Mesmerizing an auditorium filled with 1,000 middle and high school students is not easy — especially when life lessons are the underlying theme of the day — but six speakers did just that Thursday on the first day of the Pebble Beach Authors & Ideas Festival.
Two best-selling authors, a superior court judge, a Shakespearean actress, a field worker-turned doctor and a classical music conductor played to a laughing, applauding, appreciative audience at Santa Catalina School in Monterey.
Though they spoke on Student Day, speakers had not-so-subtle inspiration for the teachers as well.
"My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, saved my life," said novelist Jonathan Evison. "I'm biochemically manic — a real behavioral problem — which means that nowadays they might be trying to medicate me. She quickly realized that I had an interest in writing, so she sat me in a corner and let me write.
"In doing so, she accomplished two things," Evison said. "First, she was able to teach her class without distractions. Second, she made a writer out of me."
Evison urged students to pursue what they love and to persevere. He said he was fired from his job at his friend's ice cream parlor when he was 35 and had written eight unpublished novels. When success finally came, it arrived with an epiphany.
"Don't do anything for fame and fortune," he said. "Do it because you love it.
San Francisco Bay Area actress Trish Tillman then took the stage for the daunting challenge of explaining what is cool about Shakespeare. She pulled 10 volunteers onto the stage to try to perform a version of "Romeo and Juliet" in 32 seconds. They got it done in 61.
Consequences of hate
The play, she explained, is not as much about love as it is about the consequences of blind hatred — a theme she likened to modern-day problems in the Middle East.
She surveyed the crowd to determine that well over half of the students have studied a second language. She encouraged them to study William Shakespeare's language the same way.
Dr. Ramon Resa talked about being the son and grandson of Salinas fieldworkers who had little faith he could amount to anything more. That challenge, along with encouragement from a couple of teachers along the way, motivated him to become the first in his family to get an advanced education, including medical school.
"When I applied for medical school, they asked, 'Why do you want to be a doctor?'" Resa said. "I told them I wanted to become a doctor because I wanted to be a role model to the young people in my neighborhood."
Ultimate validation came recently, Resa said, when his son announced he intended to become a doctor. He is in medical school in San Francisco.
Jane Smiley has written 23 books, including "A Thousand Acres," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. But she downplayed the importance of that award to her.
"You can't write for prizes and fame," she said. "You have to write because you enjoy the process."
Judge Glade F. Roper changed the mood significantly with his multi-media presentation about the horrors of drug abuse, which included graphic, groan-inducing slides of methamphetamine users with sores all over their bodies, a few black teeth and startling changes in their appearance during a few months' time.
He realized he wasn't helping drug addicts by sentencing them to jail, he said, so he became one of the first judges in the nation to create a drug-addiction treatment court.
"It's costing us trillions of dollars to put people behind bars. Why? Because it doesn't work. They come out of prison as the same people they were before," he said. "We've learned in recent years that if we send people to treatment, we have about the same success as treatment for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases — and it costs seven to 10 times less than incarceration."
The big finish came from Paul Goodwin, conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival, who got everybody's attention by explaining and musically demonstrating the similarities — and, indeed, the direct connection — between the music of pop icon Miley Cyrus and Bach.
He used artist participation to demonstrate why a conductor is as crucial to an orchestra as a coach is to a football team.
"My job is to do what all good managers do, and that is to persuade the players to play the way I want them to play, while allowing them to think that they're playing the way they want to play," he said. "I have 50 or 100 people onstage — maybe even a choir of 200 — and they've been trained all their lives to do what they do. But without a conductor, it would be complete chaos, because every musician would be doing what he or she wants to do."
Goodwin then turned the stage over to Monterey's Nicholas Brady — age 4 — a world-class violinist who performed Brahms' "Hungarian Dance."
The morning was a smash hit with the students.
"I thought it was very good. I liked it very much. It was very interesting," said Alisal High School senior Anita Saabedra. "My favorite part was the conductor."
The festival continues through Sunday at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.