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What I learned from "Our Town"

October 17, 2018
By Shelli Cammenga, CCHS English Teacher

Two costumes ripped that I had to fix. An actress was sick on the day of the preview I had to replace. A name was misspelled in the program I had to apologize for. I had to find a sound technician the day of the dress rehearsal.  I had to locate an affordable pocket watch the day of the performance. I had to make a million decisions as opening night approached.

But more than that, I had to slow down. 

In the rush of a million thoughts about who knew their lines and who didn't, whose costume didn't fit right, who forgot to get a gift for whom, the grading I hadn't touched yet, and a myriad of personal griefs that had built up over the last few months, I walked out of the Heritage Center one practice and saw the sunset, vibrant pink and orange flung across the sky. 

Finally my mind went quiet. Just for a moment. 

It was like that moment at the end of Act 1 where Emily is finished with her homework, sitting quietly on the ladder, listening to the crickets and smelling the flowers from the neighbor's garden on the evening breeze. Her father's concern is that she has troubles distracting her, but no, she replies - she's just being still.  

God asks us to do a lot of things. At a small school, everyone is involved in something, usually several somethings, but what we aren't always involved in is reflecting on the gift of those moments. In the rush to get ready, perform, and tear down, we fail to do exactly what "Our Town" reminds us we so desperately need: to just look at each other. Many of the characters who are so full of life and opinions and dreams in Acts 1 and 2, are sitting on their graves in Act 3, realizing how temporary all of it was. How many moments have passed us by without seeing how much we have to be thankful for: the bright pink of the sunset, the way the cast sings Frank Sinatra while putting on makeup, how my TA's not only fold the programs, but tie them up in a bow for me, the aunt who finds the pocket watch you needed at the eleventh hour, the friend who steps in to run sound right when you need them. 

My dad once told me to live your life as if you had just come back in a time machine, from a future where maybe you didn't get to see these people or places anymore and suddenly they were new and special to you again. As the cast and I talked through each line of the play, what timeless trope they represent, what universal joy, pain, or situation they are portraying, the idea kept coming up again and again.

It is only for a few years that you get to see your classmates every day. You only get to live at home with your family for a small percentage of your life. You have a top of the line performing arts center to use to perform this powerful play that you won't have in the future. This time is special. Enjoy it.

Next year, many of these students will have graduated and left Calvin, this chapter of their life over. The audience will be different -  perhaps some people who clapped for my actors this year will not even be on earth the next. God's plans are a mystery to us, and our role is to walk in his ways in the moment with eternity in our hearts.

It may be a strange assignment to tell your students to go home and enjoy themselves, but I like to think they will be doing so in a different way having been a part of this production. As Emily asks the Stage Manager, "Do people ever realize life as they live it? Every, every minute?"

He replies, "The saints and poets, maybe. They do some."

And I'd like to think that now my students do too.