My Incredible True Story of London and How I Knew I was Meant to be a Writer.
Part One: A Fish Out of Water
“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”
In 1998, during the fall semester of my senior year in college, I took my first solo trip abroad to study theatre education in London, England, at the Central School of Speech and Drama in their PGCE (post-graduate certificate of education) program. I was 21 and though as a teenager I had lived with my family for three years overseas in Okinawa, Japan, I had never traveled anywhere by myself. I left the U.S. feeling adventurous and determined. My first night in London, I stayed in a hotel room the size of a closet. I'm not kidding. It only had enough room for a twin bed and a small nightstand with a dainty lamp. My bathroom was literally a hole in the wall with three 2'x2' blocks for the toilet, sink, and shower. I laughed out loud when I opened its half-sized door. I sat down on the bed, looked up at the basement-sized window, and cried.
What am I doing here?
Determined not to be defeated within the first 24 hours, I grabbed my backpack and left the hotel to scout on my own. A block away from the hotel, I found the entrance to Victoria Station where all the trains arrive in the city. At the nearest newsstand, I bought an A-Z (Z pronounced "Zed") book with all the maps in London. (For any young people reading this: maps are smartphone google maps printed on paper.) This map book saved my life. I discovered that Buckingham Palace was only three blocks away! I can't describe in true to life words what it felt like to turn a corner and see the tall, black gates to the palace and the Queen's royal guards standing watch. A chorus of angels resounded in my mind. Later, after seeing Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament, I got hungry and actually found, of all places, a Pizza Hut. I think my guardian angel was working overtime because I sat down next to a pair of ladies who turned out to be Canadian (Thank God!) and they graciously helped me count out the right about of money to pay my bill.
As I headed back to my hotel down a side street a man dressed in a tweed suit, carrying an umbrella, tipped his cap at me and asked the location of a particular street. Not skipping a beat, I opened my A-Z book and showed him the way, to which he jovially thanked me for my assistance. Even in that ironic moment, I felt like a real Londoner. My enthusiasm was not to last long.
The next morning, my sponsor drove me to a youth hostel where I would be staying for three weeks until the arrival of my three other classmates, who would be taking courses in Central's undergraduate acting program. While I unpacked my things, I overheard some of the girls in the room talking French. (Let me preface what happened next by saying, I love the French and I do not hold this experience against the French people.) As the girls walked past me I said hello and got no response. They even acknowledge my existence.
A few minutes later, I went to the front desk for some toiletries that were complimentary and tapped on the glass to get the attendant's attention. She didn't look at me so I tried again. Nothing. Another girl walked past me a few moments later, said something in French to the attendant, and received her things. Intense fear gripped me. If I stay here I won't survive. I turned to the payphone behind me, got out my phone card, and dialed my sponsor. After I relayed everything to my sponsor, she told me to hold tight and she would be there to pick me up within the hour. To my relief, she took me to an old friend's home who was an ExPat American who had married a Brit and been in the country for over 30 years. She was willing to take me in for the next three weeks. I will be eternally grateful to Ms. Judy Miller of Kilburn!
On my first day of classes at the Central School, I sat in a lecture hall among about 25-30 graduate-level students ranging in ages of 23-26. I was introduced to the group as a visiting American undergraduate student. This got me stares, and even glares, which silently shouted at me, "What are you doing here?" I knew they not only saw me as a "foreigner" but an "outsider." I didn't understand half of the English system of education curriculum they had all obviously been studying for a year, yet I would be going into a local school as a student teacher in three weeks to, you know, actually teach!
First, we had to form groups and put together a theatre workshop based on a pre-selected theme that we would then present at various schools. I was placed in a group that was given the theme of Theatre of the Absurd. (I think only theatre majors and drama teachers will understand how comical and ironic this choice of theme was for me at that time.) What saved me was the choice of play we performed, which was titled: Picnic on the Battlefield (years later I would direct my high school drama students in this play for a district competition they would go on to win 2nd place to advance to regionals.) In the play, a soldier fearful in battle captures an enemy soldier (just as afraid) and doesn't know what to do with him, so they become friends and cleverly figure out how to reasonably end the war. The absurdity is when the first soldier's parents arrive on the battlefield to have a "picnic" with their son and his new friend. It's as insanely fun as it sounds. Of course, I played the enemy soldier because, well, I was the foreigner in the group after all.
To complicate matters further, the organizer of the housing plans for the incoming students that were to join me dropped the ball. With only a week left before their arrival, we had no place to stay. Judy Miller, my mom away from home, told me about the newspaper Loot, which had all the housing available in the entire London area. However, it was widely read so I had to pick up a copy every day by 6 am or there would be none left. Before I left for classes each morning, I ran down to the Tube station, grabbed my copy, and scowled the pages while I rode the train to Central. The day before the others arrived, I found a one-bedroom flat on Lancaster Drive, two blocks from the Central School. My classmates would have no train commute. They could walk to school. I, on the other hand, would have to ride seven stops and walk five blocks each day once I started student teaching at my host school in Kingsbury, Northern London.
I still remember the day I took the Tube into the airport to picked up the others. We all rode a double-decker bus back into London so they could see the city in all its glory. One of them, Nancy, whom I knew well, shared my love of singing. The other girl, Janet, who to this day beats to her own drum, definitely inspired me to be unique. Then there was Dylan, "macho man" as I called him...I know he will laugh if he ever reads this because we didn't like each other in the beginning. (More on this change of heart in a later post.)
Things went relatively well in my theatre workshop tour group until the day we performed in a school where I had been chosen to lead the workshop after the performance. (As fate would have it, this was also Kingsbury High School, where I would be assigned to student teach.) The performance went like clockwork but when I started to present the workshop and the students realized I really was an American and not a Brit using an American accent, they lost their minds and we lost control of the workshop. I felt humiliated and a failure as a teacher (and I hadn't even begun yet!). And this would not be the worst of it for me that week either...
The next day, I arrived at a Tube station where I was supposed to meet my group but no one was there. I managed to find the address of the school and took the tube to there on my own. When I arrived, my group met me with angry silence. I had arrived too late to do the performance so we were only able to talk to the students about our theatre genre. To this day I still don't know how I got the meeting time wrong, but somehow I had failed again.
In our after-action group discussion back at Central, members of my group berated me for everything that had failed to be a success. I couldn't help the tears that fell in front of them. Then suddenly, a teammate spoke up on my behalf. I don't know where her zeal came from as she was usually a quiet person, but she put them all in their place. Yes, I wasn't like them, but they had years of experience beyond me and how dare they blame me for everything when we were all supposed to be a team. She said they were the problem because not one of them had ever really acknowledged that I was on their team because I was an undergrad and an American. They all sat in stunned silence when she was done. To my surprise, the first person to accuse me of failing actually apologized for being a jerk. Then the rest followed suit. This act of sudden kindness should have been enough to make things better for me. Yet, all I wanted to do after that was go home.
That night, when I would normally write in my journal and spend some time with Nancy and Janet, I had to get out of the flat (apartment). It was a dreary, soggy night out and spritz-like rain hung in the damp, cold air. I didn't know where I was going and I didn't care. I walked until I found a small pathway into a dark area. The light between the trees cast down enough light for me to see a lonely bench near the path. I sat down on the bench and I prayed, "God, what am I doing here?"
Then I waited for something, anything to happen.