In the year that I started teaching (2003), I had many night dreams that I would remember and think about the next day. One especially, even though it was about Beck, seemed to be about me, and teaching.
In the dream, I waited outside the Orpheum among a crowd. People pressed up against the main entrance doors. People spilled out of the alley onto Tremont Street, not bothered by the cars that edged around them. People climbed up and hung from a rickety, wooden staircase that clung to the outside wall of the building and ended at a door at balcony level. In the dream, it was a late September afternoon, the sun slanting. I had a ticket for the Beck show and could have made my way easily through the front doors, but instead I climbed the wooden stairs, pushing up and up and up, and slipped into the door at the top. Inside: darkness.
My eyes adjusted to the poor interior light, and, from the top, I made my way down balcony steps, along box seats on the side that hung from the wall, and into the door to the right of the stage. No one stood in my way or stopped me; I kept weaving in the direction I was going.
Going backstage at the Orpheum was like going backstage at my college’s auditorium: just a few stairs up, and there I was among the curtains, rigged-up lights, people in black shirts with clipboards, steamer trunks, lit Exit signs. Backstage, there is no place to sit down. Move, move, move, or stand.
I edged around a curtain, feeling it touch my back like hair, or a hand, and stood out of view of the audience yet close enough to center stage that I could see the house, performance area, and backstage at once. There was Beck, alone in front of the audience, with just his amped guitar, big hat, and a vest. He sang “Mixed Bizness.” He played hard, danced his plastic moves, and jerked his shoulders and guitar when he hit a line like “Freaks flock together.” He seemed to be possessed by the music, deep into it, as mesmerized by his performance as the audience was.
Beck finished the song and the audience clapped hard, that instant boom. I felt the bass of it in my sternum. I imagined the performer feeling the same big push, and holding himself steady against it.
I witnessed it all, yet remained invisible. Beck swung the guitar up and over his head to get the strap off his shoulder and back, and he held it down to his right side as he bowed deep from the waist. His hat stayed on. Then he walked past me to a little bench behind the backdrop, and he lay down out of the audience’s sight. His right leg was extended and right foot on the floor; the other foot was on the bench, left knee bent and pointed up. I was the only person who could see this.
Beck’s hat was off. His hand was over his eyes. He cried and cried, and he cried. Sobbing, shaking. I couldn’t hear him, and neither could the audience, because the clapping went on and on. The sound was only of the audience’s pleasure and their desire that Beck come back to them.
A minute went by, and he stood up. The hat went back on, and the guitar strap up and over his head until the guitar was properly hung on his body. He straightened himself, and then he looked up to the ceiling, as though there were something more to see, although probably it was just a gathering of the self.
And then he went back on stage, peered at the audience without smiling, and hit the strings hard. The next song began. The audience, which I could see only dimly — a sea of glowing faces and bodies in shadow — came alive again.
What did I think this Beck dream meant? Beck represented the state of my teaching mind and experience at the time. So much of the challenge of teaching, for me, circles around the energy one must bring to public task of being in a classroom with students. It takes both a being on and a being in: a teacher, like an artist, must be both the deliberate producer of the show and a participant in the moment; in charge of, and vulnerable to.
This is hard. (It was harder for me then than it is now.) The private self must get ready for this, fortify, and even sometimes break apart.
The personal challenges of teaching, seven years into it, are not as dramatic for me as they once were (although certainly challenges spring eternal). When I am in the classroom or lecture hall, I am more in it than I am “on.” And, when I am on, it’s for real; I feel what I show. However, there is a private life behind stage, and sometimes being ready for teaching requires a decisive act, a moment of saying to the internal audience, “I will do this.” And then going out there again, and being what I know I can. At some invisible point in the show, the acting with purpose becomes, mercifully, the being of me. Singer is the song.
Beck photo via mind inversion.