teachable moment.

Last night I was teaching a residency on “The Mousetrap” to a group of teenagers. And, like, okay. “The Mousetrap.” Whatever. Ugh. In case you don’t know “The Mousetrap” — it’s the Agatha Christie murder mystery that has been running in London’s West End since forever, and it’s the grandfather of all of those tropes: bunch of people gathered at a house in a storm, someone is dead, whodunit.

It’s been awhile since I read it, and I had forgotten how much the classic ‘murder mystery’ relies on dated, tired stereotypes at its core. It was written in the late forties and early fifties, and a lot of the plot hinges on tired stereotypes: the “masculine woman with the firm handshake,” the “peculiar young man with an enthusiasm for cooking and furniture styles,” the “creepy foreigner with the funny accent.” It’s written before anyone was coming right out and using words like “gay” or “lesbian,” but it’s there, if you read closely.

I’m watching these kids start to clock the coded language. Some of my students have accents. Some might be questioning their own sexuality. And I’m watching them realize that the entire script hinges on this idea that those who are “other” are suspicious. The default assumption that if a quirk about your essential nature that falls outside the ‘straight white norm,’ it’s enough to count against you in a murder investigation.

And then one of my students pipes up, the smallest one of the bunch, who has a learning disability. She’s been staring at the section of the script where the (inferred gay) character is offering to help prepare dinner, to the derision of others.

She says, “I think Christopher is a really nice guy, and I don’t know why people think he’s so strange. I think he’s a lot like me. Our brains just work a little bit differently, and it takes us longer to get places sometimes. But mostly, everybody is really nice to me, and patient when my brain is doing different things. I wish they would be nice to Christopher.”

I wish they would be nice to Christopher, too. I wished that right as my heart began to melt.

The whodunit because a whodathunkit in that single moment: who’d have thunk that an old chestnut of a play that leans so heavily on stereotype could unlock something that looked so much like empathy. That could have caused the other kids to sit up and listen, to be just a little bit more patient.

The world is filled with a lot of fear these days. Fear of others. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what is not like us. Fear of what is different.

It was a little moment, and this is just a little story, a drop in the bucket. But. I needed that. I needed that reminder of why stories are important. I needed to remember how we learn to be less afraid.

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This is my library card from when I was a kid. I carry it in my wallet today.

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21 thoughts on “teachable moment.

  1. Nice post. That kid’s comment was great. Interesting about the Agatha Christie book. And here my Grandpa says that one can never go wrong in reading a Christie book. Hmm

  2. When I was in high school we did the play one year. I remember many of us in the show questioned a lot of the stereo types in the show, because we grew up in a very white very racist area. We worried about how the community would take us doing the show. Well, in the end we pushed these questions and ideas right into the audiences faces. Why? Because we could and we wanted to show that being different shouldn’t matter. Everyone things that the theater kids are always the strange scary odd balls of the school. TV shows and movies also make the stereo type stick.

    I am glad that your kids helped open up a new door when thinking about stereo types. Very nice.

  3. I read and reacted well to this vignette yesterday. But I have given it more thought and feel the need to comment further, after recalling a personal interaction with someone that had taken place earlier in yesterday’s work day.

    I met an individual; noted her body habitus and her name, and asked if she were related to another person. Her reaction to the question was offbeat. I then noticed that as we were speaking she was making unusual hand motions, just with her left hand, actually, and when the time was right I asked her about them. And that opened the door to the insight that she was an individual with very serious mental health issues who had stopped her medications and needed help.

    Noticing signs and oddities may lead to questions that may lead to important answers; just ask Sherlock Holmes. But oddities, or differences aren’t automatically bad things.

    We are not a homogenized entity; we are each unique. Being different, being someone who stands out from the norm isn’t bad; it’s just -different. Its what makes the great different from the average; what makes the strange, strange. Its what makes the interesting, interesting.

    The point is, that we are different from one another does not imply an automatic pejorative or negative judgment; our differences are an inimitable part of who we are as people. Its how we react to ourselves and how others react to our quirks and foibles that categorizes those departures from the norm.

    Call the norm the mundane and you may understand better.

    Who wants to be mundane? Why does the peacock strut his plumage? And yet, there is psychological safety in fitting in, in being part of the herd. Think of the fashion world- the trend setters are the outliers; the fashion followers who buy into the trend are the new norm; and when the new norm becomes the mundane we count on the different one to push us on to the new norm. To whom does our world give the accolades- the trend setter or the followers?

    Viva la difference; where would we be without it? Different isn’t an automatic negative. Help your students take pride and gain strength from their own uniqueness, teacher. You understand this well; its part of your gift and your challenge as a person and as an educator to help take them to that next level. Those kids will be better for it, as will you.

  4. One of the beautiful things about old plays with a new generation is that and old script is a piece of time trapped in amber. There is a lot for us to learn about both the time we see and the time now. We can look at the script in amber, but we can’t really touch it. Any modern run of the show will be a modern interpretation of it.

    I was the TD for a children’s theater company in what is one of the two most diverse zip-codes in the United States. The local opera put on South Pacific, and we were discussing the show one day. Race came up as a theme in the way Bloody Mary was treated, but my cast mostly looked at that as gender. Race as a determiner as to who one could love did not. Nellie rejecting Emile over his French-Polynesian children was looked at as a jealousy over a previous wife thing more than a race thing, even though it is an explicit part of the story with it’s own song.

    This was just not the way that racism manifests for my cast.

    South Pacific began it’s run 2 years before Mousetrap, so both are a product of the same time. Perhaps the only way for us to really understand the difference between that time and now is through the lens of people who are not experienced enough in theater to have read the derivative works that would otherwise be a bridge.

  5. One thing I like about Agatha Christie is that even though she did use a lot of old stereotypes I oftentimes feel like she was turning them around a bit. For example she might have a character who was very clearly anti-foreigner, anti-semitic, or whatever, but she’d find a way to show in the end how silly & out of date that person was. Maybe that isn’t the case in all of her books, but I’ve read almost all of them, & I really think that for her time period she was actually quite progressive. I don’t think that because a writer creates characters who are representative of their time necessarily means the writer approves of those characters. I think she was just being realistic. But maybe I’m being overly forgiving because I do love her stories so much. (I’ve been reading them since I was about 15.)

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