—an essay by L. Garvey Thomas

Nobody warned me it would happen, and it sure wasn’t in the course description. I later learned that it was just the nature of a theater class...

The class was called Poetry as Performance, and the professor, (I’ll call her Professor Bell), had a BFA in Journalism, an MFA in Anthropology, and a Doctorate in Theater. To add to this list of credentials, Professor Bell wrote16 plays, all performed by major playwriting companies, appeared on talk shows like Riki Lake, and shared performances with famous poets such as Maya Angelou. She told us stories of marching in Black Rights rallies and performing her poems in front of thousands of people. In comparison, I felt like a peon, a speck of dust.

The first couple of days, we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask “Who is the ‘me’ in the mirror?”  The answer would be a draft of a poem. I looked at the “me” in the mirror, one face among twenty and feel ridiculous. The whole time I thought, “We haven’t analyzed a poem yet. I wonder if Accounting 101 is still open.”

The weekly routine was the same. We sat around the perimeter of the room, and one by one, my classmates recited poetry about rape, racism, social injustice, and lost loved ones. They recited their poems with such passion; it wasn’t rare to see tears or hear a booming voice coming from a face red with anger. I’ve never been mugged. I’ve never been molested, but there was that one time my car broke down and I had no money…couldn’t compare. In turn, I sat on the side, rarely, if ever, participating.

            Three weeks into the course, we had to write a song poem. My peers sang with the enthusiasm and confidence of potential American Idol contestants (the talented ones), and I wanted to jump out the window because I couldn’t sing like my peers, and if asked, I’d break the pattern by sounding like a dog caught in a fence.

I wrote a poem, taking Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes” and putting my own words for recital while keeping the refrain. I liked the song, and I figured it would keep the singing to a minimum. Also, I had never been called up to recite a poem, and I figured the chances of me being called were slim to none. For the sake of the assignment, I thought it better to have something than be the “I didn’t do it” guy.

Professor Bell announced, “Lee, you’re up.”

A shock of nervousness hit me, and she announced again that it was my turn, but she dragged out the words so there’d be no misunderstanding. I stiffened my face in a “damn it” expression and stood up. My mouth went dry, and I took steps toward the room’s center, reminding my brain to tell my legs to move. While up there, I felt the eyes of my classmates probing me, and I recited, not sang, my poem. When I finished, there was utter silence, and I thought, “Okay, I’m done; maybe I’ll slip through the cracks.”

            I took a step toward my seat, and she yelled, “Now sing!” Ignoring her, I sat down, but she said, “Lee, now sing.”

I continued sitting there thinking, “No, I did my part; I’m done.”

She looked at me with sharp, brown eyes. “Now sing.”

I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t a singer or even a poet, that I didn’t have the guts to stand in front of twenty people and pour my heart out like my classmates or go toe-to-toe with White Supremacists at the Washington Monument. If I did, the response would just be…

“Get up there and sing,” she repeated.

I stayed planted in the seat like it was glued to my butt.

“Fine, we’ll wait,” she said, crossing her arms.

Thirty seconds passed, and there was nothing but silence. She stared at me with the eyes of a Panther, and I knew I was going to lose. After all, I’m nothing compared to one of her abusive ex-husbands or a racist cop. To her, I was probably a joke.

Someone spoke. “You know others want to share their poems, Lee.”

I realized I was being a whiney, little kid and that I was also taking time from others. I felt rotten, but I was still stuck. I couldn’t sing, and I thought my peers would laugh at me.

My friend, Denise, said, “You’re not being fair, Lee. I did mine, and it sucked.”

That’s what did it for me. I got up, looked down at the words, and sang the best I could (which was, in my opinion, horrible).

After I finished, the professor said, “Comments or criticisms?”

One girl said she liked the first and last lines, and another person said it had good word usage. Isolated in the middle of the floor, I still felt like a criminal on trial.

When I sat down, the teacher looked at me and said, “It was really good. I don’t know why you wouldn’t sing it.”

She called up the next person, and the class proceeded for twenty minutes or so. I, however, stayed in the moments of humiliation and felt like the scum beneath my shoe.

That event pops into my head every now and then, and when I think deeply about its details—the room, the expressions on my classmates’ faces, the professor—I cringe. The irony was in an attempt to avoid humiliating myself, I drew more attention to myself. I should’ve sung the song, heard some comments, and sat down. It would’ve been over and done with, like yanking off a band-aid. It was an art orientated class, meant to breach boundaries. I’m not an actor, but the craft intrigues me. Actors like Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, and Tom Cruise stepped outside of themselves for the sake of art, and I couldn’t even do something simple. If she’d told me to write a poem of my greatest fear, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I felt like a hypocrite, narrow minded. So what if it wasn’t my craft? Ultimately what I learned was live in the moment or situation and let it pass. Resistance is just prolonging the removal of the Band-Aid.

A native of Philadelphia, PA, Tom Crankshaw writes constantly, whether it is a revision or developing a new story idea. In February 2013, he received his certificate from the Long Ridge Writer’s Group: Breaking into Print Program. He has been published in The Chaffin Journal and Conceit Magazine’s The Bracelet Charm.