Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

A Bridge to Words

Hilaire Belloc’s “Rebecca,” illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

To a small child, the pages of a newspaper are enormous. Looking far back through the years, I see myself, not yet school age, trying to hold up those long, thin sheets of newsprint, only to find myself draped in them, as if covered by a shroud. But of course, back then, my inability to hold a newspaper properly was of little consequence. Even if I could have turned the pages as gracefully as my parents did, I couldn’t decipher the black marks on the page; thus, my family’s ritual reading of the newspaper separated them from me. As the youngest and the only one who couldn’t read, I was left alone on the perimeter to observe. My family’s world of written words was impenetrable; I could only look over their shoulders and try to imagine the places where all those black marks on the page had carried them—these people, my kin, who had clearly forgotten that I was in the room.

My sister, who was three years older, had her very own news source: The Mini Page, a four-page miniature paper that arrived at our house as an insert in the Sunday edition. While our parents sat in their easy chairs poring over the state and local news, my sister, Jo, perched at the drop-front desk and occupied herself with articles, puzzles, and connect-the-dots.

Carl Anderson’s Henry

Finally, one Sunday, someone noticed me on the margin and led me into our family’s reading circle. Whether it was one of my parents or my sister, I don’t know. I remember only the gesture and the words: someone handing me the Sunday comics and saying, “You can read part of the funny pages, too. You can read Henry.”

I took the giant page and laid it flat in the middle of the oval, braided rug on the floor of the den. Once I situated the page, I lay on top of it with my eyes just inches above the panels of the comic strip. To my parents, my prone position was a source of amusement, but for me it was simply a practical solution. How else was someone so small supposed to manage such a large piece of paper?

As I lay on the floor and looked at the comic strip’s panels, I realized what the voice had meant. I could “read” Henry, the comic with the bald boy in a red shirt, because it consisted entirely of pictures. In between panels of Henry walking, there were panels of him standing still, scratching his hairless head. I didn’t find Henry funny at all. I wondered how that pale forerunner of Charlie Brown had earned a prime spot in the funnies. Still, I was glad he was there. He was the bridge that led me to the written word.

Reading the wordless comic strip Henry for the first time was the beginning of a years-long habit of stretching out on the floor with newspapers and large books—not thick ones but ones that were tall and wide, among them one of my childhood favorites: The Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense. My sister and I spent hours lying on our bedroom floor, the pink shag carpet tickling our legs as we delighted in the antics of Rebecca, the mischievous title character of one of the poems.

“Rebecca”—which my sister read to me before I could read it myself—introduced me to the word “abhors,” the very sound of which appealed to me. Sometimes before Jo had finished reading the opening lines, my uncontrollable giggles collided with her perfect mock-serious delivery. As the last word in the first line, “abhors” serves as a lead-in to an enjambment: the continuation of a sentence or clause in a line break. It would be years before I learned the term “enjambment,” but I was immediately swept away by its effect in the opening lines: “A trick that everyone abhors/ In Little Girls is Slamming Doors” (Belloc 61). The first line lured me into the second one, and so on and so on. I was drawn both to the individual word “abhors”—with its side-by-side “b” and “h,” rare in English—and the way the words joined, like links in a chain, to yank me giggling through Rebecca’s cautionary tale:

It happened that a marble bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the door this little lamb
Had carefully prepared to slam,
And down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral sermon (which was long
And followed by a sacred song)
Mentioned her virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her vices too,
And showed the dreadful end of one
Who goes and slams the door for fun. (61)

Why these particular early memories visit me now, I don’t know. Perhaps rereading Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir, Maus, with my students has roused the wordless Henry and the word-filled Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense from the corner of my brain where they’ve slumbered. The former wakes and stretches out in my mind as a bridge to the latter: a spot in the world of words I’ve inhabited ever since.

           Work Cited

Belloc, Hilaire. “Rebecca.” The Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense, edited by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson, Golden Press, 1970, p. 61.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre

María Gringa

I’m standing in the dark with my ear to the curtain, trying not to think about the large stock pot I’m holding, or how easily it could slip from my damp, sweaty hands. I’m trying to block those thoughts with the words that I’m speaking in my mind, over and over, until I hear my cue:

FLORENCE Please ring again.

Cosme rings the bell a second time, on this occasion with more force. After a short pause, the sound of a pan [stock pot] being slammed down is heard off stage. (1.1)

Finally dropping the stock pot offers no relief from my anxiety; instead it heightens it, because it means that I’m closer to saying María’s lines, and closer to the risk that they’ll slip away from me.

FLORENCE Ah, that sounds promising. Here she comes.

María, the Mexican cook and housemaid, enters. (1.1)

I part the curtain and cross into the unknown, a place where I don’t know whether the words that I’ve prepared to say will come to me again, as I, María, approach my boss, Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world. Florence will ask María to bring tea and cake for her and her guest, her soon-to-be accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Disgruntled María savors the opportunity to tell Florence that she doesn’t feel like preparing cake and tea. She’s trying to clean the kitchen, and then she has to clean the carpet because Florence and her guests make such a mess. With what little Florence pays her, Florence can just serve herself. And so María tells her that:

Oh, pastel y te? No me apetece preparar nada para su mariquita. Estoy intentando limpiar la cocina y después tengo que limpiar la moqueta porque sus invitados dejan el apartamento como un cochinero. Con lo poco que me pagan, sírvanse ustedes mismos. (1.1)

I’m speaking the words rapid-fire—not as if I’m reciting lines in a script, but as if I’m someone I’m not: a fluent speaker. But no hablo español.

The rush that comes with being in the moment fades as I exit. My next line will be far shorter than the first, but as I wait backstage for my cue, I will be holding something far heavier than a stock pot: a large serving tray with a teapot, two teacups, a plate with a slice of cake, plus napkins and cutlery.

As I hold the tray, my hands begin to sweat again, and I’m trying not to think about how easily I could lose my grip (in more ways than one).  I’m trying to block that thought by mouthing my next line, one with a phrase that’s particularly hard for me to say. I think that saying luego me vuelvan (then come back) means voicing consonant clusters that aren’t common in English. But don’t take my word for it. This gringa’s no linguist.

Then once again I’m on stage, speaking the words rapid-fire, blasting through luego me vuelvan as if it’s second nature, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. And again the anxiety returns as soon as I exit. Despite the apparent ease of what I’ve done onstage, backstage I will always believe—throughout the entire three-week, ten-performance run—that the lines are about to slip away from me.

Why would anyone put herself through that?

The truth is, I almost didn’t.

It wasn’t the part I’d auditioned for, but that’s not the reason I was hesitant to say yes. Instead, I was reluctant because I believed that audiences would find me utterly unconvincing as a maid from Guadalajara. And I imagined that the same audiences that would bristle at the sight (and sound) of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed María would also be indignant at the director’s decision to cast an actor who wasn’t Latina.

Recently I was reminded of my reluctance to play María when my composition students and I were studying the essay “Always Living in Spanish,” in which Marjorie Agosín meditates on the vital need of writing in Spanish as a way to hold onto her native Chilé.  

As I gazed at the thumbnail photograph of Agosín on the page of the textbook, I asked myself: Would you have been so hesitant to accept the role of María if you’d known of this fair-skinned, blue-eyed Latina?

Writing of her perilous circumstances as a child who’d fled her home country, Agosín observes: “Daily I felt the need to translate myself for the strangers living around me, tell them why we’re in Georgia, why we are different, why we had fled, why my accent was so thick, and why I did not look Hispanic” (80).

Though I have experienced nothing remotely close to Agosín’s peril, backstage as María, I felt the weight of her words: “I had left a dangerous place that was my home, only to arrive in a dangerous place that was not” (80).

The stage is always a dangerous place, but accepting a role in another tongue meant venturing out of the dangerous place that was my home and into new dangerous territories: a place where some would say I shouldn’t (for lack of authenticity) and another place where some would say I couldn’t (for lack of believability). Those voices ran through my head until the director wore me down.

So this gringa said yes.

For all of my concerns about authenticity and believability, the real danger was the words, themselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that the challenge inherent in learning lines would be compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind, I see a kitchen. When I say cocina, I don’t. For the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation—and I’d kept a transcription with my script—but as a novice speaker, I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers.

I had actually studied Spanish as a high-school and college student, but I conjugated my last Spanish verb more than thirty years ago, and I’d been a mediocre student at best. One of my most vivid memories of high school is a conversation with my Spanish teacher after class. Holding my quiz marked with a red F, he said: “Josefina [my sister, Jo] is so smart. What happened to you?” Would Señor Grave de Peralta have ever believed that theatre-goers would ask, “Are you bilingual?”

I am always grateful for the opportunity to return to the stage. As a nonmusical woman of a certain age, that chance comes all too seldom. Looking back at the months of rehearsal and performance of Glorious!, I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to embody a Guadalajaran. As María Gringa, I became a stranger in a strange and dangerous new place. I not only faced a new challenge as an actor, I also became a better teacher for my students who are non-native speakers. As María Gringa, I gained insight into the fears and anxieties they face when they struggle to make meaning of a series of unfamiliar sounds.

Three months after María Gringa left the stage for the last time, I was cast as an English-speaking French housekeeper. After learning an entire role in a different tongue, learning an accent alone seemed a cinch, though it proved otherwise.

After one of the performances, an audience member who’d also seen me as María Gringa asked me, “What’s your real accent?”

“Eastern North Carolinian,” I said.

He seemed rather disappointed.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. “Always Living in Spanish.” The Norton Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 79-81.

Quilter, Peter. Glorious! Samuel French, n.d.

Posted in Reading, Theatre

“Twelve Angry Men”: A First Reading and a Second Act

In my mind I have traveled back to my tenth-grade English classroom, to a desk where I haven’t sat for more than thirty-five years. Yet despite that temporal distance, parts of that room remain vivid to me: the side-by-side, long, narrow window and back door typical of public high schools built in the early 1970s and the air conditioning unit below the window. It was, in fact, the first public school in our county that was air-conditioned.

The relative smallness of the room seems at odds with the vast worlds of words that opened to me there in the pages of my textbook. I do not remember its title—all of those high-school literature anthologies had the word discovery or horizon in their titles, didn’t they? Though the title escapes me, I can still feel the waxy, uneven texture of the worn cover and the pages softened from semester after semester of students turning to these poems and short stories: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

Why I recall more of those readings from my sophomore year of high school than I remember from the two years that followed, I do not know. Perhaps those poems and stories remain distinct in my mind because I was just starting to enjoy reading again. Books were my constant companions when I was a child, but in junior high I became too restless and distracted for them.

Along with those works of literature that I encountered for the first time in the pages of my sophomore anthology, I also discovered among them, to my surprise, some lines that I knew very well but didn’t expect to see in a textbook: the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” (“Ah, look at all the lonely people / Ah, look at all the lonely people.”)

When Miss Peggy Stanton played “Eleanor Rigby” for us, I thought that she, my staid, middle-aged teacher (probably younger then than I am now) was antithetical to the screaming teenage girls in the footage of Beatles concerts. Miss Stanton was a woman of quiet strength. Childhood polio had left one of her legs shorter than the other, and she wore one shoe with a very thick sole to minimize her limp. I was so fascinated by her physical imbalance, I began to imagine her as a fictional character, a spinster school teacher whose brilliant mind compensated for her impairment.

As I sat in her class and listened to the words of “Eleanor Rigby,” I thought of my own loneliness. I dwelled on its particulars then, not old enough yet to understand that it wasn’t mine alone. But I began to understand something about the universality of our particular human struggles and began to develop my capacity for empathy in those days in Miss Stanton’s class, especially on the days when we turned in our textbook to the pages of Twelve Angry Men.

Though I may have seen the Henry Fonda film before I read the play, my first memory of Twelve Angry Men is reading it aloud in Miss Stanton’s class. I don’t remember which juror I was asked to read. What I remember clearly is holding one firm belief about the nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murdering his father and gradually realizing that what I had viewed as facts were merely suppositions, and that reasonable doubt warranted a verdict of not guilty.

Unlike the other works of literature that I’d read in English class, Twelve Angry Men didn’t dazzle me with poetic language or character development. The jurors spoke plainly. They were numbers without names. But when Juror Eight led his peers to question their assumptions, he led me to question mine. When I was a high school student in the early 1980s, critical thinking wasn’t the pervasive term that it is now in conversations about education. But that’s exactly what I was doing: thinking critically. And I was developing my capacity for empathy as I witnessed Juror Nine explain why he identified with one of the witnesses, an old man whose credibility is called into question:

I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant, old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede in the background . . . . (Rose 36)

That old man was Eleanor Rigby, and so was Juror Nine.

Now, so many years later, I find myself revisiting the play as a reader of a different sort. I am sitting with its lines before me on three-by-five index cards, part of the line-learning ritual that I adopted when I returned to acting in my forties. Back in that tenth-grade classroom, 188 miles and decades away, I see that fifteen-year-old version of myself who had just started acting a year earlier. I am a stranger to her. I, this woman she would become, who would turn away from acting—to focus on college, and teaching, and writing—and then turn back to acting, and fall in love with it all over again, decades later.

As I study my lines, I continue to reflect on first reading Twelve Angry Men and on “Eleanor Rigby,” the two inextricably yoked in my mind—not only because I read them both my sophomore year but also because of their music. In the twelve jurors of Rose’s play, I hear the violins, violas, and cellos of “Eleanor Rigby.” And to be one of Rose’s players, to carry the music of a juror’s voice from page to stage, makes my heart sing.

Works Cited

Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. “Eleanor Rigby.” Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Jurors. 1954. Penguin, 2006.