Saturday, March 29, 2008

That Was Then...

...this, as the saying so rightly points out, is now.

I recently blogged about the passing of my former drama teacher, Joan Bedinger. The combination of her passing and the greetings from some people I haven't heard from in ages (Alan Eisenberg's got a very interesting and educational blog about resources for thinking about and dealing with bullying here) put me in a bit of a nostalgic mood and I went rooting around the attic today to find my box of scrapbook stuff from high-school and earlier.

Here's a great picture I found of Joan:

It was weird going through the scrapbook, in some ways painful (high school was by no means the "best years of [my] life") but also oddly instructive. Here are a couple of random thoughts that passed through my mind:

Man, this seems like a LOOOOOONG time ago. That could be, perhaps, because it was. I was trying to think when was the last time I seriously sat down and looked at these pictures, and wondered if it had been decades. I guess that's one difference between being young and middle aged. It used to be that the only things I could measure in decades were future things. Past things were always measured in days, months, or years.

I remembered I had a letter from Joan when I graduated. It was weird to read it and think that she was now dead. An even more strange feeling came when, going through the scrapbook, I found a second letter, one she sent to me while I was at college. It said that she missed having me around and hoped she would see me when I was next in the area, that she was and had always been a poor letter writer, but that she thought of me often and looked forward with pleasure to being able to catch up with each other's lives soon.

I suppose, looking back, that there was a part of me that was paradoxically jealous of and suspicious of her friendship. Sure, the inner cynic whispered in my ear, Joan said I was unique, and special, but she probably says that to everyone. Was she my friend, I sometimes wondered, or a cult-like personality who was collecting followers who could easily be replaced?

Memory is this bizarre thing. I had sort of constructed this memory of my college years of my making the effort to go back when the school had a show, to correspond, to visit when I was in town...My recollection was that these efforts were always appreciated but seldom reciprocated. I wondered now, as I re-read the second letter if that were only a partial truth. I tried hard to think back twenty some years and see if I could really remember not just my impressions but actual events. As with any friendship that ends not through conflict and/or a particular catalyst but through gradual drifting apart, thinking about this one was, admittedly, painful, and I think I understand that some of my revisionist memories might have been simply to dull that bittersweetness by focusing on those parts of the process I was not (or did not feel) responsible for.

Of course, my perspective is not only changed now by the fact that I am older but also that I am a teacher. While there are great spiritual and psychological rewards for teaching--my students enlighten me and enrich my life (okay, maybe not all of them but many of them)--there is also a painful truth that I understand now that I didn't then: if the best teachers are the ones who are willing to teach within the context of a personal relationship, a good teacher is forever investing herself or himself into relationships, the majority of which are not permanent--in people who grow up, move away, move on (and rightly so) to the next stages of their lives.

In this sense teaching can be analogous in some ways to parenting. I found some old programs for plays I was in while in high-school, and I was reminded through the program notes of how many of my fellow students used to call Joan "mom" and how I used to roll my eyes at that practice finding it unprofessional and too "familiar." A number of my fellow students also called her "Joan," which I could never bring myself to do, either, because it felt disrespectful; it wasn't and wouldn't be right for my particular idiom (pun intended). But I realize now that this practice was not necessarily a sign of brazen disrespect for her position nor of cheeky familiarity; it was--or at least could be--one of the higher forms of respect.

I also realize now that friendship isn't a zero-sum game. It isn't as though the meaningful friendships she had with other colleagues and students somehow diminishes the importance of the friendship she had with me. Actually, in my experience, the opposite is true--philia, like agape, enlarges a person rather than diminishes her; as we give, we grow and have more to give. I think now that the friendship she received back not just from me but from others no doubt enlarged and encouraged and sustained her to be able to give to the constant new stream of people in her life. Perhaps a better, more fitting legacy for such a friend would be to focus less on trying to figure out how special or unique our friendship was but on how typical it think not about how special I must have been to deserve special friendship from amongst the sea of faces but about how special she must have been to be able to befriend so many.

The final thing I think about in reviewing my scrapbook is that I like that she is smiling. I was such a serious person in high school:

Things that had happened to me growing up...early exposures to violence and death probably influenced me more than I knew and taught me to look at the world as place where bad things happened. I think that's contributed to the fact that I've always been both drawn to and judgmental of people who are capable of enjoying life. I don't just mean hedonists or epicures, and I certainly wasn't cognizant at that time that I might tend to look down on such people because I envied their ability to enjoy life and not merely because they were all superficial. (I guess I thought I was superior to them on some level...I had faced reality...they would find out soon enough things were not all strawberries and cream.) I remember I didn't take a curtain call for the play I assistant-directed my senior year. I no doubt was suspicious of the transiency of happy moments and protective of my dignity and the decorum of the situation. I didn't like how the closing nights would be mawkish and the rhetoric would be inflated. Joan didn't force the routine on me, but she did let me know (in friendship) that she thought I was being stupid. "You worked hard," she said (or words to that effect), "why not enjoy your moment?"

One has to stop and smell the flowers now and then, and, you know, if they smell good, it won't kill you to smile at the pleasure of it.

I'm smiling now, mom.


peter said...

Who's the surly-looking kid with all the hair?

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

I don't know.

Rumor has it he may be the most talented actor-writer-director in the long and storied history of the prestigious W. T. Woodson High School drama department.

Darren said...

Ken, I really enjoyed reading this post and recognized a lot of myself in it. Those two photos are really great, too. That shot of you looks like a still from a John Hughes movie.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Thanks, D.

Alan said...

Wow, that got to me. Really, it did, believe it or not, Ken. The words you put in this post here are very powerful and direct. I can only assume that was the intent. And the picture of the high school boy is still all too familiar to me. While it seems like a long time ago for you, for many reasons it feels like yesterday to me.

Maybe that is the difference between feeling happy during high school and feeling the way you point out from your perspective. I still recall going to play Frisbee Golf at Burke Lake, going to the Arcade down the street and one time, during his freshmen year, driving to Mary Washington to visit that person in the picture.

It's very strange for me to realize that 24 years have gone by since those days. But alas, it has...

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Thanks, Alan.

Time, like memory is a weird thing, and while I think it's never just one thing, I'm certain you are right that whether memories are happy, painful or mixed can affect their power and intensity.

I know many people who question the veracity that time heals all things, but in my experience good memories and experiences tend to stay more vivid and bad ones tend to fade. (Assuming, of course, one isn't so stuck dwelling on bad memories that no good experiences can ever take root.)

I suspect, based on your words here and some of what you've written at your own blog, that you are quite right in suggesting that part of what makes it seem closer or farther away is the extent to which the memories were positive ones for you.

I'm pleased, actually, to hear you say that HS was a time of positive memories for you. It reminds me, for one (like Joan's second letter), of some good things that I had forgotten about. It also lets me know that I had a role (pun intended), however small or tangential, in helping make HS a much more pleasant experience for you than middle-school.

And I still play disc golf, by the way. It's very, very strange to me how certain holes at Burke Lake remind me of particular people. Next time I'm in NoVa we should go out and shoot a round.

Alan said...

I would like nothing more than to play another round of disc golf with you. I still have the Disc that Dave Clayborn gave me way back when. I've been waiting to pull it out of the mothballs for just such an "moment". Call me when you get to town.