Teaching can be treacherous if you don’t understand right from the start that your job is to facilitate discussions and get out of the way of the real teaching going on between students. Today, I am reminded of one student who taught me the power of a simple staple.
I gave an assignment: Design the set for Antigone.
That was the entire instruction for my first year theatre students. I gave them no other direction. I wanted their imagination and intention to take over. I also knew many of my students were poor and couldn’t afford proper materials to construct a traditional set design.
Some students race to victory with that sort of freedom; other students ask questions before they realize no extra information will be forthcoming; a few students are completely lost.
In focusing on the lost, I try to free them from the boundaries that confine them: They are afraid of doing the wrong thing, of making a mistake, or of looking foolish in front of their peers. They crave frames. They demand context. They do not do well set out in the creative world on their own.
One particular student — who could not make a single independent decision without first asking for my approval — was getting more frustrated by the minute as I gave her the freedom to use crayons or foam core or paint cans or Lincoln Logs or Legos or rubble from the street to create her set masterpiece.
Anything she proposed was fine with me — even when she goaded me with the possibility of using dried dog poop in her design: “Okay,” I answered, “As long as you wash your hands after.”
“You’d take a set made out of dried dog poop?” she incredulously asked.
“Sure. As long as you can defend the choice!”
The class laughed and so did she.
As the other students began to draw and think out loud about designing their set, my Dog Poop adversary sat there — round in face and body and circular in thinking — and just stared at me with blank, round, eyes.
I smiled at her, “There’s no wrong answer. Just think of something.”
She replied with a huff and a tapping foot and she never took her eyes off me as I paced the room.
The next day, when the projects were due, and the public presentations were given to the entire class, there were several Antigone sets that shone bright as the sun. One student created a life-sized set with stuffed animals and chairs. Another student made a mini-diorama with Christmas lights and Play-Doh. A student of architecture created robust pencil drawings of every scene change in the play.
Then it was time for Dog Poop to give her presentation.
She shuffled to the front of the room, plopped down a piece of used graph paper on the table and set about opening a box of regular paper staples and carefully set the rows of staples on the graph paper in various positions.
“This is the main wall in the public square,” she mumbled as she piled one row of staples atop another.
“Here’s the gate,” as she angled a row of staples outward from the previous row.
“A bench with spars.” One overturned row of staples was carefully placed on the edge of the paper.
Then she looked at me and put her hands on her round hips. She was finished. She was waiting for my explosion.
“What, no dog poop?” I asked.
The class laughed. She shook her head and pointed to her set. “Staples. That’s all I got.”
There were a few mocking giggles from the other students.
Dog Poop had become Staple Girl.
I turned back to Staple Girl and asked why she chose to use staples for her set design.
“Because,” she said, “they’re a universal form. Recognizable shape. Everybody knows what a staple looks like.”
“You’re going to have a set make of giant staples?!” one student shouted from the back of the room.
The class erupted into laughter.
Staple Girl crossed her round arms and began to turn red in her round face.
“You said there was no wrong answer,” she said as she wagged a round finger at me.
“I did. There’s nothing wrong with a set made of staples.”
“There isn’t?” She asked.
“No. As long as you can defend it.”
“I think I did.”
“I think you did, too.”
Staple Girl smiled, picked up her staples, and sat down.
I watched her take in the work of the other students during their presentations while she played with the staples in her hand.
Staple Girl received an “A” grade for her Antigone set presentation that day. She thanked me in email later that night.
The next class, Staple Girl came up to me and showed me a new Antigone set she designed — this time it was created with construction paper, paint and miniature dollhouse furniture — and my heart fell a little bit that the radical has been sopped out of her by watching the presentations of the other students.
“I just wanted you to see that I could do it like the others did,” she explained, “I didn’t want you to think I was stupid.”
“I never thought that.”
“I know, but still, I wanted you to know that I know I can do it now.”
“A set made of staples is stupid,” she said, “I know that now, but I didn’t know it yesterday.”
“Okay,” I replied — I didn’t want to disagree with a justification that was important to her: She wanted to fit in.
I was a little disappointed, though, and a bit hurt, that my Staple Girl had been tampered down into the ordinary by imitating the work of the other students.
“We won’t tell anybody else, though, okay?” She asked. “It’ll be out secret.”
“Okay,” I replied and forced a smile as she turned away and took her seat in the front row.
I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness in the loss of ingenuity and a tempering of imagination in the voluntary bartering down of values between a set of staples and one made of cardboard.
My last hope was that one day she would find a way to follow her own gut and honor her first instinct — because the real genius in Staple Girl was really in her first, rejected, idea.
Knowing that dried Dog Poop was still somewhere in her gave me a quiet reassurance that the real genius of her was still alive and just waiting for the right moment to poke out again and shock the world.