Linda Darling Hammond
Interview With Gerry Speca
Gerry Speca is a retired drama and English teacher. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: When you began teaching, what were your goals? How did those goals change over time?
I graduated from college in 1969, and so, you know, everything history says about that is, is wrong, except for there was this notion that one could in fact change the world, that there were other ways to live other than what had been commonly accepted. And that kind of fit in. It was just like, "This is a really cool thing to do, that you can, that you can take peoples' dreams and you can provide them with encouragement, and you can, in fact, begin them on that path to realizing the things they dream for themselves." I think as I started to work with, to work in the field of education, those are all valuable and lofty goals, but I think what I learned was there were some there were some smaller, narrower objectives that had to be achieved first -- that you had to, for example, it's one of those buzz words that I hate, but I'll use, that you had to empower people. You had to give them a sense of themselves really, is what you're talking about. You had to create the notion in somebody's head that anything they thought was possible, was in fact possible if they marshaled their resources to bring it about. And what you first find out is that a lot of people believe that nothing was possible. If they believed something was possible, they certainly didn't have the resources; the resources belonged to somebody else. And there was my belief, and still is my belief, that there's a whole power structure invested in our believing that, that we are powerless, that we have no recourse, that we need to trust people who are basically untrustworthy. So, to speak against that, you basically have to create a sense of centeredness in every individual regardless of what they're going to do. And you get focus on, well, "Where are you going to go to college?" or something like that, that's virtually immaterial. It's like what kind of person are you going to be, how are you going to treat your children? How are you going to treat your next-door neighbor? How are you going to execute whatever work it is you're going to do, whether you're a going to be a mechanic or a college professor? There's a way in which you can conduct yourself in those enterprises that benefits all of us and virtually changes the way we look at the world.
Q: Those are lofty goals. How can you achieve them in a drama class?
First of all, I think you can achieve those ends through any discipline, because I think the lessons are learned in the process rather than the content. So the issue is, well, how can you teach somebody about changing the world by writing, you know? Well, writing is a skill, and we're teaching the skill, but the way I'm going to achieve or effect the goals is by the process of teaching you to write. That interaction. So, how does one do it? Well, first of all, if you look at, if you look at drama, and if you look at say, language and literature, well, first of all, we all share the language in common, so first of all it's the way in which we communicate. So if I'm an English teacher, what I'm doing is I'm enhancing your ability to be able to communicate to your fellow human being, or at least your fellow American English-speaking human being and that's the being of any kind of language study for English speaking people. So there's a starting point. If you look at literature, OK, then literature is the repository of our cultural artifacts. So you learn about the world around you by reading literature. You want to humanize an individual, you say, "Well, here's the experience, you know, here's a book about an experience you haven't begun to think about yet, but let's read it". So there are those options. Drama is just the theater; my feeling is everybody should take theater, period, hands down, it should be required for everyone. Because, what it does is, it speaks to the whole person. I used to say to them a simple thing: you're going to step out on stage performing a theatrical piece that you've worked on for six weeks. You're going to perform it for 1,200 strangers, people who don't know you, and the only thing they're going to know about you at the end of 40 minutes is what this work says about you. So what kind of statement do you want to make? Who do you want to be to these strangers, which is the life question, isn't it?
Q: What makes you feel successful as a teacher?
I'm going start by saying that you don't always get what you need to make you feel as if you're being successful. My memories of teaching -- even when I was feeling I was at my peak, so to speak -- was that I didn't know from day to day what I was doing. When I say I didn't know what I was doing, I meant you were looking for the feedback. Obviously, you get really excited when a student who can't memorize two words suddenly memorizes five lines of Shakespeare. You can become excited. Or when a student finally understands what a sentence is, that it's a complete idea. There are those small things…although, to be perfectly honest, I don't think as a teacher you always notice that. You don't always notice that Mary has just written a paragraph that has a beautiful, beautifully balanced structure with simple, compound and complex sentences. You don't always notice that; you notice that Mary's giving you the hairy eyeball when you're lecturing about Shakespeare or something, and you're like really annoyed with Mary right now. It's like, Why is she giving me these looks? You know, sometimes that gets in the way. But I think at the end of the year, the teacher can see that. You know. You can see that. You can see the change. And so that's the kind of stuff I think as a teacher I kind of looked for.
Q: How did your academic goals for students affect how you taught your classes?
There was a student who came up to me at the end of the school year and thanked me for the class and said, "Uh, Mr. Speca, I had a wonderful time and enjoyed your class so much but…." And you could tell this was like causing him great pain, and he said, "But I really don't think we learned very much." I was stunned, you know, I was like crest fallen. I was like, "Oh, oh well, so what have I been doing all year?" Fortunately I had the presence of mind to kind of pursue this a little bit further. It was like, "So well what do you mean? I mean, what would you like to have learned more about? Would you like to have learned a little more about ..." whatever, I can't remember ….I think it was a writing class. And "Oh, no no no no no!" I said, "Well, what gave you the impression that you hadn't learned very much?" He said, "Well, the class was just too much fun. I liked being there, you know. It was just, the other classes were like we sit in rows and that's really hard, and I can't always understand what's going on in the room, and so when I finally started to understand I felt like I learned something." He said, "But from day one your class was comfortable, I could just be myself." And so that's why he didn't think he learned anything, and so there was a piece of me that said, "Well isn't this interesting?" So what this kid has equated with learning is a kind of rigor that's impossible and demeaning, a classroom climate which is totally uncomfortable, you know, etc., etc., etc.
Q: In his Academy Award acceptance speech for Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck attributed his early Hollywood success, at least in part, to you. How did that make you feel?
I'll claim this credit: If they come to you and say, "Man, my high school drama experience was so good. It enlightened me, it made me. . ." I'll take credit for that. And that could be a little bit of a pinnacle. Not a pinnacle, because there are many students who could probably say the same thing, who aren't getting nominated for Academy Awards, but I will accept that as a statement of my value as a teacher, because that's what I set out to do. I set out to give them some skills, I set out to give them some confidence, or to help them -- not to give them, I didn't confer anything on them -- I set out to help them achieve that dream. They wanted the confidence; they wanted to know that they could hang in Hollywood if they went. So, what's the parting shot that you say to a senior that you care about deeply? You know, you say, "Hey, you want this dream? You can have it. You can really and truly get it, and here's why. It's not just my saying it to you because I want to be supportive and it's like, goodbye, good luck-- love, luck and lollipops or something -- you know -- this is real. You can do this, and here's why. Here's what you know how to do. Here's where your energy is." And so Ben Affleck has told people that that was the moment that solidified the whole thing for him. He says it changed his life. I hope that's true, because it makes me feel great. I tend to think there were some other things that that played into his continuing to do what he did, but that's a perfect teacher's moment.