- James shares his story about his childhood experience with surgery on his eyelids and how it changed him.
- Edutainment was a calling that was sparked by a conversation with Michael J. Fox. Follow his journey below.
James joined Rae on the Daily Drop In to chat about aligning values, beliefs, and actions.
My first memory is that of darkness.
I am clawing at my face, I can’t see, and I’m four years old. Just had surgery on my eyelids because my eyelashes were growing into my eyeball. I remember my mother crying and my father consoling her. Lying supine on the bed, I remember the feeling of the cotton sheets on my ankle, and the sound my hair made on the pillow.
Pfush pfush pfush
The next thing I remember is an absolute calm, which I’m now realizing was probably the remnants of the anesthesia. I stop moving and my muscles relax.
My parents are asking how I’m doing. They are touching my arms because I think they’re afraid to touch my face or my head. My dad says that the surgery was successful and something about how it’ll take some time until I take bandages off and see. I say ok and fall asleep.
When I woke up, I forgot the bandages and try to open my eyes. My mother, with a voice like worn leather, says to be cool and that I slept all night. I tell my mother I feel fine and wiggle off the bed. I land on my hands and knees but I recognize the floor. It’s my bedroom floor. I know I didn’t come straight home from having eye surgery, but my memory only goes back so far.My first memory may have been of darkness, yet it illuminated my path forward. I learned to adapt to new circumstances, and that ignited a passion to continue exploring and learning. Click To Tweet
On the floor, I start feeling my way around my room, touching my bed again, then my mother’s arm, then the nightstand. Crawling over to explore the rest of the room, I bump into my tiny basketball I must have left on the floor. At some point, I stand up and walk to the next room, which is the kitchen.
I find my way across the entire apartment, hearing my mother following me to make sure I don’t hurt myself or knock over furniture. It would be cavalier to say that I got used to it, but I adjusted to my new (temporary) lifestyle. I focused on my other senses to navigate the space, went back to my room, and played with my GI Joes. The day moved quickly and soon it was time for me to eat dinner. My parents put me back in my bed so that I could go back to sleep.
The bandages came off at some point, but I am not sure if it was a couple of days or a week. When I could see again, the first thing I did was stare at my bruised eye area. Raised my eyebrows. Lowered my eyebrows. Smiled. Made a sad face. Then I burst out laughing. My face was super funny. Excitedly, I went to look in my bedroom and saw my toys on the ground looking very lonely. So I sat next to them, closed my eyes, and then laid on top of them. I realized how much I liked the feel of my toys as much as I liked playing with them.
Eye Opening Experience Leads to Epiphany
I reflect on that brief time of my life often, particularly when asked why I quit a moderately successful acting career to become an educator. When my bandages came off, somehow my four year old brain understood the differences in humanity, differences in ability, differences in experiences, but most importantly, the similarities within all of us. I knew I was the same kid and my parents were the same parents, but we had to modify our behavior and adapt to new circumstances.
When I went to school the following year, I noticed how some kids and their families were treated differently based on the way they looked, the way they dressed, the way the spoke English, or the way they processed information. I saw them ridiculed and dismissed. As my friends and I became older, we were placed into different groups: the ‘regular’ class, the ‘gifted’ class, or the ‘special’ class. These designations had zero to do with us as individuals, but based on what we knew at a certain time, on a certain day, in a given year. School was not about learning. It was about categorizing.
Edutainment, a Calling
Even at a young age, that ran against my own sense of morality and rightness. I knew that I wanted to shift that narrative and that I would devote my life to it. In 1988 when Boogie Down Productions (BDP) released an album called Edutainment, I found my calling. Edutainment, as KRS ONE, the lead lyricist for BDP stated, is education combined with entertainment. I didn’t know how to do that, though I was confident I had to do figure out a way to become an edutainer.
My first foray into edutainment was being an actor, modeling myself off of a dramatic Richard Pryor or comedic Sidney Poitier. Educating audiences in the intricacies and complexities of the Black experience, I steered away from stereotypes, to take on roles like ‘Isobel’, a Portugese woman mourning the loss of a loved one. And in Lion in the Streets, or ‘Klaus’ in The Others Within, which was about a Black German who wanted to join Hitler Youth in the early 1930s because he loved his birthplace so much.
For 20 years I pursued this path and ended up turning more roles down than I accepted. I still had to pay rent, so I started working as a teaching artist with most of the major arts organizations in New York City. I reveled in the ability to share my artistic practice with young people in the public, private, and charter schools. At first, I thought teaching artistry would only be a side job between acting roles, but the more I worked as a teaching artist, the more I realized that it was the true embodiment of edutainment.
Learning on Fire
I threw myself headfirst into learning about teaching strategies, studied arts education practitioners, and researched brain development. My bookshelves were filling up quickly with books by Dorothy Heathcote, Augusto Boal, Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Cecily O’Neill. I would fall asleep thinking of how to teach this subject or that subject. I paid close attention to the interactions of young people, how they took in information, what they talked about, and what were their interests.[scroll down to keep reading]
Wise Words from Michael J. Fox
While on the set of the Michael J. Fox Show, I was sitting in my trailer reading a book to prepare for a class I was going to teach. The production assistant called me to set. I went to stand next to Michael J. Fox and we said hello to each other. He is one of the nicest people on the planet. Just a great human who was very generous to me. Somehow, and as most parents do, we got to the subject of schools and kids. I lit up and talked about how much I love teaching. He said, “When I said I wanted to do tv again, I got asked why. Why would I want to go back to tv? And I told them to put a face to Parkinson’s.”
I knew right there that I was done acting. Unsure why Michael J. Fox told me that story but he must have known I needed it. I was so flabbergasted that I was in the presence of a wizard. I just said, “That’s what’s up.” He laughed and said yeah.
A New Journey
After we shot our scene, I went back to my trailer and called my friend and mentor, Michael Wiggins, who worked at a NY based arts education nonprofit. I told him I quit acting and asked if he would hire me. Miraculously, he said yes. He hired me to write curriculum and supervise a high school after-school program. The most impactful element of Michael hiring me, though, was that he introduced me to some amazing artists and together we would create something different. We would create something new; a new way to teach and learn. We would create something Fresh.
My first memory may have been of darkness, yet it illuminated my path forward. I learned to adapt to new circumstances, and that ignited a passion to continue exploring and learning. A passion that underscored the variety of roles that I pursued as an actor. This passion led me to start a new career in my late 30s. A passion that led me to be the edutainer that I am today.
About James Miles
James Miles worked as an educator in the New York City public schools for almost 20 years prior to moving to Seattle in 2016. Before joining MENTOR Washington as the Chief Executive Officer, Miles served as the Executive Director of Seattle based Arts Corps. Originally from Chicago, Miles has worked internationally as an artist and educator, and his work has been featured through Complex magazine, National Guild, The Seattle Times, KOMO, NPR, CBS, NBC, the U.S. Department of Education and ASCD. Miles is a Mayoral Appointee to the Seattle Arts Commission, and on the advisory board of SXSW EDU. His acclaimed TedXTalk focuses on his mission is to narrow achievement gaps using the “arts as a tool to navigate the systems of educational inequity. Learn more about James at www.freshprofessor.com