To this day I have fond memories of my fifth grade class in elementary school.
Our teacher was an elegant woman named Mrs. Mintzer, who to this day is still one of the most inspirational teachers I’ve ever had. She had this inimitable way about her, this je ne sais quois, of enchanting you with her sophisticated spirit. Often clad in silky pleated trousers with breezy safari button-downs, she loved to hear us read our ridiculously imaginative short stories, challenged us when we failed her rapid-fire pop quizzes on multiplication and taught us the courtesy of tipping over ice cream at Eddie’s Sweet Shop. She taught us many many things, but above all, she taught us how to bring a story to life through the most legendary annual school plays the district had ever seen.
Kids would do anything to get into her class and my brother and I were no different. When he found out that he would be in her class that following fall, he bragged all the way home about the hand-me-down stories of her benevolent reign.
And those rumors became daily updates when school started that year. My brother regaled me with story after story about what Mrs. Mintzer had the class do, where she took them to learn something new, what treats she surprised them with. And when the highly anticipated annual school play rolled around, I remember sitting in the uncomfortably squeaky wooden auditorium folding chair in wide-eyed wonder. The almost-professional level singing, the synchronized dancing, the perfectly tailored costumes, the bright shining lights.
I’m not sure if it was my incessant prayers, legacy or just random luck but two years later, I too was placed under her golden care. And it was just as magical as the stories had led me to believe.
There were many highlights that year but none shone more brightly than our annual class production of The King and I. (I promise there is a connection, albeit a loose one, between this random story and Burma).
So, the musical chronicles the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher hired to govern the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now known as Thailand) in the early 1860s. In the story, the relationship between the King and Anna walks a fine line between cultural conflict and a deep love that neither can admit. A timeless and curious dance between two strong-willed forces, the story unfolded over the next 2 months and immersed us in script-memorizing, dance lessons, costume fittings, backdrop painting, production control. Each one of us had a role to play in the production and my roles included being a royal dancer as well as one of the king’s hundreds of kids. (contraception? what’s that…)
Anyhow, the role that most of us were completely enchanted and captivated by was the role of Tuptim, a beautiful slave girl gifted to the King from Burma. Tuptim, played by my classmate Petra whose striking beauty and quietly demure persona commanded the room’s full attention, tries time and time again to reunite with her forbidden Burmese lover, Lun Tha. Faced with the punishment of death, Tuptim and her lover continue to meet in secret (and at one point sing the lovely “We kiss in the shadow” song, which I sang in the shower for years, to the agony of my family).
At the time I had never heard of the country, but was poignantly touched by the unbreakable resolve of the two star-crossed lovers from Burma. Even decades later, the tenderness and strength of their bond is a reminder of life’s ephemeral nature and the quest for true happiness.
During my trip to Yangon, Burma, I found that the old capital’s dichotomous array of colonial structures and traditional golden pagodas shared the same curious dance as Anna and the King. The two-day trek through the city’s partially modernized streets was not an easy or pleasant one but one that showed the same passion and determination as Tuptim and Lun Tha. Though still a ways off from joining the developed world, I believe that this fire and resolve in Burma’s citizens are the key to creating a free and democratic nation for the people.
I learned a great many things from Mrs. Mintzer that year: double-digit multiplication, the geography of Canada, calculating percentage. But I found that the most valuable lesson was not of the mind, but matters of the heart.