A Teacher of Imagination and Resilience

Hands of magician with wand and black hat
I once knew a gifted man, a born teacher of imagination and play. He taught children as a natural part of his instinct for life, and he taught the rest of us resilience in the face of illness.

Steven and his lifelong friend Maria arrived in town one day, found an old office space they could rent to start a school and dubbed it Little Earth. Its first citizens were a combination of kindergarten-age kids and the dozens of figures emerging from the imaginations of this gifted pair. Their small students referred to them as the grownup kids because they took the imaginative adventures and instinctive games of children as seriously as any event in adult life. They accepted kids on their own terms, won their confidence and taught them through play-adapted methods.

A School of Imagination and Play

They told dramatic tales with hand puppets and marionette shows, taking on the voices of all the characters as they crouched behind tiny theater curtains. The artifice seemed to disappear as the puppets took on life in zany stories that always reflected back on what the kids were really going through.

Drawing on their network of talented friends, they arranged visits by performers from street theater groups who taught the kids circus arts. Everyone learned to walk on stilts, perform acrobatics and turn into dangerous lions and bears that challenged the ring master’s control and composure as he flashed his string whip. That intense training culminated in a public circus performance in a city park, the Greatest Show on Little Earth. Each kid, no matter how timid or bold, found a role to play and drew great cheers from the crowd.

Each year, All Species Day was celebrated by a parade around the downtown plaza. Kids and parents together dressed as river otters, eagles, polar bears and tigers and marched with signs about the endangered animals and how to protect them. Steven’s teaching was filled with guitar accompanied songs for all instructive and fun occasions. Small and slender, he had a kid-like curiosity, wonder and imagination that saw the play and teaching possibilities in almost everything.

He was also a magician, appearing in his black top hat and tails over blue jeans. Coins, eggs and stuffed animals would appear and disappear, often with the tap of his magic cane over the upturned hat. Reaching for a handkerchief stuffed up his sleeve, he would be amazed as he drew forth an endless stream of red silk. And most miraculously, his assistant, Maria, would disappear in a huge smoke puff from his ever present flash powder. For Halloween evening, the two organized an outdoor extravaganza with bonfires, magic incantations, bursts of mysterious smoke, cauldrons of potions and a gentle witch and wizard presiding over all.

Ceremony and Instruction

There was a sense of instructive ceremony about all of Steven’s ideas. He cajoled the most reluctant kids into playing lead roles in dramas designed to stretch their ideas of who they were and what they could do. This was not just dramatic flair. There were sound teaching principles woven through everything he created.

Eventually, with the help of friends, he and Maria produced a book about Little Earth, and as the school grew into a much larger and more complicated place, they both retired to find new adventures. Steven fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to Egypt.

There with his irrepressible personality, he befriended the sister of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former ruler of the country, and persuaded her to support the establishment of a new school in Alexandria – based, of course, on Little Earth principles. After some years he continued his travels around the world and eventually found his way back to our small city.

But when he returned he brought the news that he had AIDS. Even then, he followed his instinct to teach through ceremony. One night he gathered a group of friends to share with them what the disease meant in his life and what his prospects were. After greeting many he had not seen in years and swapping endless stories, he settled himself on the floor in the middle of the room. There he spread out in a semi-circle before him the dozens of small dark bottles that contained his daily regimen of pills.

A Circle of Life around Dying

He swept his arm over all those medications and said simply: This is the umbrella of hope in the 90s. Always concerned that we know and learn, he described the symptoms he was living with, the impact of the medications and eventually made it clear that this chemical hope might not be effective.

He went through a long decline like most other AIDS patients of that time. Infections plagued and weakened him, minor strokes began to affect his concentration and memory, weakness kept him in a wheelchair, and his body started to shrink as eating became too painful. But he created one more ceremony before he died.

He asked (and no one could ever refuse one of Steven’s requests) that a circle of friends join around him to be present for the end of his life. It was as if he wanted to be sure that his spirit would become one with our own. And so a small phone tree was organized, and one day my wife and I received the call to come.

He was unconscious by then and kept alive by means of an oxygen tank. One friend, who had come from San Francisco where he worked with AIDS patients, took a look at him lying on the bed and agreed that he was just about gone. He had seen a lot of this before. The attending nurse explained that Steven would probably go shortly after the oxygen was shut off. His sister, who had helped him through this long ending phase of life, said it was time. The nurse turned off the tank valve and took the tube from his throat, while we held hands in a circle around his bed as he had wished. He managed a few rough-edged breaths, then a quiet one, then nothing.

I doubt that anyone there thought of him as dead. We all took turns alone with him, saying personal good-byes. When I stood over him, his face still looked close to life, as if he might awaken at any moment and start telling a story. All I could do was bend down and kiss him good-bye.

Lessons of Resilience

Naturally, we organized a costume parade to honor him. The procession around the central plaza was led by his off-white 62 Chevy with one of his trade-marks – the fake feet sticking out of the half-open trunk. The rest of us followed in whatever costume pieces had come immediately to hand – along with a few of our musician friends playing familiar Little Earth songs. Then we packed ourselves into a church hall for an impromptu service, and each took turns reminiscing. The one I most remember was a story told by the AIDS worker from San Francisco.

One day he visited Steven and found him putting up on the walls a series of portraits, each surrounded by his fanciful painting. They all looked like small celebratory shrines. As he looked at the portraits, the visitor recognized each one. He turned to Steven and said: “All these guys treated you horribly – they abused and betrayed you and left you in agony each time. Why are you putting all this up as if you’re honoring them?”

Steven answered quite simply: “Yes, it’s true they hurt me – but they were all angels who brought love into my life, and I want to celebrate each one.”

That was pure Steven, who died when he was 36. There is no forgetting him or the spirit he shared with everyone he knew – a spirit that might appear in a sudden flash of light tossed from his magic hand.

Has there been a special person in your life who has helped in whatever way to wake up a sleeping part of your spirit and teach you about the meaning of resilience?

One Response to “A Teacher of Imagination and Resilience”

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  1. Storied Mind says:

    A Teacher of Imagination and Resilience…

    A Teacher of Imagination and Resilience I once knew a gifted man, a born teacher of imagination and play…

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