When I was a senior in high school, I landed the lead in the spring musical. I'd already learned to love the theater with a passion since it had finally gotten me out of my shell, convinced me I wasn't worthless after all, and filled me with an exuberant joy I'd never known before.

Now I'd even gotten the lead. Why not make a life in the theater?

So I approached the director, Mr. Murphy, with an eager, breathless question: "Do you think I have what it takes to make it as an actor?"

The answer, obvious to everyone but me, was a resounding "No!"

Murphy was a wise and compassionate man. Rather than destroy me with a harsh truth, he replied with a sage one. "That's the wrong question, Dave. Could you do anything else and still be happy?"

"Of course," I said.

"Then don't be an actor. It's just too hard."

Meanwhile, the first glimmerings of my real vocation had already made their debut.

In my sophomore U.S. History class, for instance, everyone had to give some sort of oral report. This was before I'd discovered the theater, when for me there was no nightmare more frightening than speaking in public.

Nonetheless, when, shaking, I stood before the class to explain Civil War Gen. George McClellan's ill-fated march up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond, latent gifts emerged of their own accord, in particular my flair for the dramatic and my knack for telling a good story.


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McClellan could have ended the war easily if only, once across the Potomac River, he'd unleashed his army pell-mell toward a city that was scarcely defended. Ah, but although McClellan -- hapless soul! -- was a genius at building an army, he was afraid to use it. He proceeded oh-so-cautiously -- which I acted out, taking ponderous steps, my eyes anxious as I checked off each imaginary division behind me -- allowing the Confederates time to prepare.

McClellan hesitated, yet more when scouts reported Confederate regiment after regiment marching across a clearing. The truth was, there was only one regiment that kept running back around through the trees, regrouping with different flags, and marching through the clearing again.

I pantomimed that ruse out as well, utilizing the teacher's desk as my forest prop. You see, caught up in the story, I couldn't help myself.

When I was done, the class stared open-mouthed. (Who are you, and what have you done with that mousy, stuttering Dave?) The teacher asked me afterward if I'd ever considered becoming a teacher.

"Ha!" I replied derisively.

The scene repeated itself seven years later in the first English class I taught in Spain -- a job I'd pursued, I asserted, only to make a living while in the country. Why the school had hired me I'll never know because, during the interview, I'd stuttered even worse in Spanish.

As I approached the classroom and a gracious colleague wished me luck, "G-g-gracias" was all I could muster. I was terrified.

A few moments later, I stared at 35 high school kids who gazed curiously back.

Then, another miracle occurred: I broke into a grin and introduced myself with a fluid, flawless Spanish I hadn't known I was capable of. Once again, something in my soul knew I was home.

Finally, four years ago, at then end of my two-year leave of absence from teaching, I resigned from a plum job as media relations manager for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Had I lost my mind?

No. I'd just finally realized that, even though teaching was a frustrating, exhausting, and maligned profession (like acting, just too hard), I couldn't do anything else and still be happy.