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Teaching and Performance

Over ten years ago I saw “Wit” at the Union Square Theater in New York.  Deeply moving, it kept the audience engrossed in the story of a smart, funny, cynical professor battling ovarian cancer.  I remember stopping in the women’s room afterwards where it was completely silent; we all felt exhausted by the intensity of what we had seen.

WitPlaying Vivian Bearing, the lead, was Judith Light, whom I had only seen on “Who’s the Boss,” and then only when I was trapped watching reruns on the television above the treadmill I ran on at the Y after school.  Light was wonderful in “Wit,” and I was astounded that she had wasted her talent on a stupid sitcom where she wore tacky sweaters and took Tony Danza seriously.  In “Wit” she made us all believe that she was a professor of literature who would never watch “Who’s the Boss” and wouldn’t speak to people who did.

The play, of course, won a Pulitzer Prize and has currently been revised on Broadway starring Cynthia Nixon.  It was the first and only attempt at playwriting by author Margaret Edson.

What does Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edson do now?  She teaches social studies to sixth graders in Atlanta. For ten years prior to that she taught kindergarten.  She has worked as a teacher for the last 12 years.

In an interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS shortly after she won the Pulitzer, Lehrer asked her to describe a typical day in her kindergarten class.  “Well,” Edson said, “today we had a great time counting by twos to the tune of ‘I Feel Good,’ a James Brown song.  Then I’ve been receiving several bouquets of flowers, and we’re studying about insects; we’re doing a big project on insects called Six Legs over Georgia.”

Lehrer asked, “Do your students know you won the Pulitzer Prize?”  Yes, said Edson.

Lehrer asked, “Do they care?”

“Well,” said the playwright/teacher, “we talk a lot about manners and feelings and courtesy and thoughtful gestures.  So, they all came up to me and said congratulations.  And I said thank you.  They said you’re welcome.”

Today she adds, “ … The contribution I want to make now I want to make in the classroom.  The difference between teaching and playwriting is not incomprehensible to me; they’re not so different.  They both create a public event that leads to understanding.”

During what I consider my “golden age of teaching” with a team of middle school teachers, we often would say as we left the hall to enter our classrooms, “Showtime!” We meant it.  No Pulitzers for us, but it’s gratifying that a prizewinner joined the ranks and sees the connection.




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