“Am (clap), is, are (clap), was, were (clap), be (clap), being (clap), been (clap). Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”
My fifth grade teacher, Miss Daniels, would clap in syncopation, chanting the mantra while my class joined in, usually off rhythm by a half-beat. The echo still rings in my head. Sometimes, when I’m taking my morning shower, I chant the Be verbs over and over, just like we did in 5th grade, during English period – the lessons I felt good at – not like math. For some reason, it helps me wake up.
I loved Miss Daniels. The summer before she became my fifth grade teacher, she became my stepmother… sort of. My father and she had been cast to play King Sextimus the Silent and Queen Aggravain in a spring production of Once Upon a Mattress put on by the Little Theater of Virginia Beach (LTVB). Dad figured since their characters were married, that made her a stepmother to his daughters. She played along.
Dad had custody of us for one full month in the summer as well as every Saturday and Sunday night during the rest of the year, so Sis and I were, at the very least, a part of the crew for every show Dad did. He had trod the boards for most of his life, growing up doing little theater (the Bergen County Players in New Jersey) with his mother, Elma, who also loved the performing arts. The Bergen County Players have an excellent standard for live theater, and Hackensack’s proximity to New York City and Broadway allowed Dad to land a part in the children’s chorus in the original production of The King and I. He stayed active in the theater until he became a naval officer after graduating from the Naval Academy. He married mom, they had Sis and me, and there was no time for the theater.
When Dad and Mom divorced, he returned to the theater to form a new normal, a new family, and he took my Sis and me with him. Over the years, I ran spotlight for Oliver, painted sets for Kismet, Tartuffe, Arsenic and Old Lace, handled props and quick costume changes for the leading lady in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I played a no-neck monster in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I am forever grateful and enriched by my early exposure to the brilliant Tennessee Williams. Dad fell in love again during a summer production of The Music Man. We all performed as members of the chorus the following summer in Oklahoma. I loved that theater.
The Green Room backstage at LTVB had no air conditioning, just a few ceiling fans that moved the air but also the sawdust – the scene shop was located at one end of the Green Room. Dressing rooms were located at the other end. On the other two walls, the backstage door stood opposite the hallway that led to the backstage wings and the front of the house. During warm weather matinees, when the temperature and the humidity vied for first place, the cast sweated quietly backstage, listening to the ongoing performance from the speaker system so that no cues would be missed. Those performers whose scenes were not eminent played Rummy or Cribbage.
Miss Daniels graded papers – the school year was coming to a close, and she brought her schoolwork to the theater. We both already knew I had been assigned to her fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary for the following fall term. I was too shy to call her anything other than Miss Daniels, although as a member of the crew, I had permission to call her Mary at the theater. She had taken notice of the books I carried with me to the theater to kill time during the performances. (I helped set the stage before the opening curtain and at the intermission. Beyond that, I had nothing else to do for the entire two acts.) She also knew I had won the fourth grade spelling bee at my school earlier that spring, so she gave me the master list and let me grade spelling tests while she worked on the trickier composition papers.
“Of course, next fall, when I’m your teacher, you probably shouldn’t mention this to anyone. You aren’t doing anything wrong,” she said quickly, when she saw my look of alarm. “You have a master sheet to grade from, so you can’t make a mistake. But the other kids might think you are teacher’s pet.” She smiled down at me. “You wouldn’t want that, would you Mini Flea?”
My father’s nickname for me – everyone at the theater called me that, and I didn’t let on that I hated it. These grownups really liked me for not being one of those whiney stupid brats, so why start acting like one over a nickname? She was letting me grade papers for kids who were a class year ahead of me, kids that picked on me at recess because I was skinny, tall, wore glasses, and needed braces (I would later get teased for having braces). I felt some vindication in knowing that Sean G. couldn’t spell worth a crap, and neither could mean girl, Michelle. Knowing that nerdy little Timmy could spell made me like him better.
Did I mention I was 10?
During rehearsals and then performances, when we weren’t grading, Miss Daniels and I played Rummy. Or we would read, sitting side by side, each engrossed in our own tomes. I probably had a Nancy Drew mystery or one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, or maybe I was visiting Narnia. Miss Daniels always had something literary or historical. Her books were much thicker than mine. She would challenge me to match her page for page as we held our books spine to spine to compare the heft of them.
When the school year finally began, I greeted Miss Daniels nervously, but her warm smile and conspiratorial wink put me right at ease. She called me Mini Flea the first day during roll call, and the rest of the class laughed. I was humiliated until Miss Daniels told the class about our summer together, backstage, playing cards, making theater. (she made no mention of grading papers.) She didn’t build me up too much, but no one teased me about it after that.
I meant to tell you about my relationship with Be verbs and instead Miss Daniels came out of my fingers. But the two are so connected…she taught them to me. She taught me punctuation too: commas, colons, semi colons, and ellipses. (She also discovered, and told the world, that I suck at math…it surprised everyone but me.) Under her tutelage I wrote poetry, stories, my “first novel.” Under her booming alto voice I chanted, “Am…is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”
Yesterday, I turned all the Be verbs in my latest novel-in-process red. One Be verb at a time, I searched and replaced present and past tense. The manuscript is half red now, and I have to revise until the manuscript goes back to black.
My eighth grade composition teacher, whose name I don’t recall, taught me why Be verbs in a sentence MIGHT be a sign of crap writing, but that lesson would have failed to resonate had Miss Daniels not successfully drilled the Be Verbs into my head in the first place. (The eighth grade Comp teacher was a cool lady too, and she taught me much about writing. She would physically cut every use of “you” out of our homework, and before returning our graded compositions, she would hold them up to the window. The greater the number of holes, the lower the grade.) When I am done revising (again) the novel will be better, tighter, leaner. Some Be verbs will remain, but many will go away, replaced by stronger, more active verbs that kick and punch, kiss, fire, jump, twirl, sip, tease, and survive.