Are You Willing?

by Lauri

          “Nooooo!” Screamed the voice in my head as I walked past my still silent student.

For years, I taught college theater classes on high school campuses in East Palo Alto.

I’d tried what felt like a gazillion different things to get them to do their homework. The carrot. The stick. None of which felt right.

One storytelling assignment was pass-fail. If you turned in a written version and spoke your story front of the class, you got 100%. Still, many didn’t do it, taking an “F” instead.

At the time I noticed my friend and yoga teacher Jean Mazzei’s use of the word “willing.” A voice inside me whispered, “Try that. Use the word willing.”

          So I did.

Over the course of 3 days of stories, I repeatedly asked this group of 30 students, “Who is willing to go next?”

At times a wave of willing students’ hands shot up all at once.

At other times we sat in long silences while the whole room wished someone else would go.

I felt I needed to wait out those long silences in service of my students. So I dug my heels in and channeled a kind of stubborn patience.

Someone would inevitably end the silence by telling their story, which led to another wave of enthusiastic volunteering.

Before the exercise, one student had privately told me she was nervous. I knew eventually she would need to confront her fear.

In the end, she was the only student who hadn’t yet spoken.

          I thought, ‘Oh, man, how am I going to use the word ‘willing’ when she’s the only one left?”

Then it hit me: When she’d pulled me aside, she’d specifically asked if she had to share in front of everyone.

          I leaned into that and asked, “Are you willing to go in front of the entire class?”

          She lifted her eyes, peaked at me through her hair, and shook her head “no,” without words.

          I sent half the class out to the school yard, and asked, “Are you willing to go in front of this group?”


                    I sent half of the remaining students away and asked again.


                    She still wasn’t using her voice, just shaking her head.

          “Are you willing to pick 2 or 3 classmates to hear your story?”


                    This time I asked her to answer with her voice.

          A breathy “No.”

Doing my best “calm like Mother Theresa” impression as that screaming internal “Nooooo” rang in my mind, I crossed the room to let the other students back in. That classroom door felt miles away.

          Just as my hand reached the knob, she said, “Wait.”

While jumping for joy on the inside, I turned slowly around so my enthusiasm wouldn’t spook her. She named three friends.

          I managed to reply with a cool, grounded, “Okay.”

Her three friends watched as she willingly shared her story.

The most important part of teaching is the space we hold.

For me, holding space isn’t dragging people kicking and screaming to what you believe they should be doing. It’s calmly asking, “Will you jump into the pool of courage, of being seen, to play with us?”

Are you willing?

With passion & love, 


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