Bad Polonius

I have a friend who teaches acting. Part of his process is to put his students on camera and then show them their performances — monologues and that sort of thing — which helps, or is supposed to help, their on-camera work. He did this for a male student a few years ago who was performing a monologue from a David Mamet play — one of those tough-guy parts — and when they reviewed the tape he asked the student, So, what do you see? And the student sighed and said, Honestly? When I look at myself all I see is the gay.

Movies about teachers follow a familiar pattern. There’s usually a misunderstood student struggling with something. A collection of evil students and administrators. And one thoughtful, encouraging, life-changing teacher who helps the student see and do and feel whatever it is that the student is supposed to see and do and feel in the third act.

In other words, movies about teachers are really movies about students, which is probably one of the reasons it’s such a hard thing to be a teacher — you’re never the star of the movie, you’re the plot device getting the star to the big scene.

But in each of those teacher movies, it’s taken as a given — and sort of necessary for the story to work — that the student or students in question are really exceptional somehow. That they’ve got some unique talent or ability that’s buried in fear or social invisibility or something like that. All students, everyone, has magic inside them, is the message of these movies. It just takes a certain special kind of teacher to inspire it to come out.

Again, it’s the student who is the star. The student who has the magic. The teacher is just there to kick them where they need to be kicked and say, now get out of here and change the world, or something — that’s terrible dialogue but you know what I mean.

But in real life, if we’re really being honest, every student and every person is not some undiscovered creative maestro. In the movies the young poet is always piercing and aflame with talent. The young dancer is closet prodigy. The science kid is an Einstein. The actor is an Olivier. That’s the movies.

In real life — well, let me not generalize. Let me get specific: in my real life, in my experience, doing plays in high school and a few in college, well, we weren’t very good. Some of us, sure, but it wasn’t like there was some hidden cauldron of genius burning deep inside. Just go to a high school production of any play that includes a character older than 40 and watch the kids hobble around with a fake reedy voice and clouds of cornstarch billowing from their heads and you’ll know what I mean.

Which means that teaching drama — and probably teaching anything — means you have to see past all of the terrible poetry and the bad acting and the general incompetence of your students and see what might be there. To be really good at the job, I think, you have to see talents that aren’t there.

And that brings me to Tim Hillman, who was a teacher of mine when I was in high school. He saw in us — and in me — things that probably weren’t there. My performance as Polonius in our production of Hamlet — imagine that! Hamlet! In high school! — was about one third Thurston Howell the third and two thirds the guy from the old Pepperidge Farm commercial, but Tim — and we called him Tim, because, well, theater teacher — was a powerhouse of encouragement and enthusiasm and had a big loud booming voice and sometimes that’s all you really need in a teacher, even if you’re not a very good Polonius. Especially if you’re not a very good Polonius.

Tim Hillman died last week. I wish I had thanked him for being so positive about my terrible Polonius, but he probably would have looked at me, baffled, and told me that I’m remembering it wrong. That I was awesome. He’s the one who would be remembering wrong, which is one of the many reasons why he was a great teacher, and why I remember him now exactly as he was.

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