Life’s a Tossup – Washington Square Magazine

Photography by Kevin Montague

Crescendos of laughter spill from the seams of Linda Levine’s classroom door into the hush of the hallway outside. As the door swings open on the last day of class, nattering students pour out of the room. Around their necks, white paper plates with fluted edges dangle from fuzzy red yarn. The plates are scrawled with compliments from classmates in bright blue, purple and green ink. Some students place their plate-medallions in backpacks and wait in line to hug Levine before they go. “Good luck on your finals,” she calls out, hugging and waving to the still-giddy students.

Today, the ruddy-haired lecturer is teaching “Play and Creativity,” a course that helps San José State frosh adjust to college life. She shows them how to avoid being overwhelmed by mixing up all their everyday “have-tos” with a bit of fun, which happens to be Levine’s specialty.

Arranging Levine’s own schedule often involves a shoehorn and spectacular legerdemain. She fills up some days teaching and helping grieving children pull smiles from frowns and moving corporate teams from mired to motivated andleading any number of other workshops. Some days are just for her — and taking a Zumba class. And other days, Levine might dab on white pancake makeup and don a floppy hat for birthday parties or weddings. You see, in addition to being a teacher, life coach, grief counselor, and workshop facilitator, she is also sometimes Rainbow the Clown.

Levine is a skilled juggler — of everyday things and rubber chickens. When she met her husband, David, she made a calendar of all her activities to see where he’d fit. For 21 years, she’s brought a lot of wacky into his life. For slightly longer, 44 semesters, she’s been adding color to San José State’s Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management Department. And she’s been using her deliberately sunny approach to life to make people’s lives “so much better than better” since her first mime lesson at age eight.

Back in Cincinnati, people would ask little Linda if she was going to sell furniture when she grew up, if she’d speak scotch-guard and wood finishes like generations of Levines before her. “Why would I want to do that?” she’d ask. Inspired by Shrine Circus clowns and lessons in hula-hoop, piano, trampoline, ballet and mime, Bert and Dolly’s daughter had other plans and ideas all her own. She became a vegetarian at 14, and knew she was not going to take her future husband’s name at 11. At 13, she was performing with a feminist mime troupe. In college, she studied the therapeutic uses of recreation. Then, at 26, she left the Buckeye State, she says, “to pursue the dream of being me.”

Living lightly

A self-described “extroverted clown person,” Levine tries to liberate the creative in all her students — gray-chinned seniors, starched CEOs and aimless 18-year-old Spartans. She works a crowded room like an orchestra conductor. She knows when to bring in the horns, when to drop the strings, and seems to intuit what’s needed to help each person find a distinctive rhythm.

When Levine met Mildred Garcia three years ago, Levine saw her potential. Garcia admits she had trouble finding life’s silver lining back when, as a freshman, she would get bogged down with work and school. Now a self-assured San José State junior and future elementary school teacher, Garcia can’t count the number of times each day that she thinks about Levine’s advice to “take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.” Garcia grins when she shares Levine’s simple suggestion to turn in papers, even the ones a student might worry about, with a colored staple. But little changes in attitude lead to bigger ones.

Garcia works as a peer mentor assigned to Levine’s “Play and Creativity” class, which is just one of her jobs. She also has a few bilingual community outreach jobs, where she makes sure students and parents have the educational resources they need. Instead of feeling the burden of the work, Garcia now sees each job as a stepping-stone toward where she wants to go. “Linda’s going to change how you see the world,” she says. “You’ll see it with rainbow-colored glasses.”

On this particular day in class, Garcia works with Levine on a class activity intended to show the students how to “live lightly” even when they’re in the middle of a challenge — just like she learned from Levine.

“Everyone stand in a circle,” Levine says. After answering each question, Levine explains, the students must toss a soft, swishing, yellow beanbag to someone else in the circle.

“What was most challenging about this semester?” Swish-smush.

“Living away from home.” Swish-flump.

“What did you learn about yourself this semester?” asks Levine. Swi–sh. Plop.

“I can’t catch,” he says, scooping up the beanbag from the floor. Everyone giggles.

“OK, now what was most surprising about this semester?” Levine asks as she throws a second beanbag into the mix.

“I didn’t gain the freshman 15,” says another as she high-fives the student next to her. Swish-fumpf.

“I made really nice friends,” says another. Swish-smush.

The swish-flump-swish-smush of the beanbags continues as they keep them in the air. Their voices take on a rhythm, too — one they’ve discovered this semester and are no longer afraid to share.

Stop and smell the cupcakes

Some students come to Levine’s class and tremble or blush at the thought of speaking in class. But when there’s a game to play, everyone relaxes and class participation — and relating to other people — becomes less scary.

Sarah Piazza, a freshman with chestnut hair and pink-icing cheeks, laughs nervously when she’s asked to talk about herself. She continues her story anyway. During the semester, she walked by a homeless man on her way home, Piazza recalls. He asked her for money. Before Levine’s class, she would have walked by such a man, she says, cupping her hand to cover her face, imagining the man to her right. But that day on the street, she was carrying a dozen extra cupcakes that she had baked for a class project. Instead of ignoring the homeless man, she stopped and offered him cupcakes.

Piazza says she knows that Levine’s class has changed her because she sees now that she can change somebody else’s life with one small action. Pausing to really look even when things were busy, she took the homeless man by surprise. “I won’t be hungry today,” he said.

The whole point of Levine’s classes and workshops is to learn how to use creativity and fun to accomplish goals, to make room for what’s important, to see possibilities, and to really see and connect with people. Through art projects, interview exercises, scavenger hunts, games and activities, students young and old find their way and learn to live, Levine says, with extra exclamation points.

Many of Levine’s San José State students work two jobs and balance school with live-in boyfriends or wives. Still, Levine says, they’re bound and determined to make it in college — no matter what it takes or how hard it gets. Just when the students are getting worn out mid-semester, when many drop out of school altogether, Levine throws them a few juggling pins. Everyone is busy, Levine says. Everyone gets tired and has hardships. Even Levine’s hectic life gets out of balance. But “if you can learn to juggle,” she says, “you can do anything.”