by Tanya Ward Goodman
Way back in college, when I was a theatre major, one of my class assignments was to become an animal. I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo and observed the penguins. Imagining that my feet attached directly to my hips, I cultivated the “penguin walk.” I stood contemplatively with one wing held out from my side. I blinked and turned my head. At my professor’s behest, I aspired to “be penguin.”
Now, I should say that, in college, I was a nervous person. I took small, fast steps and was prone to daydreaming. It is very possible that you might have caught me, standing with one arm held out from my side, blinking in the sun with only my thoughts to keep me company. It is very possible that I was slightly penguin-like to begin with. Perhaps we all have a little penguin inside us, but we also have a little lion or crocodile or condor.
My acting professor applauded my penguin and I was happy. For our next assignment, I was to be Blanche Du Bois from “Streetcar Named Desire.” I filled my mind with the fluttering of moth wings and silk handkerchiefs, I looked into the mirror and made my eyes into deep pools of sadness and lost hope. I wore a filmy, pink dress and carried a box of letters from my ex-boyfriend hoping that the residual regret on the page might rise up like a fine dust around my body on the stage.
“You’re still a penguin,” my professor said. “Isn’t she a penguin?”
When we transformed ourselves into characters based on inanimate objects, my “tube of oil paint” was also dubbed “penguin.” “Guest at a wedding,” was “the penguin near the punch bowl.” It seemed that when she looked at me, my professor wore black and white goggles. And, after a time, when I looked at myself, so did I. It was hard to slow my quick pace, my words came in quick bursts or not at all and on stage I retreated deeper and deeper into a kind of blinking trance.
At the end of the year, I transferred out of her class and changed my major. I had found that I enjoyed writing just as much as acting and, in my writing classes, no one ever accused me of penguin prose.
I think of all this now, because I am the parent of two growing children. My son is athletic and strong. His legs are meaty with muscle and he rarely speaks when he can shout. Other parents comment on his outsized energy and his sturdy body. He’s been compared to a bull in a china shop, the Tasmanian Devil and a force of nature. “Fearless,” these parents say. And sometimes “brute.”
My boy named our dog, “Grace.” He is afraid to go upstairs in the dark and is sometimes so filled with his own nervous energy that he chews a hole in his shirt. As much as he pounds on his sister, he always compliments her outfit when she comes to the breakfast table. He can be so quiet and light on his feet that he can observe a lizard from an inch away. He is strong and fast and wild and kind and gentle and frightened. He is cheetah and kitten.
It is almost impossible to resist categorizing people. It helps to look out across a crowded school auditorium or classroom or workplace and see “chatty,” “angry,” “friendly,” “sturdy,” “reliable.” But these simple categories don’t do justice to the whole person. In the case of my theatre professor, I saw her as “crazy” and “harsh,” but she was in the middle of a divorce and so she was also sad and disappointed and heartbroken. Under different circumstances, she might have been warm and compassionate.
I want my children to understand that they can be angry, but that doesn’t make them an angry person. They can be strong in one area and weak in another. I want them to grow without limits and without definition into their best selves.