The End of a Teaching Year

a darkened theatreI want to step out of character for a moment and, essentially, step in character.  The professional hats I wear are radio talk host, freelance writer and theatre instructor.  It’s that last one that gets attention today.

Although I rarely talk about it here, most people who know me understand one of my great passions in life is teaching acting and voice to young people.  And to that end, I have the privilege of working at Stages Theatere Company, a wonderful professional children’s theatre company here in the Twin Cities.

The Acting Conservatory

Within the theatre, there is the Acting Conservatory.  For 18 weeks every year I have the opportunity to collaborate with aspiring young actors on everything from Shakespeare to learning how to breathe properly.  They come in all shapes and sizes, and they arrive from vastly different backgrounds throughout the Twin Cities area.  But there is one thing that ties them all together:  Their love of theatre.

I teach Track III, or year three.  On Saturday, April 25, we had our last class for this year.  Typically, it’s a day that’s hard on most everyone, both students and instructors alike.  But this particular day – this one was harder than any other I’ve ever had.

Every group of kids I’ve had at Stages Theatre Company has been wonderful.  Talented, energized and eager to push themselves beyond what they believe they’re capable of accomplishing.  Each group is unique from the other but always special in their own way.

This group, however… this group was different.  They had a certain magic to them that was hard to pinpoint.  Were they talented?  Yes.  But it’s more than talent.  It’s tantamount to the actor that walks on stage amidst a dozen other actors yet for reasons you can’t explain, you watch that actor more than any other.  That actor has “it.”

This group of 14 – Abbie, Allison, Bridget, Christine, Erik, Ingrid, Kendall, Natalie, Nikki, Piper, Sawyer, Thomas, Tony, Victoria – they had “it.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that the year of Conservatory ends as the seasons are changing.  From a cold Minneapolis winter to the rebirth of spring, the endings and new beginnings are in step with one another.

These classes are collective journeys of creativity and discovery.  But what we learn, individually and collectively, goes well beyond the stage.  We learn about ourselves.  We learn about each other.  And we learn where we intersect.  What moves us, what stirs our passions and what gets us off the fence all comes into focus.

In a few weeks it’s likely most of these kids will have forgotten the abundance of tears and hugs from the final Saturday.  Emotionally, they will have moved on.  And that’s exactly how it should be.  Chapters end and new ones begin.  Like the seasons.

At the beginning of that last class the kids presented me with a card – it was lovely and it was moving.  Included was a $100 gift card to a local restaurant that is a favorite for my wife and I.  These scheming little detectives found out I liked this particular restaurant by doing a classic end-around.  Translation:  They fooled me into giving up valuable restaurant information.  Clever to the end, they were.

But it wasn’t the gift card that got me.

It was the simple fact a group of 13- to 17-year-olds don’t fit the image people my age want to place on them.  Selfish, indifferent to the world around them – not these kids.  If anything stands out about all of them, it’s that they care about a lot of things.  Most notably, they cared about each other in class.  They rooted for each other, wanting everyone to be as wonderful as their creative reserves would take them.  That’s something no instructor can teach.

Ultimately, that gift card told me the class made an impact on them. It told me the class truly meant something to them. And that, more than anything else, means everything to me.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any greater satisfaction in life than having a positive impact on the lives of young people.

The instructor side of me feels an incredible void. I won’t get to work with these kids again and on a certain level, the sadness is deep and it is tangible; as a teacher, you really do get attached to the kids.  Teachers everywhere understand this only too well.  But at the same time, I’m very excited for them. They have stronger, better-equipped “instruments” (voice – access to emotions – physical freedom on stage – technique) than they did last fall, they no longer are afraid of tackling Shakespeare and they are infinitely more confident in themselves.  Victories across the board.

With every class I’ve ever taught, there is always one moment – one statement – that stands out among the rest as the lasting image of that particular year.  For this wonderful group, it came in the way of a very simple sentence from one of the 14:  “Thank you for making me feel important.”

They are important.  All of them.  They matter.

Filed Under: CGPChristopher GabrielLifeMinneapolisMinnesotatheatre

About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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  1. Marti Erickson says:

    What a heartwarming piece! It stirred up vivid images of kids I taught more than 40 years ago. And how fortunate those kids were to have you as their teacher! I’m putting a tickler in my calendar to sign the grandkids up for one of your classes as soon as they’re old enough.

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  2. CGabriel says:

    Thank you, Marti. Your grandkids are welcome in my class anytime. We can make an age exception. I’ll even recommend audition pieces. 🙂

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  3. de-I says:

    It is those we actually touch each day that people need to focus on not all the hub bub around us that we couldn’t influence if we tried. You obviously have totally imbibed that lesson and made it part of you. Well done.

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  4. territerri says:

    It takes someone special, with a big heart, to make that kind of impression on a group of kids; especially kids in that particular age group. It’s precisely at that time in their lives that they begin to doubt themselves and distrust much of what the world wants them to believe. It’s easy for them to become jaded and cynical. But you made them feel important. You helped them accomplish their goals and made them believe in themselves. Pat yourself on the back, Mr. Gabriel. Not many are capable of doing what you’ve done with these kids.

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  5. CGabriel says:

    Thank you Terri and de-I. Both of you have more than a little experience with kids so you know…you understand. The vast majority of the time, kids simply need someone to have a little faith in them and then, they absolutely take off. They channel their amazing energy and creativity into remarkable accomplishments.

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  6. Mike says:

    The fact that you made that kind of impression on teenagers of that age group is astounding to me. Not just anyone can do that; what you’ve accomplished is truly something special. It’s also refreshing to see a guy who truly cares about what he teaches, and more importantly, the people he teaches. So many people are in it for the money or for the “pats on the back” these days. Not many people can tell you that they are in it to touch lives and be perfectly honest with themselves.

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  7. CGabriel says:

    Mike, to watch a young person finally “get” something…to see the overwhelming joy on the face of one of these students when they make a breakthrough, whether it’s the first class of week one or the last class of week 18…and, especially, to watch them get so excited for one of their classmates when they do beautiful work……. it’s those moments one never forgets. It’s those moments I find myself thinking “how lucky am I, to be a part of this?”

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  8. Adam Shake says:

    Bravo my friend. Bravo. Both for you for having given of yourself like you so often do, and bravo to them for having realized the difference that you made in their lives.

    If they only knew how often they make a difference in our own, yes?

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  9. CGabriel says:

    Thank you, Adam. And yes, you’re so right – they make an incredible difference in our lives. They don’t often realize it until they get a bit older, but that’s ok. I have no problem telling them directly. 🙂

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  10. Jim says:

    I recently had the chance to talk with and to a class on systems thinking at my local public university. I was very impressed with the students (all transfers, all taking a writing-intensive class). Peak oil, climate, local food– they all seemed to be ahead of the curve. As someone who is called on to talk about sustainability to wannabe sustainability experts my age (early 50’s), I was delighted and surprised by their expertise and passion.

    I remember when I was in college in the late 70’s college teacher complained that incoming students were more governable, but unfortunately more grade-oriented, not just in ambition, but in their approach to knowledge (“will that be on the test?”).

    Do teachers out there sense that the long winter (which may have begun before they stated teaching) is thawing out? Do others sense that the last batch of students is one of the best in years?
    PS- It was such a delight to be mobbed after the class and have 5 students wanting to speak to me!

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  11. Great story. I’m sure your absence will be just as much a void for them as they feel to you. I remember my inspiring teachers, and my early acting teachers, with much admiration, oh so many years later.

    You did a good thing there. Congrats.

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  12. CGabriel says:

    Empowering young people is often all it takes to give space for their creative floodgates to open. I’ve read your blog (always interesting!) and know you understand empowering through the arts only too well.

    By the way, are you ever in………a blue hat? 🙂

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