I received news this week that my former high school drama teacher, Joan Bedinger passed away this week. There is a memorial service in Fairfax, Virginia this Saturday.
If any of my blog readers are former W.T. Woodson people, feel free to e-mail me for directions. I understand there will be a memorial gathering this summer, too, for people who are unable to travel to the memorial service this weekend.
Joan was a creative and unique woman who managed to helped her students excel. She helped forge and create a (sub) community within the high school that provided a sense of belonging and participation during those tumultuous high-school years. While teaching students who were living a period of their lives in which emotions were like roller coasters, Joan managed to be both empathetic and a force of stability. She was the first teacher I ever counted a friend, and I recall going to her house at least once to watch the Redskins--a passion we both shared.
One conversation that I remember making an impression on me was when we were talking about athletes "hanging on" and she chided me (gently) for not realizing how hard it can be to give up something that has been a part of your life for so long. Without making too fine a point of it, she also related the conversation to a mutual acquaintance and helped me see that person in a new light.
Joan gave out an annual award for outstanding achievement in drama once a year to a graduating senior, and I was honored to receive that recognition in 1984. She chose me as her assistant director for the play "Barnum" that year, and I always appreciated that she was willing to delegate responsibility to students who were ready to take it.
I kept an informal correspondence with her for many years after high school, but it became harder as our circles grew apart and she had new students to nurture and teach. The last time I saw her was at a movie theater in Fairfax where she was screening the film "Chocolat" with an acquaintance. She had since retired from Woodson but was doing some community theater because it was her passion.
One thing I learned under Joan's tutelage was the importance of trying to take people as you find them and let them be who and what they are. I was newly religious in that phase of my life, and I sometimes found it odd to be hanging out with a bunch of drama freaks led by a chain-smoking, no-nonsense woman who praised students for expanding their horizons, taking risks on stage, and capturing and living in the "moment" (one of her favorite words).
I had several breakthrough moments as a performer in her classes--playing a heroin addict going through withdrawal in a play whose name I now forget1; playing a fiercely independent blind man who had to learn to let his guard down just a little in Butterflies are Free; learning to use my budding writing talent to capture emotional truths without hiding behind my intellectual ability.
When I graduated from Woodson in the spring of 1984, I was seriously thinking of majoring in drama in college. By the time I arrived at Mary Washington in autumn, I had turned a corner and realized almost completely on my own that drama had been something for that phase of my life but was not a career goal. (Believe it or not, I realized even at age 18, that I longed for a career in which I could be mutually supportive of my colleagues and friends and not always be in competition for the same roles. While all jobs have some competition for promotion, the dividing and isolating power of that competition seemed especially prevalent in drama, and I sensed that my desire to make connections and be supportive would consume me and exhaust me if I devoted myself to a field where so many people needed that and could not reciprocate.) Nevertheless the things I learned from Joan's classes would serve me well in education. Teaching has elements of performance in it, and the confidence one learns from performing is a crucial skill necessary for public speaking, presentations, and preparation.
If, as Azar Nafisi said in Reading Lolita in Tehran, to leave a place is to learn to mourn for the person you once were while you were there, to mourn a person so strongly attached in your memory to a particular time and place in your life is to remember the role that another had in helping the person you once were become the person you now are. One can say truthfully of everyone one meets, "I would not be the same person I am today if I had not met her" for every moment and relationship leaves a mark on your soul. Some marks are deeper than others and some, while not as deep, are counted precious for other reasons. I'm a better person for having been taught by Joan, and that's saying a lot.
1 (Later edit). I believe the title was A Hatful of Rain.