Myself, in-Progress |
by Tyler Russell

The first thing I remember after getting off the subway at Benjamin Franklin High were the eyes on the side of the building. We were just emerging from the snowstorm of the century in Philadelphia, they were calling it Snowpocalypse, and the air that morning was wet and heavy and cold, but those half-lidded mural eyes didn’t blink. There was something calming about that. I was supposed to teach three lessons here over the next three weeks to a 9th grade drama class as part of an urban education course, and I was feeling less than poised. My own education had been decidedly white and suburban, so I didn’t know I would fit in at a center-city public high school, although admittedly, I wasn’t as concerned with race as I was about being genuinely liked. Going into the classroom, I was going to have to present myself to a roomful of students, and truthfully, I was unsure of who I actually was, or who I was supposed to be. But despite this, even though I wanted to turn around and run onto the first train going west, when the light changed I found myself slinging my bag over my shoulder and heading inside.

I was going to teach writing with a piece called A Soldier’s Play as support, instead of the other way around, because I thought this would be more fun. No themes, no motifs, just writing. I had gone through my lesson plan until about midnight the night before, then again over breakfast in the morning. I wanted everything to go perfectly, but even more than that, I felt certain that without a detailed plan of attack I would fail. I wasn’t self-assured enough to actually be the instructor, so I was going to play the part. These were my lines. I couldn’t forget them, or my performance would be unconvincing, like Keanu Reeves. So that morning on the train, I thumbed obsessively through the play, as if there was going to be a test, and almost missed my stop.

I don’t remember much about the beginning of that class. All I do remember is that, despite how consciously I was trying to be loose, trying to be engaging and approachable, I kept thinking that it felt like someone else was moving my arms. I’ve found that sometimes when I’m speaking in front of people I compulsively roll my sleeves up and down, so I was probably doing that too, my brain in a sandstorm anxiety haze. Most of what I know I’ve reconstructed post-mortem from the notes I so carefully memorized. We started with some glassy-eyed objective, briefly illustrate the basic elements of an effective story using examples in A Soldier’s Play, a run-down of the syllabus, and then, as the kids had not had the opportunity to read the play before my lessons started, a synopsis. A colleague had suggested breaking the synopsis down into bite-sized sentences and letting the students read them aloud, so they would be participating and really listening to the summary, not daydreaming or committing any of the other heinous offenses I would undoubtedly have also been guilty of in their spot.

Two nights earlier I had decided that, while they were reading, I was going to stroll up and down the aisles like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, so I was doing that (and doing it well) when we came to the sentence: “In the murder of black sergeant Waters, bigoted white officers become the prime suspects.” I held my breath. I had been nervous about teaching a play centered primarily on issues of black identity, and this was why. I waited for Dao to pick up reading the next line, but he didn’t. The words bigoted white officers hung in the air. I had come to a stop near the back of the room, next to a baby-faced student named Tommy, who sat alone with a row of empty desks marking him off from the rest of the class. He looked up at me, unblinking, caught me glancing at him for a reaction, and spoke for the first time.

“White like you,” he said.

I let out the sound a balloon makes when you try to blow it up and it has a pinprick in it. Tommy just looked at me. I wanted his eyes to go away, for him to blink or turn his head away in embarrassment, anything. But like those eyes plastered across the outside of the building, they didn’t.

I think why what Tommy said bothered me so much was that I didn’t have a response. He had caught the hole in my performance. Actors will you tell you that they don’t even try ad-libbing lines until they know their character from the inside out, until they occupy the very same skin. The same for jazz musicians, who learn every layer of a piece of music before they add that sweet touch of improvisation on top. But because I didn’t know myself well enough, I failed to ad-lib in even the loosest sense of the word. I keep wishing I had come up with something smart to say to Tommy, something quotable, to tell him that no, I was not like the white officers, I was not a racist, and that there was more to me than my whiteness, preferably in a tone that was funny and would find Tommy shaking my hand in that way that turns into a one-armed hug. But I didn’t; I froze. I wanted to be as quick as Briana. When Mr. Mulvey asked Briana why she was daydreaming instead of working on her writing prompt, she snapped back like a pulled rubber band, “I’m buh-rainstorming.” I was envious.

As I started thinking more about this, I began to get really angry with Tommy. How could he not like me? I wished he could have been more like his classmates, like Tiani, who had breathlessly asked the first day if the good news was possibly true, were we really writing? The next three weeks she was attentive and loved me unconditionally and did great things to bolster my self worth with large quantities of praise and spackle. I like that in a student. She didn’t question my race or who I was or anything, but Tommy was like one of those reporters who goes into the hotel rooms with a black light.

I knew that there was a gulf between Tommy and me. A big awkward maw of a gulf made up of all these elements that I, in my compulsive preparation, didn’t know how to do a damn thing about. More fundamental than issues of class and race and age, there were the issues of who Tommy thought I was, and who I thought Tommy was. I am more complicated than a simple white/black binary, I know that. And Tommy knows that he is more complicated than that. But without me telling him, Tommy doesn’t know if I thought that reductively or not, and so maybe he was testing the water.

Then there was who I thought I was and who Tommy thought Tommy was, and I thought, if Tommy is anything like me, if Tommy and I are alike in that simple way that all of us are alike in our pain and our brokenness, then I bet there are times that Tommy is confused about who Tommy is, just like there are times I am confused about who I am. I bet there are days that Tommy is lost and hurt and scared, just like I get, and maybe what we were both saying to each other was, “I don’t even understand me. How the hell can you?”

As I thought and prayed about this over the next few days, I kept coming back to the painfully inconvenient Greek aphorism know thyself. Know thyself, the key to teaching, to self-esteem, to life, really. What a pain in the ass. Sometimes the way I heard this was in a deep, rumbling Don LaFontaine God voice, other times it was the Morgan Freeman one. But near the end, as I really started to crack up, it was in Tommy’s laryngeal half-whisper, the voice of a kid who has maybe known a good amount of pain and yelled too much and now, as the biggest kid in class, is not ignorant of its intimidation factor. It worked on me. Know thyself, he was saying, his face materializing in the bottom of my cereal bowl, all smug and demanding and right.

“What do you mean?” I balked. “Of course I know myself. My name is Ty Russell I am a junior English major at Penn I am from Montoursville Pennsylvania and I am a writer…” and Tommy and Don LaFontaine and Morgan Freeman would say in chorus, “Man, shut up.”

One of my problems is that sometimes I can be reticent. I don’t have quick answers. Usually I’m not confrontational, because confrontation requires a stance, and I need a lot of wiggle room with mine; I tend to approach debates as if they are book reports, and I have only read half of mine. I have very few social or political agendas I feel strongly about, and those I do, like poverty and homelessness, I do not feel strongly about in the bullhorn and a pulpit way, but in the way that I carry two sandwiches with me, just in case.

Sometimes I think to myself that this thoughtful hesitancy is a good thing, like I am really enlightened, and then other times I hate it. Last winter I was assembling a science kit microscope, the weightless plastic kind, for my girlfriend’s daughter. It had two slides you look into with insect wings and snake skin, and after I finally had it all snapped together I insisted on trying to make her wait just one more minute so I could apply the purely decorative labels and decals. Of course she would have none of it. But almost like Rain Man, all I could think about was that I wanted it, like myself, to be perfectly finished.

I’m starting to realize, with more than a little shame, that it’s my ego that keeps me turned inward, afraid of unfolding myself and getting rejected. Some people face those feelings without closing off. Author Anne Lamott calls them “sea anemones unfurling their tendrils again.” I am reminded of my friend, who has been deeply hurt many times by the people closest to her, including me, and yet she does such a beautiful job of opening back up after the danger has passed, letting us see the broken pieces, and I deeply admire her for that, because she is colorful and engaging like a sea anemone, and I am proud and curled up like a pill bug.

I say proud because this is not as simple as fear. I am closely guarded and cautious while I tinker with my character flaws because I think that one-day when it’s ready, on opening night, it’s really going to blow people away. I picture the standing ovations, the shower of roses, and the theater immediately selling out for nights one through four and they have to add two more dates to accommodate all the disappointed theatergoers who couldn’t get tickets. But I am too afraid for anyone to see the less than perfect dress rehearsal with all the forgotten lines and the missed lighting cues. I am afraid that they’ll take one look at the work-in-progress and never come back.

My urban education class took a trip to visit the Church of the Advocate in North Philly a few weeks ago, and things started looking a little different. It was a Tuesday, and the church was empty, which meant it fell somewhere between gorgeous and quite terrifying. The night before, I had spent some time looking up whatever I could find on the Church of the Advocate. I knew it was finished in 1897, built in the French Gothic style. I knew it served as the host space for Art Sanctuary, a Philadelphia black arts nonprofit, and I knew that it was the first Episcopalian church to ordain women. But what I didn’t know was that you could stand beneath the altar, back to the congregation, and sing up to the ceiling, and the architecture will naturally carry your voice. We tried it. I didn’t know there would be a net strung above our heads to catch the old plaster that falls sometimes in chunks, like hail, sometimes as dust. This structure is decaying like a living thing, and the effect was stunning. You can know every fact about a place, I kept thinking, and not know anything at all.

There are fourteen paintings in the sanctuary of the church, big vibrant aggressive paintings that show the plight of Africans through the lens of the books of the Bible. They circle the sanctuary counterclockwise, Genesis through Revelation, with Frederick Douglas as Moses, imposing and righteous in his anger as he shouts, “let my people go.” Africa is painted as a cool blue Garden of Eden. My professor pointed to the final painting, a larger than life God whose furious presence looms over the entire church. His eyes are wild and white, like an addict who hasn’t slept in days. “It certainly looks,” she said, “like John was on something when he wrote Revelation.”

The weird pairing of French Gothic stone masonry with aggressive modern art, at first unsettling, soon felt inevitable, like Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. And in the second floor office, where the priest would work, there were these spectacular stained glass windows of Matthew, Jesus, and a Medieval Crusader. But because the people who built the church had measured poorly when ordering the windows from overseas, they had to cut them in half to fit, so the upper half of the figures was in the first set of windows, and their feet and legs in the second, bisected like teenagers in a slasher movie. And yet I noticed the light from Jesus’ legs in the east window was just as bright as the light coming from his head and shoulders. The windows were a slip-up, but a charming one. The light they let in is just as beautiful as the light streaming into the Canterbury Cathedral. As we were leaving, a chunk of plaster tumbled down into the net, and no one demanded an apology from the wonderfully imperfect church.

“You go, church,” I told it.

Tommy had stood nose to nose with me, demanding to see who I was. I should have had something to say, even if it was simple or, what I was really scared of, stupid. As if the worst thing Tommy could see was me not having my shit together. I was holding myself to a higher standard than the church, a standard I didn’t expect from anybody else, and a standard I would never be able to fulfill. I’m surprised by how delicately I was trying to construct myself by having my lines memorized, stances, answers to survey questions, like an insubstantial sheet of ice instead of something messy like soil, something that is imperfect but has depth and gives with the punches. I am reminded of what I consider the most powerful line in Charles Fuller’s play: “Any man who’s not sure where he belongs must be in a whole lot of pain.”

It is painful. Made more so by my attempt to decide much too quickly. Once that happens, once we form that ice-sheet-self, it’s only a matter of time before it shatters. I think what Tommy and Don LaFontaine and Morgan Freeman were talking about is that knowing yourself is more than a series of choices, something more on the level of the soul, of looking inward with a kind of calm-water acceptance. Not contentment, but acceptance in the way that yes, I know the springs in the couch are flat but it’s comfortable and I don’t want a new one. You look inside and see that you are broken, that you are not naturally confident, and are okay with that. Because if you keep going for that impossible standard, if you never get to that point of self honesty where you can see where the light bleeds through the cracks, you’ll fall apart if anyone else points them out for you. I did. The world is full of Tommy’s and they will eat your self-confidence with grapefruit spoons if you let them.

Last week I was talking to my mom on the phone. We don’t call each other often, but when we do, it is always pleasant. We talked about my brother for a while. He’s a terrific baseball player, and is just deciding what college to attend, so there was plenty of news for me to hear. But then, when she wanted to know about my life, when the questions got turned around, I mostly gave one word answers for no reason other than it’s not just Tommy I have trouble opening up to.

“You don’t like to talk about yourself much, do you?” she said after a while.

“I guess not,” I laughed, but in the quiet, I-can’t-believe-I-never-thought-of-it-like-that way.

I’m starting to see that the point is to stop being so scared. To take the UNDER CONSTRUCTION sign down and open up for business, don’t mind the drywall and the painter’s tape, we’re still finishing up in here. It is, of course, much easier to say than to enact, but what else am I going to do? After spending enough time obsessing over a 15 year old boy that I should be required to register when I move, I’ve found that maybe the only thing that would terrify me more than being walked in on unfinished is ever being able to look inside myself and finding all the stickers in place.

I know I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. My mom and I talked for a few more minutes, about me, and it felt wholly unnatural, but I did it. I was open and engaging-ish. I know I may never get there entirely, but being okay with the in-betweenness feels pretty good.

I never saw Tommy after that first day. There were fifteen kids enrolled in Mr. Mulvey’s class, but attendance was spotty and none of them ever seemed to be in the same place at the same time. Through the three weeks I taught there were never more than eleven students, and as few as four. I know his absenteeism probably had nothing to do with me, but that still small malevolent voice inside says maybe it did. I’m not sure exactly of what I would say to Tommy if it happened again – maybe I would offer him the chance to explain what he was feeling, and turn it toward the play – but I know that having a prepared line isn’t the point. I know that, whatever happened, it wouldn’t cripple me so sharply. My soil has grown just a little bit deeper.

For the first time now, I feel that my failure with Tommy, however humiliating, was a kind of welcome release, like lancing an abscess to relieve the pressure to be perfect, unbroken, complete. The fact is, we are all broken, just in different ways. Why should I be immune? I keep thinking about what a strange and beautiful thing it is to be openly incomplete, how delicate and vulnerable it can make you feel, and how much that vulnerability feels like freedom.

 Ty Russell is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where he studied English and education. His work has been published in Apiary Magazine, Peregrine, Phantom Kangaroo, The Bicycle Review, The Copperfield Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Pennsylvania Gazette, at, Silver Blade, Inwood Indiana, earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s 2009 Short Story Contest and Stony Brook’s 2010 Short Fiction Contest, and was a nominee for the 2011 Rhysling Award.  His work is also available in hardcopy by request.