’ve had kids ask if they could sleep overnight on my patio rather than go home. I have kids who come to school not know where they are going to sleep that night.”
Teacher, middle-class district: “You’ll have a lot of kids here after school because they don’t want to go home. They don’t have air conditioning.” (In August, in Phoenix.)
Student: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer…and what did your family think?”
Student: “I wanted to direct a play, but my dad said no.”
Student: “I gave my mom a story I wrote. She read it and told me it sucked.”
I’ve got more. If you’re a teacher, you do too.
In eighth grade (at a private Christian school, mind you) I got my first cigarettes and my first joints. By freshman year, I was getting high as often as possible with people I thought were my friends because they laughed at me when I was high. I also joined the drama department that year. I was a pain in the ass to my drama teacher, Mrs. Ann Tully, who, by the way, will always be “Mrs. Tully” or just “Tully” no matter how old I get. Never “Ann.” And Mrs. Goldsen will always be “Goldie.” Period.
Our drama department put on two full length productions each year. Tully directed the first one, Goldie the second. Tully cast me in the first play that year, and the seniors were all beside themselves, saying, “Freshman don’t get cast in the plays!” I didn’t know that. Nor did I care. I had pot to smoke. But hey, the rehearsals were fun…
Toward the end of the year, I showed up to a speech and drama department meeting high as a kite. I have no idea what I said or did, but I know I laughed a lot. Loudly. Afterward, Tully pulled me aside and said, “I know you won’t remember any of this, but…” And I don’t know what she said after that, so I guess she was right.
The next day, she showed up at my speech class, pulled me out, escorted me into a little windowless room down the hall, sat me down, shut the door, and sat across from me, so close our knees were practically touching. I looked at her feet the entire time. I know she said some things like “wasting your potential” and “have so much to offer” and “smarter than this” and so on. But what really stuck out was this:
“And if you ever, ever, step foot in this department for a class, a meeting, a rehearsal, anything, in that condition again, you will be out. No plays, no speech tournaments, no classes, no student assistant, nothing. Ever again. Am I clear?”
And I whispered, “Yes.”
It was the second to last time I ever got high, and the last time was terrible. Looking back at the direction I was heading, I have no doubt that had Tully not cast me in her show, and had she not had that little sit-down, there’s no telling where I would have ended up. Certainly not in a place where I’d have nine hardcover novels out at bookstores everywhere. (Years later, when Party came out, Goldie wrote to me and said, “See? I told you to do something with your writing!”)
Senior year, I went into their office, just a few days before graduation. Goldie was somewhere else, but Tully was there. By that point, I had become the department club president, won every possible acting award they had, become a speech team Letterman, ranked high in state speech competitions, attended three out-of-state actor training sessions with Tully at the Utah Shakespeare Festival…I was a drama department lifer. And I told Tully, “Thank you. Thanks for putting up with me, thanks for everything you taught me, thanks for being there.”
Mrs. Tully laughed.
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “Thank Mrs. Goldsen!”
I said, “I’m going to…she’s just not here right now…”
Tully said, “No no, you don’t understand. You really need to thank Mrs. Goldsen, because she’s the one who convinced me to cast you in that first play.”
I sat down. Hard. “What?”
Tully nodded. “You remember the kind of kid you were when you showed up here? There’s no way in hell I was going to put you in one of my shows. Mrs. Goldsen argued with me for more than hour, trying to convince me that you were worth it. The only reason I cast you was because she is my best friend. So thank her for all this. She’s the one who made it happen.”
Remember our chalk board, the one with the horizontal yellow chalk line?
You are the thin chalk line that separates kids like me from what they’re becoming to what they can be. Junior high and high school teachers in particular are, in my opinion, the last line of defense for our nation’s children. After that, there’s no net, no safeties.
The friends I made in the drama department were also useless little hoods when they arrived. We had a guy with a criminal record for grand theft auto (one of my best friends). A struggling and recovering alcoholic at 16 (another best friend of mine). Too many more to mention. But you know where we are now? One became a combat medic with three combat tours on his sleeve. Another became an English teacher. One founded a film festival, another joined him not long after. All of us, at some point, worked together at a theatre company I started in my backyard.
On April 27, 2010, I got to hold my first-ever official book launch at a little indie book shop in Tempe, Arizona, called Changing Hands. We had about 100 people show up, which is incredible. And sitting together in the second row on my right were Tully and Goldie. They have never missed a book launch since then.
When I was 15, I wrote a play, and asked Tully if I could direct it for our annual showcase of one acts. She said I could do it.
She did not say that she “gave me permission.” Listen closely to the difference: “I give you permission.” vs. “Yes, you can do it.” You. Can. Do this. Fifteen years old.
Teenagers want you to teach them. They want to be driven. They want to be pushed to excel.
Tully and Goldie expected and got excellence. They gave us authority and responsibility, and demanded not perfection, but our very best effort. And they got it. Every time. They were the thin chalk line. And so are you.
You have kids in your class and school who aren’t sleeping at home tonight. I met one kid who joined the Marines because the risks of being sent to Afghanistan were better than being at home for one more year. I watched a counselor explain to a teenage girl how her parents’ joint custody of her was going to affect her college plans.
I know you are overworked. Underpaid. That the entire system is broken from the ground up. That our libraries are disappearing, along with our librarians, and good teachers are punished while bad teachers are rewarded. I know. And it’s not fair.
But we need you to hang in there. Don’t give up. You got into this gig, I hope, because you love teaching and you love students. Don’t stop. Fight back. You are all that remains between a generation of hopeless children and a generation that can take us beyond the moon. Raise your voices, be heard. Because in a few years, it’ll be my kids in your classroom. (I’ll do my part. Parents? Will you join me?)
There’s an old ’80s movie called Teachers, starring Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch, and I hope some of you are old enough to even know who those actors are. The premise of the movie is that a former student is suing the school because he graduated without the ability to read. And I know there are schools in your city who are forcing you to give a kid who doesn’t turn in an assignment 50% instead of zero, and I know how absurd that is. I know middle schools are shoving poorly educated students right through the grade levels, and threatening teachers who don’t think a zero student should move up a grade. I know.
At the end of the film, a kid has pulled a false fire alarm, and the entire school empties out. In the movie, Judd Hirsch plays an administrator to Nick Nolte’s civics teacher. Hirsch has been beaten down by the system. In a tired voice, standing in the parking lot, he tells Nolte, “Half those kids aren’t even coming back after the fire alarm.”
And Nolte says, “But half will. I think they’re worth it. I’m a teacher.”
And so are you.
Thank you for all you do.