Sunday, May 27, 2007

From Zero to Murder Mystery in 21 hours

(reflections following four successful performances of UNDER THE SURFACE, a one-act murder mystery written by the actors and yours truly, their director.)

I've wanted to write a murder mystery since I was a fifth grader discovering "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" thirty-seven years ago. Thanks to my eighth grade drama class, I've now had that experience, and it was at least as much fun to create one as it is to read one.

It's my custom to start each eighth grade class by commissioning the students to write their own play, to be around forty-five minutes long, to involve everyone as a character, not to be mere take-offs of movies or other "given" characters, and not to contain elements that would get me fired.

This group quickly gravitated to the idea of writing a murder mystery, the first of my classes to do so. We started with little more than the name of a victim, "Lily," and the notion that she was last seen at a lake, and her body was never found. Soon, we had her social milieu -- twelve friends her age, who have converged on a mountain lake resort town every summer since early childhood. She disappeared at the end of their end-of-the-summer party last summer.

A subset of characters emerged, the "townies" who used to be part of the group, but have been marginalized since the teens grew more aware of social stratification.

Very early on, we discussed the notion of a prank gone wrong. We didn't know what to do with that idea, but we tucked it away. It emerged at just the right moment.

That's all we knew when the class improvised the scene in the anteroom at the funeral home, following the memorial service for Lily. Self-conscious, all the students kept quiet, afraid to say much more than "isn't it sad?" Then one girl startled everyone by saying to one boy, "What are you sad about? You're the reason she's gone!" The play developed from seeds in that one improv.

We filled out depositions on official-looking stationery of the Mountain Lake Resort, NY sherriff's office. Writing as characters, each actor wrote what he or she did on that fateful day in August, in the morning, afternoon, early evening, and at the party. Later, I played "lawyer" for the defense of the prime suspect, and asked for any memories that might exonerate -- or cause problems for -- my client.

I gave my actor / writers some rules of detective fiction:

  • We're looking for someone who has motive, opportunity, and character to commit the crime
  • Everyone is hiding something
  • The prime suspect has to die half way through the story

Actors were asked what they thought about Lily's disappearance, and we made a list of those theories. Students were given the assignment to break into pairs and trios, to select activities at different town locations (tennis courts, barber shop, cafe, cabin, beach) where they would argue their different theories. Every reason had with it some memory of an event, and we added flashbacks for those. I asked actors to come up with solid mementos for each memory, and got a letter from Lily, her cell phone, and a ring.

One pair of actors introduced a plot twist: Lily didn't die, but she faked her death to be able to start a new life far away. But she hasn't called her sister recently.

Still, we seemed not to be moving forward in our process of writing the play. All the scenes seemed to be saying the same things over and over again.

With the whole cast assembled, I blacked out the lights in the theatre, except for one circle of light in the center of the floor. I said, "That's the annual bonfire. Okay, go!" Girls chatted about marshmallows, and it was pretty tedious. But each succeeding "take" suggested a new idea, and soon we had a strong scene that included a ghost story, a prank gone wrong, and the topper: discovery of the prime suspect's dead body.

I won't say that the play wrote itself after that. But things clicked into place. We tweaked earlier scenes to lead up to that bonfire.

As director, I had responsibility to come up with the solution to our crime. We had only one more week to rehearse before our first performance, and we still didn't have a final scene.

I felt like we'd written ourselves into a corner. It helped to ask three simple questions: Where did Lily get the money to run away? Why hasn't she called? And who killed her ex-boyfriend at this year's bonfire?

I'll cherish the memory of our class meeting the next week, when I got to do what countless fictional detectives do. "I know who did it -- and he's here among you." Kids saw the logic in the solution, and we went to work making a final scene that would uncover all the secrets.

The hard part was keeping that scene interesting, since it's conducted entirely in past tense, its characters discussing past events. But there's the excitement of discovery to propel them, and we used the technique of flashback to turn narration into action.

Then I did write myself into a corner. We all agreed that the bad guy should set fire to the house bringing his nemesis down with him. How could I possibly have the stage burst into flames, except through some unconvincing light trick?

The solution was already contained in the dialogue: memory of a bonfire prank years ago, when the college-aged characters were mere eighth graders. When the villain ignites the flame, there's a quick blackout and, simultaneously, an off-stage voice yells, "Fire!" Red light floods the stage, and boys rush on, and we gradually realize we're at that bonfire in an earlier, happier time. The last second of the play was the flash photograph of the whole cast smiling for the camera -- eighth graders giving their impressions of college students' impressions of eighth graders!

Watching all the pieces click into place over the last eight weeks (only 21 hours of class time) was immensely satisfying for me, like doing a crossword puzzle, or like seeing my rhymes fit with music.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Nancy Calhoun, Middle School Principal

(remarks for a reception honoring Nancy Calhoun, retiring from the Walker School after thirty-three years' teaching, twenty-three as founding principal of Walker's middle school.)

Today a student pays tribute to Mrs. Calhoun as a teacher, and our headmaster will give his thoughts about Nancy as a colleague and friend. It falls to me, as a member of the faculty in the middle school, to give you the inside scoop on Nancy Calhoun as a boss.

First, you should know that, as a boss, she is strict. That's not to say that she rides us during faculty meetings. She smiles indulgently while we act up like our kids. The girls in the front row pass notes and share candy, the boys in the back throw paper and make wisecracks, and there's always someone to say, "Wait! What are we talking about?" But we can all name the items on a list called Nancy's Non-Negotiables, and we fall in line behind those without question: things like respecting students, keeping parents informed, keeping Nancy informed, and being professional with each other. I've noticed that the list has grown a little since she hired me back in '98.

She's the kind of boss who gets things done. I was told when I started here that Nancy Calhoun always gets what she wants. It's more accurate to say that Nancy always wants what's best for the school, and she has the will and the creativity to get it. We needed room for a music program -- she found space in the gym. She concluded that middle schoolers need single-gender math classes, and she juggled schedules to make it happen. She found the ideal band director who happened to be married to our music teacher, and she convinced the Board of Trustees to change policy. She found the ideal science instructor in England, and she fought the U.S. Immigration Service to keep him.

And, while her faculty is in the classroom helping children to grow, she has made a priority of our professional and personal growth. A few years ago, Nancy instituted book discussions for us -- books about school, but also books about family and personal life. She encourages us to try new methods, or even new fields -- so a former literature teacher now incorporates writing with mathematics; and an art instructor has developed a curriculum for Art History. And just as she shows up to watch our children in countless sports events and plays and concerts to build them up, she writes us very personal notes that show how much she has noticed and appreciated what we do. I was startled in a private meeting with the Headmaster, when he mentioned some things that I'd volunteered to do -- and I realized that Nancy must have been keeping track and telling him. Our dean of students Blair Fisher, at the announcement that he would succeed Nancy, thanked her for seeing leadership potential in him long before he did. And Nancy hasn't stopped educating herself, either -- I know that she began a few years ago to study People magazine cover to cover, when she realized that everyone else already knew who Britney Spears was.

Most of us first met Nancy at our interviews, when it became clear that this boss looks beyond your résumé for one essential quality: to work in Nancy's organization, you have to actually enjoy Middle Schoolers -- in all their potential, and all their intense needs. Then she looks for wide-ranging experience beyond teaching, and interest beyond a subject area. That's why our faculty is so weird, including a math teacher who chases tornados, a science teacher who quotes Chaucer, a Civics teacher who designs websites, a History teacher who writes musicals, and people with backgrounds in business, geology, world travel, parenting, armed services, administration, and showbiz. And when she offered us a position, we all jumped. In fact, Kitty Drew says that she interviewed at another school, where the principal said, "Oh, if you have the chance to work for Nancy Calhoun, take it."

Since this is an insider's view, I bet you all want to know -- out of the public eye, behind closed doors -- is she really so considerate, positive, and well-spoken? Sorry to disappoint any news reporters here, but the answer is, yes, yes, and yes. We can trust that what she says to us face to face is what she believes in her heart, and it's no less than what she says to anyone else. And I bet all of us have had to go behind closed doors with her to confess our own mistakes, and, I, for one, always leave as if I've received absolution from Mother Superior.

These past eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with teachers from Cobb and surrounding counties. I find that, whenever they relax, they talk exclusively about their problems with overbearing and incompetent administrators. Whenever teachers of the Walker middle school relax, we talk about something interesting we've discovered, or ways to reach certain students, or we talk about the arts, or world affairs. I think that says a lot about Nancy Calhoun, the choices she made, the priorities she has set, and the way she leads. And when I tell those public school teachers how we think of Nancy as a colleague, they can't imagine it.

The truth is, we in the Middle School faculty have never referred to Nancy as the Boss. She has been our teacher, and she has been our friend -- and that's the real inside scoop.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blink: How Words Distort Vision

(Reflection after completing the book BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING by NY Times writer Malcolm Gladwell, and a NEWSWEEK review of a book that runs counter to BLINK called HOW DOCTORS THINK, by Dr. Jerome Groopman.)

During our trip to New York, my high school friend Craig Housman bought a pamphlet on throwing playing cards, hoping to be able to slice bread or halt assailants at forty paces with the Queen of Hearts. He was disappointed.

In a way, I kind of hoped that I would finish reading BLINK able to make complex decisions in a single intuitive bound.

With interesting anecdotes propelling the book, each becoming a sort of model, author Malcolm Gladwell seems to move us forward to such a conclusion. Yes, we learn, initial impressions can be right when months of study can go wrong (as in the example of the Getty museum's purchase of an ersatz antiquity on expert advice after initial "repulsion" by "something wrong" with it). But we also see how New York Police, reacting within a matter of seconds to impressions of "something wrong" chased Amadou Diallo, an unarmed and frightened man, to a corner where they shot him to death.

What good is it to know that first impressions are right, except when they're wrong? A new book, HOW DOCTORS THINK, argues in favor of methodical, deliberate decision-making.

To say that Gladwell opposes this would be to caricature his book. Gladwell's stories do share at least one common element. In story after story, experience has taught people things that they cannot put into words. Worse, when they do try to verbalize their insights, the words cause "second thoughts" that actually obfuscate the reality.

There are sports figures who can't explain their own success, or who explain it wrongly (as demonstrated by slow-motion x-ray video of what their bodies are actually doing). . . There's the experienced firefighter who had the sudden intuition "something's wrong here" and ordered men out just before the floor collapsed, but it wasn't until much later, with help, that he realized what had been wrong: experience had taught him to expect more noise and less heat than he was getting from an apparently isolated kitchen fire. . . There are the lab tests that show how something as simple as exposure to a favorable image of black men in authority can undo deep-seated racial stereotyping in black and whites both, and another that measured anxiety in sweat glands and heart rate as subjects chose red cards, long before their conscious minds figured out to flip only blue cards because the red ones were stacked against them.

Gladwell looks at his subject from many angles. He includes a section on a comedy improv team, showing how they rehearse seriously in order to be able to make up thirty minute plays on the spot. One of their rules is to accept what happens in any situation, rather than fighting against it. (114-116). Experience makes the split-second cooperation possible.

Perhaps most interesting is the story of Pentagon maverick Paul Riper's "Red Team" outsmarting a war room full of top brass, confident in their superior numbers, firepower, communications, and strategy. By not using electronic communications, and concentrating force in one direction, Riper "sinks" a dozen ships and "kills" 20,000 Americans before they have the chance to use their big guns. Riper scorns the long decision-making processes instituted at the Pentagon. Too much information, too much intellection, were no match for quick-striking and sly force. Of course, Shakespeare knew this -- see Hamlet.

So, people with experience can trust their unconscious decision-making, unless their vision is blurred by unconscious bias and / or physical panic. A little experience to break stereotypes helps. So does a little bit of time: Gladwell tells how several police forces are now ordering cops to go on patrols solo, because waiting for back up gives them time to get a little more experience with a subject before making a split-second decision that they'll regret. (I won't forget the cop who, finding a black wallet clutched in Diallo's hand, yelled, "Where's the gun?!" and collapsed, sobbing. )

But words create a "verbal shadow" that can alter one's memories and perceptions, while introspection leads to paralysis, death in a fluid military situation.

I've known this a long time. In fact, it's the crux of my senior honor's thesis at Duke University, about Henry James's antepenultimate novel THE AMBASSADOR -- in which the main character Lambert Strether arrives in Paris knowing the truth, then talks himself out of it.