Seth was a student unlike any other I have taught. That fact alone made me want to know him more than others.
Seth, a 19-year-old senior, had no control over his salivation due to the lack of properly formed muscles in the areas around his jaw and palate. His ramshackle, yellowed teeth always reached beyond his upper lip and, in a constant effort to cope with what he could feel coming out of his mouth, he would often wipe the saliva from his face with the back of his hand and forearm, in a gesture reminiscent of the sweeping movement an infant might make to clear his face of food. His back was a question mark, his head the dipping and querulous end tipping forward toward his audience or his direction. He could only see peripherally from behind his thick, large rimmed glasses, and, as a result, his depth perception was faulty. This created a need for Seth to lean forward toward whomever he was listening to because of his errant perception of their exaggerated distance, yet, while leaning, he would need to cock his head in such a way that would permit him to look at his audience through the sides or tops of his eyes. His right arm was permanently curled like a fiddlehead fern and tucked tightly under his armpit, his left, not much more of a functional limb, moved and jumped crookedly as he walked or as he attempted to reach out and touch someone. Touch was important for Seth; his vision, askew and blurry, was unreliable, and touch, therefore, meant a more accurate way to understand his relation to his universe.
The problem, though, was that Seth was most definitely heterosexual. This meant that all of the difficulties above, mixed with a 19-year old undeveloped but happily burgeoning libido, led to some awkward hallway and classroom encounters. The classroom, and not the hallways, is where I ultimately came to know, understand, appreciate and admire Seth.
My Theatre Arts class was a semester-long elective students could take no more than twice, but Seth’s parents, who knew that his future, if not for public school, meant schools for “those types of children,” had managed to persuade the administration to allow him to take Theatre Arts as often as he wished, regardless of graduation requirements. The goal for this child – a man, really, whose body and mind refused to cooperate – was to allow him the opportunity to socialize. Socialization was not something he would get in a more isolated setting, and this, his parents felt, was a more important goal than academic instruction. Theatre Arts class, then, offered him the opportunity to be with 15 to 20 other teenagers who wanted to perform and who wanted to be social. He could not memorize; he could not learn in ways other students could; he could barely even read, and what he could read – at the pace of a struggling kindergartner – needed to be incredibly large so as to allow him to actually see the text.
His first day presented a paradox for me. How would I involve Seth in a class that expected reading, movement, speech, interaction and memory? How would I involve him in a way that would enrich his experience while doing the same for his peers? Teenagers would be intimidated by his presence; this class, though, was mostly female. The problem glared at me as he sat there, mostly uninvolved on the first day; he would interact his way, complete with touching; they would react in their way, complete with recoiling and discomfort. I knew I had to speak with the class, and I knew it had to be done soon.
I don’t remember exactly which day I held this conversation, but I know I timed it so Seth would be absent and, therefore, I would be more at ease to discuss his various needs and my expectations for how the class should handle their feelings toward working with Seth. This was uncomfortable. How could I know that what I would say would be interpreted the right way? That I would be seen as a teacher who cared about all of their experiences as well as their growth from working together with Seth? That I was not giving in to his obvious handicaps in a way that was condescending or arrogant?
I couldn’t know. That was the most aggravating part of the experience. The students, however, came to the table with more maturity than I ever thought teenagers would muster. One of my students, a young lady with a rich background of theatre experience – her mother was a “theatre parent,” somewhat akin to the “soccer mom” in her vehemence – led the conversation and was clear that she felt no discomfort. This was echoed by the other members of the class. This openness and adult thinking immediately resolved one of the issues embedded in the problem of teaching Seth: the need to have a welcoming social atmosphere. The second issue was a bit more perplexing: How would I teach this boy?
I resolved that, at all costs, and no matter the activity, this boy must be included on a physical level every single day. He must be made to feel as though he was just as much a part of the group as any other student who was not born as he was.
This began a year of growth for me, one that I will always remember. One day, during a professional observation, the students were taking part in an activity that required them, at first, to say the letters of the alphabet. The exercise changed as I asked them to do this seemingly simple task under duress: they were asked to lift a weight while doing it; they were asked to run in circles while doing it; they were asked to jump in place and, then, around the classroom while doing it. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that an actor must focus and avoid tension in order to stay “in a moment.” Seth took part in this exercise, doing the things all of the other students did and laughing the entire time. My principal, during our post-observation conference, said she had never seen another teacher get Seth involved as I had, that most teachers assumed an inability on his part to perform any task in their curriculum and an inability on their own parts to find a creative way to get him involved. I was pleased and I felt I had done what was expected of me, both in terms of curriculum and in terms of Seth’s parents’ expectations.
This feeling was short-lived, however. A lesson I had designed for a day in the following month was centered on the difference between character and caricature. Hemingway refused to write “characters;” rather, he wrote “people,” noting that characters were actually caricature. I felt that all the students could do this, although Seth was obviously at a disadvantage. I brought into class a scene from “Rain Man;” near the film’s end, a moment crops up where Dustin Hoffman, whom we assume has no ability to truly understand his world due to his special brand of autism, leans forward and touches his forehead to Tom Cruise’s…there, in that moment, we lose the “character” and find the “person.” We see the person, trapped like Rilke’s panther in bars of a physiology that would not allow him to speak in ways the rest of the world could understand, say to his brother in a one simple movement “I love you.”
The class could not follow the difference. My lesson was falling apart. I modeled; they said they were lost. I gave examples; they said they were lost.
And then I turned and saw Seth. I asked him to stand. He did so, not knowing what I was about to do…
Slowly, I bent my back into a question mark. I tilted my head toward him. I curled my right arm beneath my armpit. I turned my knees toward each other. I walked, in his sliding gait, toward him…
And he smiled. Seth knew exactly what I was doing. He looked at me and I at him. He said to me, quietly, “Mr. Schneider…” and laughed. And then, in a gesture none of us expected, he smiled and sat down. I sat beside him and, while looking at him, asked the class the difference between what I was doing and what an actor developing a person was doing. They understood…and so did Seth. He understood that I saw him, that I saw the boy who was inside, who walked the hallways with difficulty, who liked girls, who felt awkward in the class, who wanted to be seen for who he was, for how he was human just like they were…
Many would say that I used Seth, that I took advantage of his disadvantages to make my job easier. There would be some truth to that, I suppose. I did make my job easier. Yet, there is also truth in this: my job was to involve Seth in theatre. The whole class – the curriculum even – was, therefore, theatre. Performance. A reflection of life. What I gave the students – and Seth – was a brief look at the life within another, a brief glimpse that, through an understanding of the outer life of a character, we can come to understand the struggles of their inner life. Seth was not the sum total of his disabilities, but his inner life was definitely a product of how those things walked with him during the day.
About a month ago, I received an e-mail from one of the students in that class who has become, of all things, a teacher. She spoke of many things, but the odd thing was that she mentioned that day, that lesson, and her discomfort with my shoice of methods. She also said that, now that she had become a teacher, she understood why I put him there, why I used him and not another example. I wanted to explain, but could not. I just wrote back that I was glad she remembered, nine years afterward, the experience of being in my class. I was glad.
I was glad because I knew, now, wherever he was – at his job, at a school, at home – Seth, too remembered.