VERY SOON IT'S CLEAR: Margaret Edson has a firm grasp on the intangibles.
"Our love for each other, our connections to each other should be at the center of our thoughts at all times," she says. "That takes effort, because there's a lot of noise surrounding us."
Edson has made a life out of cutting through that noise as a teacher, a playwright, and a passionate public speaker. Since 1992 she has taught English as a second language and taught kindergarten, often in economically disadvantaged elementary schools in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia.
Just before she started teaching, she wrote Wit, a play about a poetry scholar with catastrophic stage-four ovarian cancer. Edson has said that she decided to present the play without an intermission because she thought it was so heavy—with intense philology and blood-curdling medical treatments—that audiences would flee if given a chance.
Wit won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, along with the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new play, the Oppenheimer Award, and some others. HBO's film version of the play, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, won an Emmy in 2001. Far from fleeing, deeply engaged audiences have embraced the play from prestigious Off-Broadway theaters to local high school productions ever since.
An Unusual Career Combination? For Edson, teaching elementary school and writing a challenging, complex, multi-layered play about the human intellect and spirit are not so far apart.
"In society in general, it's easy for us to forget our purpose," Edson tells NRTA Live & Learn in a phone interview from her Atlanta home. "We've let go of a lot of the tools that remind us of our true selves."
"There was something I really wanted to say in Wit,"Edson says. "What I want to say now, I'm saying in the classroom." It's hard to measure the special things created on stage or in a classroom, but even unmeasured they are powerful and at the core of what makes us human, Edson explains.
"I'm interested in talk and action," she says. "I'm interested in being a part of a group of people that's creating something as it happens."
Using Her High Profile. The attention that came with the success of the play has given Edson the opportunity to speak to a diverse group of audiences, from local high schools to a national conference of hospital chaplains. Most recently she delivered the 2008 Commencement address at Smith College, where she was graduated with a degree in Renaissance history in 1983.
Her speech was a celebration of the mystery of classroom teaching: "Bringing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing, withholding nothing," teaching somehow gives the ultimate creative gift of learning. "Nobody can touch it because nobody can point to it," she says in it. "You have it forever. When it grows inside you, it's doing its work."
Students and teachers all receive this invisible, untouchable treasure, Edson says. When she retires from teaching, "someone will bring me a box, and I will put in it a ceramic apple somebody gave me thinking it would be symbolic somehow. I will have nothing, and that will be proof of the meaning of my work."
When you rely on your students—or your audience—to share the work of creation, you must embrace a certain amount of uncertainty. In preparing for class, Edson tells Live & Learn, "I know where I want to go. I'm never sure how I'll get there, but I love that journey."
In a crucial scene near the end of Wit, protagonist Vivian Bearing is visited by her mentor. They share a tender moment and some insights into the metaphysics of Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. Edson was initially surprised when some viewers wondered if the moment was real or a product of Bearing's painkiller- and cancer-ravaged mind.
"To me it's always been clear that she really comes," she says. "There are tools that the playwright has at her disposal—music, sound, lighting—to signal a dream or a hallucination and I didn't use any of them. But if it's not clear to the audience, I'm happy."
In other words, the play should let us all take our own journey?
"There you go. Bon voyage."
Exploring Her World. While most of Edson's life has been spent as a student and a teacher in the classrooms she loves so much, her journey through life took a series of interesting detours after she completed her studies at Smith. "For me, when I was 21, that was all I knew how to do," she says. "I wanted to close that experience and open new ones."
She tended bar in a small town in Iowa and painted the interior of a Dominican convent in Rome. She worked for a mental health non-profit that pioneered treatment of the social and psychological effects of the AIDS epidemic, and spent some time as a clerk in the cancer ward of a university research hospital. Her work in the hospital inspired her to writeWit, and she continues to draw on all of the other experiences she had in those years.
"I was just learning about things firsthand," Edson says. "Sometimes classroom learning is secondhand." When she was ready to return, she says, "Going back to the classroom as a teacher was, and continues to be, a new set of experiences."
What's New for Her Now. This August, Edson began to grapple with a new challenge. After ten years watching kindergarteners' minds spark to light with conceptual breakthroughs on a daily basis, she's looking forward to the more mature minds of second graders.
"The human mind is at its peak at five years old," Edson says, "but it's so turned on to the world that it isn't very efficient. Second graders still have most of that sense of wonder, but less of the ridiculousness."
Jake Miller, a former Fulbright fellow, has written two dozen books for kids. He frequently contributes to NRTA Live & Learn.
Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a lifestyle.
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