As the school year winds to a close, it’s only natural for me to reflect upon memorable moments I’ve had in my career as an educator. I recently got to share one of these moments at an Arizona Storyteller’s event, a moment I will share with you all here and now.
Early in my teaching career, a mentor teacher showed me and my peers a montage of film clips from inspiring “teacher” movies: To Sir, With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Stand and Deliver, and, of course, Dead Poets Society. We all remember the finale scene when Ethan Hawke hops up on his desk, calling out “O Captain! My Captain!” to Robin Williams. After viewing the clips, our mentor said to us, “If you got into this career so you could have moments like that, forget it. That level of validation almost never happens.” The rational part of my brain thought, “Well, of course not,” while the sentimental part of my heart said, “Aw! I was looking forward to that.”
In 2003, I was hired as a Theatre Arts teacher. It’s sort of like being a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwartz. The people who get into it think they want to do it because it sounds really cool, but then they end up suffering some kind of disaster. Okay, it’s not like that all, but I digress. Teaching theater was why I got into the business. It was an opportunity to take my very specific degree (I have a BA in Directing) and apply it to a real grown-up job. It was the hardest job I ever loved. My first production went up. After weeks of rehearsals, set building, costume gathering, and everything else, it was time to open. The cast had gathered in the green room for their preshow rituals. It was only a matter of time before they would turn to me, seeking words of wisdom. I had nothing. In all my preparation, I had no idea what to say to this kids that would inspire… anything… Finally, they turned to me, and I said,
“In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight;
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s Light!”
I had just given the oath of the Green Lantern Corps as my pep talk. Nobody questioned it. They went out and had a good show. On night two, I said to them, “Good opening night. Let’s go out there and do it again. ‘In brightest day, in blackest night… ‘” By night three, they were expecting it. By night three, I was wearing the Green Lantern ring, and some of them were saying the oath with me.
This became our tradition. This belonged to us. Every show, every performance, the kids eagerly anticipated the ring. They all reached for it as they circled around me and we chanted the oath together. Some kids could never remember all their lines, but they learned that oath!
Why Green Lantern? To be a Green Lantern, one must be fearless, honest, and limited only by their imagination. The perfect criteria for an actor, I’d say. Fearless. What’s scarier than getting up on stage in front of people? Honest. Any actor worth their salt brings a lot of truth to their character. Limited only by imagination. Theater is ALL imagination. So this moment of panic turned into a legitimate message of encouragement.
For eight years, I carried on this tradition. I took these kids along for my journey.
But like all journeys, I eventually arrived at my destination.
In 2011, I was informed that there would be staff changes and that I would no longer be heading up the theater program. This was not a punishment of any kind but rather a complicated logistical solution. I grieved for the loss, but in my heart, I knew it was time to go. I only asked that I be allowed to tell my students at my own time.
In May of that year, after carrying this secret for two months, it was time to share this news. At our final awards ceremony, as I was giving my parting thoughts, I told them that I would no longer be their theater teacher. I brought out the ring and reminded them of our tradition. It was at that moment when one student stood up and said, “Mr. Duncan! Could we all come on stage and say the oath with you one last time?” They joined me on stage, and we shared in that ritual, knowing it would never happen again.
I’ve moved on to teaching other subjects and other pursuits. I left that position with no regrets. Whenever I have any moment of doubt, I go back to those moments with the Green Lantern ring. Every time they reached for it, every time they said those words with me, they were saying, “thank you.” They were saying that what I did mattered, and that I may have touched a life here and there.
And while it may never happen again, I can say that I had my “O Captain! My Captain!” moment.