Mr. Tanner, Again

I returned to a high school classroom a few weeks ago. Check out that picture above. The triumphant return of Mr. Tanner. To a black box theatre, nonetheless.

There’s a social justice class at State College Area High School. And I came in and led an hour of social justice theatre. With a bunch of high school seniors. Some juniors, too.

It’s been a lifetime since I was a high school teacher. A lifetime since I was Mr. Tanner. I wrote at the end of my book Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America that the Mr. Tanner my high students knew during the 2012-2013 school year feels distant to me. I’m seven years into being a college professor. My high school teacher self still feels very distant.

But he wasn’t distant as I bounced around the black box theatre at State College Area High School on a Monday morning. Leading students through drama exercises. Settling back into a familiar routine. Finding the energy to keep up with teenagers. Laughing at them. And with them. Talking about power dynamics and race. Doing something I’ve done countless times in my life. It felt like I traveled back through time for an hour. Mr. Tanner. I even had a lanyard!

Incidentally, let me remind you that Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America won the 2020 David H. Russell award for Distinguished Teaching in English. I’m an award winner, baby! Distinguished, even! My return to State High reminded me that working with high school students in a black box theatre is better than winning awards.


I’m not sure that I could go back to teaching high school.

First, there’s the hours. I would arrive an hour before classes started to prepare for my day. Plan my classes. Make copies and organize the classroom. And I’d usually go for a run first. So my alarm was set at 5:00am. Or earlier. And I helped to run the theatre programs. I’d be at the school until 10:00pm if we were producing a play. 6:00pm or 7:00pm if we were rehearsing. Those were long days. Twenty-something Sam was fine with it. Thirty-something Sam started to struggle. I fear that forty-something Sam would collapse on the spot.

Next, there’s the energy. Lordy, but teenagers have energy. Trying to keep up with them is hard enough. Channeling that energy is another task altogether. Again, twenty-something Sam was cool with it. Forty-something Sam needs a nap. A long one.

This isn’t to say that I’m not swamped with my current job. College kids can be a handful too. And don’t get me started on chasing tenure. Or the work of raising two young people who are as loud as sirens and as chaotic as, well, this chaotic universe. And whose bright idea was it to co-found and work as artistic director of an improv theatre? Let’s not kid ourselves. Forty-something Sam remains busy. But the pace of life is a little less grueling. A little bit, anyway.

It was good to be Mr. Tanner first first hour. I can’t imagine having to return to that role for second hour. Or third. Or fourth. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. You get the idea.

I’m getting tired just thinking about it.


I’ll return to the class at State High in the spring. As part of a research project. I like that part of my job. Education professors are free to experiment. To dream up a different sort of teaching and learning. And to write about it. And think about it. That’s what most of my articles are about, anyway.

So I still have some windows back into the past. Back into the meaningful work of building something with young people.

Look, there’s nothing in my mind that compares with bringing a group of almost-adults into peaceful relationship with each other. To think together. To feel together. To improvise and experiment. High school students are still so open. They haven’t settled into the worn-out scripts our society offers us as adults. Republican or Democrat or rich or poor or winner or loser or this or that or the other thing. There’s a degree to which those boring identities can blur when a group of people come together in a classroom through things like theatre games. Or playbuilding exercises. We can, for a moment anyway, imagine a different way to be. There’s such potential in that. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that your soul grows whenever you create something. I think that is true. And how much more does your soul grow when you create something with others. And that’s what school should be. And that’s what I was able to facilitate, on a tiny scale, the other morning. It felt so good to step back into creating spaces where people build together.

I wrote about a dream I had at the end of Playing with Sharp Objects. Playing with Sharp Objects, incidentally, did not win any awards. It barely sold any copies. I ended the book by describing a dream in which I returned to the black box classroom I taught in at Cooper High School. And I finished sharing that dream by writing that there was no place I’d rather be.

There’s such potential in a healthy classroom. In a space where people are coming together to build something new. To be made new by participation in such building. It’s a buzz. Vital energy. And I was reminded of that vital energy as I walked out of State College Area High School the other day.

What a good thing it is to build with others.

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