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As I sit down to write this, I am overwhelmed by the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and how it’s already tearing us even further apart then we were a week ago. How do we make our way through such a moment without lashing out at friend and foe alike without anger and with rushing into hasty responses? How do we keep from putting everyone into one camp or its opposite?

The words in my mind that are coloring everything I say or do or try to make today are: go slow, think things through, find agreements, find nuance.

Sterling Scott was a great beast of a man. He played basketball at Tulane. Some said he had been an All-American, but I never looked this up. Looking back, I think I didn’t want to risk losing part of his legendary stature and presence-the star athlete, who took sabbaticals to India and East Germany and often did his best teaching by never saying a word, but by fixing you with a withering look that said, “That’s the best you can offer me? You’re better than that’ That was unworthy of you”. Watching him lumber through the halls of Thornridge High School, hurling about his giant body, an athlete who’d “put on a pound or two”, there was one obvious thing. This was not a man you wanted to take on under the basket, or anywhere else in its vicinity.

He was also one of my history teachers. I first encountered Mr. Scott in the fall of my sophomore year. The class was Survey of History, and Junior and Senior teammates on the swimming team had told me it was worth signing up for. He had the most interesting teaching style. Once he began a class by saying. “If you had a button in front of you, and by pushing it, you could blow up everyone in the Soviet Union, would you do it?” This was the fall of 1961, just a short year before the Cuban Missel Crisis. On the Beach had been a recent bestseller and Fail Safe was about to be published. There was a lot of talk about the end of the world scenarios, the product of the evil empire of Russia. On that day, in response to that question, I remember a sea of hands erupting around me. I wish I could remember if mine went up as well. It was a tough choice. I know that. Did I just block or erase a shameful memory? What I do remember is Sterling Scott’s arms and legs flying out, no exploding, in all directions from where he sat perched on his desk in front of us, and the words, “Oh my God!” exploding from his mouth. Then we went on with the day’s lesson-no lecture, no explanation, no chastisement, or attempt at enlightenment. For all its theatrics, his reaction struck me as a nuanced response. He didn’t yell at us, lecture us. Did he know what he was letting himself in for? Who we, his students were? I honestly couldn’t read what he thought. And he had moved on to recounting the archeological explorations of Heinrich Schliemann and the gold of Troy.

Viola Spolin once said something to the effect that you can’t teach anyone anything. You can’t tell people what to think or give them the answer. All you can do is put out the information in an atmosphere where it can be processed. On both accounts, I would give Mr. Scott got an “A” for that day. He gave us quite a provocative question, and what an atmosphere he created.

This was the beginning of my understanding of two conflicting ideas or opinions being allowed to exist in the same space, even if it wasn’t the most subtle of executions.

“Have you read Hegel?” my friend the Ibsen scholar, Brian Johnston said to me when I was a fifty year old still running around life with the training wheels on. I confessed I hadn’t.

A week or so later he presented me with a copy of what he called “My much-excoriated book.” The book was The Ibsen Cycle, which attempted no less a task than to demonstrate that Ibsen planned his last twelve plays, beginning with Pillars of Society, as “one cycle paralleling exactly Hegel’s account of the evolution of the human consciousness.” Wow! The book was met with the utmost derision of the Ibsen establishment. While I’m still working to understand the complexity of Brian’s argument or to read The Ibsen Cycle from cover to cover, I can report that in the “In the less than two decades since The Ibsen Cycle, Johnston’s impact has been so profound that there has been an almost complete turnaround in Ibsen criticism and Ibsen production. . . . “ No one writes about Ibsen like Brian Johnston.”

“You know Brecht was very influenced by Hegel,” said Brian.

He just passed on a book, no other comment. And from this book, I began to learn how the dramatic argument of a Brecht play is structured and how it works in performance. The old thesis, antithesis, synthesis proposition Brecht’s plays like all great plays cannot be reduced to one simple theme or argument. They are about his and that followed made into the other. Courage is a domestic play, it’s a political play. Is Mother Courage an anti-war play, yes it is, but it’s also about the dynamics of a family struggling to survive, and a mother’s flawed love for family. It’s about understanding what we can control and what we can’t. It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s all of the above. Nothing totally right, nothing totally wrong. It’s about life.

The great British director Adrian Noble, in his book on Shakespearian productions, writes of the indispensable line. It’s the one line in the play that if you had to get rid of every other piece of text would be the one that remains.

Here’s my vote for that line in Mother Courage: “All I want is to get me and my children and my cart through all this.”

Goodbye, Ruth. Oh, how we are missing you. But you know what? Scalia was your good pal. You went hunting together. It’s going to take me a while to figure that out. Some time to understand what you saw in him and where you were coming from. There must have been something to him that made possible such a nuanced friendship.

(Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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