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West Side Stories: How a brilliant teacher helped a shy kid find his voice

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WEST SIDE STORIES

This true story by Ray Engen was recorded live on Sept.5 at Sonoma Portworks, as part of West Side Stories, Petaluma’s popular monthly showcase of spoken word performances, hosted by Dave Pokorny. Each month, willing storytellers are randomly selected from the audience to tell a tale based on a theme – this month’s theme: “Kicked Out” – and the audience selects its favorite. The next West Side Stories show will be held on Oct. 3. The theme will be “The Big Cheese.” For tickets and information, visit WestSideStoriesPetaluma.com.

So, the very first day of fifth grade was the last day I hated going to school, because that’s the day I met a teacher who was a leader. And my story tonight is not really about getting kicked out.

It’s about getting kicked back in.

Because when I was a kid I actually wore a bucket on my head.

Everything that messes you up starts when you’re a little kid, right? When I was little my mom used to wear these wraparound skirts, right? And every time I would get shy, I would walk inside the safety of my mom’s wraparound skirt.

Well, the very first open house at school, with every parent, every teacher and every student in attendance, one of the teachers, Mrs. Carrilo, just happened to wear the same wraparound skirt as my mom.

From where I stood … identical.

So, I walked into the wrong skirt.

The school thought it was the funniest thing ever. They laughed. They called me names.

And I shut down.

See, this wasn’t at a time when bullying was considered bad. Back then, it was an art form. And only the strongest survived. I ate lunch in a ditch, every day at school. I didn’t talk to kids. That ditch was underneath a window, and that window was underneath the teachers’ lounge. I can’t tell you, to this day, what the kids called me, but I can tell you everything the teachers called me.

“The Quiet One.” “Monk Boy.” “That Silent Child.”

Until I walked into school in fifth grade.

In fifth grade I had a teacher who I thought was worth a million dollars, and I still do to this day. I think every teacher is worth a million dollars. But not the ones I had until I met Mr. Huber. On the second day of school he pulled me aside and said, “I know who you really are, but don’t worry. I won’t tell the world your secret.”

I said, “What?”

‘Cause I talked to one kid in the school. His name was Dan Lewis.

Mr. Huber said, “You sit in the back of the room, and you say things to Dan Lewis, and Dan Lewis tells the rest of the class. Dan Lewis is the Class Clown. You must be the Class Clown’s Head Writer.”

And I liked that.

In the middle of class, Mr. Huber would stop Dan, right after he said something, and Mr. Huber would say, “Did you say that, or did Ray?”

I got street cred for being funny without ever saying a word?

Is this a great world, or what?

Suddenly, kids talked to me. I have six friends now, six or seven. Dan, he makes seven.

And most teachers would say, look what I did. I changed that kid’s life. But Mr. Huber was like, “Nah, I’m not finished yet.”

He pulled me aside in the middle of the year and he said, I noticed you didn’t audition for the school play. Don’t worry. I’m the director this year. We’re doing Shakespeare. I save you a role. You’re going to play the lead.

My eyes bugged out like a cartoon. My jaw dropped down to the floor. He said, “Hold on, hold on. Have I ever lead you astray?”

WEST SIDE STORIES

This true story by Ray Engen was recorded live on Sept.5 at Sonoma Portworks, as part of West Side Stories, Petaluma’s popular monthly showcase of spoken word performances, hosted by Dave Pokorny. Each month, willing storytellers are randomly selected from the audience to tell a tale based on a theme – this month’s theme: “Kicked Out” – and the audience selects its favorite. The next West Side Stories show will be held on Oct. 3. The theme will be “The Big Cheese.” For tickets and information, visit WestSideStoriesPetaluma.com.

I said no.

He said, “What year have you enjoyed more than any other year in school?”

I said, “This one?’

“Why?”

“Because I talk to more kids now.”

“Well, what if you can talk to all of them?”

And my response was, “That would be very scary.”

But this guy, I hope you have somebody in your life like him. It’s like he would walk up to me in the morning and hand me a cup full of confidence. He’d say, “You can do this.” And he took me through the play line by line, scene by scene through this whole process, doing the school play.

I was having the greatest time. I talked to every one of the kids. I was changing myself.

Have you ever tried to change yourself? It’s kind of like Sisyphus. You’re pushing a rock up a hill, and you make that one wrong move, and down comes the rock. We’ve all tried to diet, right? Dieting looks like, kale, kale, kale … donut! Kale, kale, kale … donut, right?

I talked to every one of my classmates. The night before the school play, I realized there’s a difference between 25 classmates and 217 complete strangers in an auditorium. And I actually called Mr. Huber the night before the school play, and I said, “Mr. Huber, I think I’m going to be really sick tomorrow.”

He said, “You know tomorrow’s the school play, right?”

I said, “Yeah, it wouldn’t be fair to get all those kids sick, if I’m sick.”

And then he asked me the weirdest question. I thought I had him.

He said, “Do you feel a thump? I didn’t hear.”

I said, “Yep, probably having a heart attack, Mr. Huber. Can’t do the school play having a heart attack. That wouldn’t be great.”

Then he gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard in my life. He said, “Ray, that thump? That’s not your heart. That’s your dreams. Their knocking at the door. The bigger the thump, the bigger the dream. For the rest of your life, you’re going to feel that thump, and when you feel that thump, you should smile and walk toward it, because something great is about to happen. ‘Cause everything in your life that’s good for you, starts uncomfortably.”

Isn’t that good advice?

The next day, I’m doing the school play. I’m the star of the school play, and it’s going pretty well. There are two lines left in the school play and I’m the only one on stage. And I realize, I have no idea what those last two lines are.

And my mom said, “I looked at you that day, and you looked like you were about to cry, but you were looking for permission.”

Ever see a kid and their eyes are lined by tears but their obviously thinking, “I don’t know if I should do this or not”?

But she said, “Then you did the weirdest thing.”

And I remember what the weirdest thing was. I don’t remember the tears, but I remember the weirdest thing. Because when I stood there, not knowing what those lines were, I felt a thump, right here. Mr. Huber had told me the night before, “Don’t fear it. Feed off of it.”

So I smiled and I walked toward the audience, and I looked at everyone, and I said, “Lord Shakespeare has written great lines to end tonight’s play. But alas, I know not what they are!”

Mr. Huber dropped the curtain. And he gave me the biggest thumbs up. He was crying, and I heard the applause, and I thought, “Oh my god!” And he raised the curtain up, and they weren’t just applauding. They were standing!

The kid who couldn’t speak the year before had just improv’d Shakespeare.

And I’m happy to say, I haven’t shut up since.