The Miracle of Theatre

I am no theatre critic. I could count on two hands the amount of times I have attended a live production. But every time I have had the opportunity to go, I am reminded of how truly magical the theatre experience is.

Last weekend, I was able to go with friends via a coach bus to see “War Horse” at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. I saw the movie and enjoyed it enough to read the book afterwards. I heard rave reviews about the live production and was really excited to see it.

Honestly, it surpassed all my expectations.

Our seats were fantastic. Five rows back from the stage, close to the aisle–the aisle that would be used (unbeknownst to us) to extend the stage during the performance. The stage was stark and uncurtained, and a simple white jagged finger shape extended across the backdrop. We speculated about what that finger’s function would possibly be during the performance. I was stumped.

How is it possible to portray the action of World War One–complete with trenches and tanks and horses–within the narrow confines of a theatre stage?

It is. It is possible, and it is incredible what the human creative mind can accomplish. I think that is what I love the most about theatre, and music, and books, and dance, and poetry, and visual art. Human beings have done some horrible, unspeakable things through the ages. But our art makes it possible to raise our heads again. It has the power to redeem the human race.

The jagged finger turned out to be a screen, upon which backdrop images were projected, amidst light and fog. The horses were elaborate puppets, framed in lines, and each one manipulated by three actors. These actors worked together to create a fluid, uniform animal, with twitching haunches, heaving chest, and quivering ears. The actors were visible around the horse, and even made the horses’ whinnies and snuffs. Everything was synchronized so impeccably; the audience  came to forget about the people manipulating the animals. The horses, with their glittering dark eyes, came to life like Pinocchio, right before our eyes. The actors could actually mount and ride these amazing creatures.

A breath-taking moment for me was when the “foal” Joey burst into three pieces in a flash of light, and the “stallion” Joey plunged through into centre-stage, full-grown.

At one point, the beautiful chestnut “Joey” actually came galloping up the aisle toward the stage–then stopped and reared, right there beside us. I actually cowered and gasped, as though I were about to be trampled by a real horse.

The horses alone were worth the cost of the tickets. Then there were the talented actors. The haunting music. The clever backdrops. The revolving stage. The delighted laughter of a little girl as she strokes Joey. The anguish on a soldier’s face. The ominous silence of stealthy poison gas. The roaring indignation of a farmer who has lost his self-respect as well as his family and community’s. The antics of a troublesome goose.

“War Horse” (the book, the movie and the live production) does not choose sides, but portrays the horrors of war from all angles and perspectives, human and animal.

I need more live theatre in my life.

My Bullying Story

With the topic of bullying all over the media, I think it is timely to share my own bullying story. I hesitated to do it before, for a few reasons. One of those reasons includes my desire to shield my family from feeling that I am casting any blame their way. Another reason is that I am “missing” a lot from my memory banks from that time in my life. Undoubtedly, this is probably the mind’s method of self-defense.

My story isn’t as harrowing as many. But those events of  the 1970-71 school year when I was in Grade Four have had an impact on my life.

We had just moved into town. I had attended two schools before and had good experiences there, for the most part. Certainly, nothing traumatic transpired in my first three years of school. Now that we were in town, my parents made the decision to send me and my two younger siblings to the Christian school affiliated with their church. They were not wealthy, so I expect this was not an easy commitment for them to make.

I was put in a Gr. 3/4 split in the new school. The teacher was kind and friendly. There were a lot of students in her class.

There must have been something that triggered the first incident. I don’t remember what it was. There was a gang of brothers (none of them in my class) who would corner the three of us on our way home from school. I had expected walking home from school to be a big improvement over taking the bus, which I had always done up until this point. I was wrong.

It happened every night after school. Sometimes, I was able to outrun them. Inevitably, they would catch my younger brother or sister. It was not in me to abandon them there, so I would go back.

I would go home with my legs plastered in bruises of varying colours and sizes. The boys would kick us hard in the shins and punch our arms. I remember standing there, trying not to flinch, not wanting to give them the satisfaction. Tears would spring to the backs of my eyes and I would battle them back. The boys said things, too. I don’t remember specifically the things that were said, just that they were cruel and shocking.

I did talk to my parents about these incidents. They came to Canada as children, and as immigrants, they had endured bullying as well. This kind of thing was part of growing up.

At night, I would lay in bed, struggling not to fall asleep. Morning would be there before I knew it if I went to sleep. I didn’t want it to be morning. I woke up with knots in my stomach.

It didn’t end with the gang after school. It filtered into my classroom as well. It got to the point where most of the girls wouldn’t play with me. There was one boy who sat across from me. He was even more vicious than the other boys after school. He would find times when the teacher wasn’t looking to kick or pinch me. If I had to pass his desk, I made wide circles. The teacher used to have us sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while marching around our table groupings. Those Christian soldiers got me a lot of  bruises.

I wore a dress to school one day. Maybe it was picture day. I don’t remember. But I got too close to the boy’s desk when I was getting ready to go out for recess, and he suddenly tried to get his hand up under my dress. Instinctively, I knocked him on the head with the skipping rope I was carrying.

At that time, I knew nothing about the facts of life, but all the same, there was a part of me that suddenly understood, on some baser level, where the boys’ behaviour was coming from. I could not put that understanding into words, and yet, I knew. Not that this did anything to help my situation.

Desperation drove me to talk to the teacher one morning before school. I knew that if it got back to the boys, it would mean serious consequences for me, but I was running out of options, and what was worse, my brother and sister were enduring beatings, because of me. I knew it was because of me, because the bullies told me it was, and they told my brother and sister that, too. The teacher seemed to believe me and appeared sympathetic. Telling the teacher did not help. The boy in my class was already pro at attacking me when she wasn’t looking. And I found out years later that she was otherwise preoccupied with having an affair with the married principal of this Christian school.

Since the school was connected to my church, the sneak attacks happened there, as well. The gang went to another more conservative affiliate of our church, but the boy in my class attended mine. After service was over, the three of us would race out to the car and lock all the doors while my parents were socializing with their friends. We didn’t always make it safely.

I was sheltered from many things in that time of my life. We had a television, but only a couple of channels. I didn’t know anything about suicide, or even that it existed. I think over those times today, and I believe I would have considered it, had I know it was an option.

My mother noticed my legs one night, which were more black and purple than flesh-coloured. She made some calls. One of them was to father of the boy who was in my class. This man was a police officer and he and his wife were very good friends of my parents. My mother said the boy and his dad were on their way over and the boy would be apologizing to me.

I begged her to stop that from happening. But she stood firm, and there was this tormentor, standing there in the only safe place I had, being dressed down by his father in front of me. I wondered if I would see my tenth birthday.

“What about that time you hit me over the head with a skipping rope?” the boy snapped at me.

I stared at him. Was he serious? The time he tried to put his hand up my dress??? Of course, he knew that I would be too ashamed to tell my mother and his police officer father the reason for why that had occurred.

My mother assured me over and over that this boy would not be bothering me again. The next Sunday at church, he found me and kicked me so hard; I thought my shin was broken.

Finally, my parents took us out of that Christian school and put us in the Public system.

We had no problems in our new school. I had friends, a wonderful teacher, and I looked forward to going to school every day. We walked there and back every day. An older boy up the street sometimes walked with us.

One day, we were on our way to school. The older boy from up the street was ahead of us. As we approached an intersection, we saw a bunch of boys on bikes. My heart plummeted. It was the gang of brothers. They had tracked us down. They circled us with their bikes.

The older boy ahead of us was walking with a buddy. They turned around, saw what was happening, and doubled back.

“Are these &%$#@ bugging you?” the older boy said.

I replied, “Yes.”

This boy then turned and dumped each one of the bullies off their bikes while the three of us stood watching, astonished and delighted. The bullies were red-faced, struggling to get back on their bikes.

“You let me know if they ever try it again,” the older boy told us. He might as well have had his arms folded across his chest and a red cape fluttering behind him in the wind. The bullies headed off quickly on their bikes.

That was the last we ever saw of them.

When I grew up, I wasn’t able to stay in my parents’ church. The people in my peer group were the people who had either participated in my torture or ignored it.

As a parent and a teacher, I have naturally become very sensitive to the issue of bullying. I vowed it would not happen to my own children.

I was not the kind of child that had the confidence to stand up for myself. As an adult, this has also been a challenge. I don’t know if this is because of an underlying weakness in my personality, or if it because of my bullying experience. In either case, the bullying certainly compounded the issue.

Being bullied is trauma, plain and simple. It should not be tolerated. It should not be rationalized.  “Zero Tolerance” should not be a phrase printed in a school planner under the Code of Conduct. Zero Tolerance is an action, not a phrase. Bullies in schools become bullies in the adult world. It’s everywhere.

It’s damaging.

It can even be fatal.