© Jackson Gillman
As any performer is well aware, there are times when a performance environment is less than hospitable. Depending on the particular piece and situation, one can absorb a varying degree of disruption. There is a certain piece in my repertoire of which I am very protective. It is an hour-long story called “Hard Knocks” which portrays a feisty adolescent and his deaf sister as they try to cope with their father’s increasing alcoholism. Due to the sensitive nature of the program, when I perform it in high school assemblies, I am very particular about trying to prevent any potential distractions.
I had occasion to perform this piece at a special school for troubled youth. It is usually presented for high school ages, but the administration had previewed the program and insisted on including the middle school students. As expected, they were a relatively wired group but as they became invested in the story, they became respectfully attentive.
In the delicate parts of the story, you could literally hear a pin drop, but in this case it was a dime which rolled from the front. It was a minor distraction, but I was glad when the dime finally stopped, far from its young owner.
The boy, perhaps eleven years old, got up to retrieve his dime. That was the end of it, or so I thought. To my chagrin, he dropped it again a few minutes later, shattering a dead quiet. It was too much to hope that he’d let it lie; again the retrieval, a bit more distracting than the first. This occurred several more times during the course of my presentation, which was intense enough, thank you.
At each drop, roll and stop, he would stop, drop and crawl after it. The kid wanted his dime, but not badly enough to put it in his damn pocket and leave it there. I quietly prayed each skirmish would be the last. Why did this butter-fingered boor have to land a place in the front row?
This story generally requires all of my concentration, but this time a massive number of my brain cells were working overtime, as I thought about what to do the next time this dimebomb explodes on the floor. Try a quick, icy Don’t-even-think-about-it glare at him? Casually stop, drop and crawl, and pocket it myself? No, mostly what I’m thinking about is how not to think about the loose cannon on maneuvers in front of me with his semi-automatic that he fires off at random. This is just a supreme test of professional mettle, which I must pass in order to receive my storytelling medal of honor, even under the bombardment of this concentration-piercing metal shrapnel. Then, after I’ve displayed my steely cool under fire and it’s finally all over, I can take the kid backstage and execute him.
No, but as hard as it might be for me to do, I do need to say something to him afterward. This is a lot to think about while delivering an emotionally grueling drama. I actually do manage to override the flak — both external and internal — and the otherwise quiet focus I receive from these youngsters with so-called clinically deficient attention spans, plus their ovation, is the badge of valor that I am awarded. Yet the hardest part of my job still lies ahead.
I owe it to the performers who follow me; to the boy who was simply unaware of the distraction his behavior caused; and to myself, to speak to him, though the backstage execution idea still has its appeal. The easiest thing of course would be just to forget about it and not say anything. It was over after all, and it went very well, considering. As gentle as I would try to be, it can’t help but be a squirmy encounter. Why bother? Because I know I’d kick myself soundly on the way home if I didn’t.
I hate this but I am going to make myself do it. I am going to approach him. No, he’s approaching me. He’s smiling. He tells me he really enjoyed the show and he takes my hand — to shake it, I assume. No, to give me something.
It is a dime.
It is the dime.
I try refusing it but he is insistent; he wants me to have it. Not to accept it at this point would be ungracious. My rehearsed words of reproach have no place here, as it all sinks in. He was probably holding it, or trying to, the whole time to give to me afterwards. This is not a Purple Heart for injuries received in the line of fire. It is a boy’s dime, made of some silver alloy. But to me, it is my battle-pay and it is pure gold.
What can I say? Words fail. All I can muster now is a most sincere “Thank you.”
Jackson has been Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center and featured at the National Storytelling Festival four times. Jackson has performed for the whole gamut – blind, deaf, toddling, senile, incarcerated, and drunk. Consequently, he has been pitched many curves in his varied performing career. He’s been hit by some, struck out at others, walked, fouled, deftly slammed some back, and is always learning…