"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." - William Shakespeare As You Like It
I have been on stage for around seven years, adjusting lines and scenery as my audience required. As I unlock my doors for my morning students, I walk through the stage door to a practiced scene, but unfamiliar audience ambiance.
I know little about how the audience's night was or whether or not they just has a run in in some sort of negative social media. I do not know how their emotional state will change the lines in the scene that I created and so desperately want to get through. In my open lines I quickly have to assess the audience and determine how my minute by minute play will go. When the bell rings, I will do the same thing all over again...assessing, acting, assessing, adjusting...and again and again until the final bell rings which signals my curtain call.
My acting abilities are generally on point. I can walk on stage and leave the world behind me so that I can focus on my current audience and provide them with my best performance. In the recent weeks, however, I have been made more of aware of the difficulties as a performer because of a personal family tragedy.
In the middle of February my stepfather went missing in the delta. My immediate response was to search for him and determine what exactly happened. On an early Tuesday morning, I called the Sheriffs department to file a missing person report which led into scheduling a time to meet at the marina. After my phone call with the authorities, I called my go to colleague to let him know what was going on and to ask for help in coordinating the coverage of my classes. My next step was to email our secretary, which led into a phone call. Once the logistics of class were taken care of, I quickly got my children to school and drove down to the marina.
A single day at the marina investigating possibilities turned into a second day with a dive team and cadaver dogs. Two days turned into three, and ultimately four until we received a late night phone call telling me they had "recovered" him. This whirl world life changing moment for my family has sent a shock through our system. Not only did it affect my family, but also my classroom.
Students knew on day one I was out because of a family emergency, but they were told I would be back the following day. When day two folded into day three students began to get worried and started texting and emailing me. I called the admin team and asked them to notify my students, without details, that I had a passing in the family and I would return to work on Monday.
As my weekend turned into the work we have to do when there is a death, my emotions ranged from sadness to anger to confusion to anxiety with going back to the classroom. How was I supposed to act with this horrific thing going on offstage? How was I supposed to go into a room full of young and innocent children and pretend that my life changing event would have no impact on my ability to say the correct lines or provide the right emotion? How was I going to hold it together for an entire day's worth of performance?
I decided to arrive to school earlier than usual on Monday morning to acclimate to this other world that I had left behind for a week. One of my admins came in to check on me, which I was thankful for, just to make a human connection and bridge my home life with my stage life. Tears welled up in my eyes as she said her condolences and asked how I was holding up. It was then I realized my stage world and home life could not exist separately in this situation. Here was my lesson.
As my audience filtered in with their empathetic eyes and "how are you doing?" or "we missed you so much!" calls, I decided to break the fourth wall and be both Mrs. Baldwin and Melissa the daughter for a moment. The bell rang. I calmly welcomed students and thanked them for their concerns. I asked them if the admin had let them know what had happened, they said "yes."
I then told them that I was sad and that my family was sad. I told them thank you for the emails and text messages and apologized that I couldn't be there with them last week. I told them "Some days may be a little difficult for me" or "I may not always be on point". They said they understood.
I then told them that I was going to be okay even though I didn't feel like I was okay right now. This profound moment of bridging two worlds is one of the more genuine and real moments I have had in my teaching career. I felt a great responsibility to not perform this part of my act. I couldn't perform happiness or joy--it's in-authenticity would have garnered a worst review than my being authentic, real, human.
And although I am still grappling with the reality of my loss and processing what has happened over the last few weeks, I now know the need to model how to grieve and how to move on to my students.
In the week following my return, one student came up to my desk and asked me "Mrs. Baldwin how do you deal with something tragic?"
My response (trying not to cry), "I just have to take it moment by moment."
He then said, "Well, I am dealing with something too...my brother was shot last night."
Wow. A moment where curtains fall, scenery no longer matters, and costumes have no meaning.
"I am so sorry. Have you talked to anyone on campus, or does anyone else know?"
"No. But I am having a hard time thinking in class."
"Of course. Let me make a phone call and get you set up with the social worker on campus."
He left my class and didn't return for several days. When he did, I asked him how his family was doing and how his brother was--he then told me his brother ended up passing away and his family was now in the process of figuring out funeral arrangements.
The moments I have been afforded as a teacher, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a niece, a granddaughter, and a friend are ones that give meaning to my play. It is in these moments where kindness and generosity and genuineness and grace and understanding and love have all been more important than what line was missed or what costume lacked pizzazz. These are the moments that matter to the last syllable of recorded time. These are the moments that level the elevation between stage performer and audience and bring true meaning to our time spent chasing the traveling lamp.