Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Scene of the Crime

It was the summer of 1994. We had watched O.J. Simpson on the L.A. Freeways in his white Bronco. I spent ten days in Boulder Colorado then, and I've returned for the first time since. Those ten days were a turning point in my life and my career. As I sit here in the University Center at a public computer terminal, I am astonished by how much and what I remember--and don't remember.

As my friend Terri and I drove into campus, I remembered the architecture--mostly modern, lots of beautiful sandstone and red tile roofs. I didn't remember the campus layout, or where the music building is (except that it was close to the University Center. I saw it on our first walk around). I rediscovered the big dining room in the UC. As I stood in the doorway, I remembered, in detail, two events.

The first memory, from 1994, was a breakfast with my roommate, Deb. She said quietly, "MaryBeth, don't look now, but there's a guy sitting two tables over who is a dead ringer for Kurt Russell." I discreetly looked over. "Yeah, maybe a little." I was skeptical. "But if that's him, then the blonde he's with would be. . ." The busy dining room grew still, as gradually the other sleepy diners awoke to recognition. A fan intruded, approaching them for an autograph. And then, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, and her college-aged son, got up and left the building. They looked like normal, casual parents in for a school weekend. So ordinary, yet so thrilling! One of my few celebrity sightings, and very memorable.

The second memory was after the first morning at work. Two colleagues and I taught voice lessons every morning as part of an internship sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Our mentor and master teacher was Thomas Houser, who observed us in action and then would give us feedback. We were very eager to impress him, and showed off all our best stuff. We instructed our students to sing elaborate scale passages and vocalises to assess their range, tone quality, and level of ability, and began trying to make some progress with them. Afterwards, Thom said, to the effect, "All righty then. Let's go to lunch and talk."

We walked over to the cafeteria in the UC and entered by the doorway where I now stood. We selected our lunch items and Thom picked up the tab. As we sat down and settled in to receive what we knew would be our "rave reviews," Thom began to speak. "Years ago, I had an opportunity to meet with an extraordinary educator by the name of Moshe Feldenkrais," he said. "And so, one day, I asked him, 'What do you think it is that makes someone an effective teacher?" Thom paused for a moment to compose his approximation of what I would later understand to be a thick Israeli accent. "And he said, 'Thom, first of all, you must give them something they can't f*!% up."

Well, that story got our attention, and it has stuck with me for the past fourteen years. I doubt that I am likely ever to forget it. Thom set the stage to tell us that our lessons were indeed impressive, that we were all bright and talented. And, we had completely missed the point. We were focused on ourselves, and what we wanted to teach, instead of on what the student wanted -- or needed -- to learn. Thom was direct, and immensely kind, and hilarious. He created an opening for us to have an experience of truly listening to each other and to our students. That conversation transformed my entire world view for how I wanted to work with people: to create conditions where they could be successful, rather than following a system where all but those who didn't need me would fail.

Boulder, Colorado. For me, this is what my dad would have called "the scene of the crime." (He used to say that whenever we drove past the church in Joliet, Illinois, where he and my mother were married.) This is where IT all started for me. Where I first heard the name of Moshe Feldenkrais, and first experienced his amazing work through Awareness Through Movement. Being here again, fourteen years later, I can access many sensory memories: dry air, working harder in the higher altitude, the light, the nearness of tears at that time in my life. I remember few facts, maps, or names of restaurants. I continue to feel my way through my experience here, then and now, extremely grateful for the learning.

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