Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crossing Guard: Getting There from Here


For several of the years I walked to elementary school, a very thin, tall-seeming woman in starched black uniform and military-structured white hat, orange neon belt, and disconcerting sunglasses walked to the intersection by my house to hold out white-gloved hands and say to the kids coming over across the field and from the other side of my street, “Cruss.” It was really the “oo” as in “crook”: “Cruss,” she would say, and the few words she might add, “Get bahck” or “vait dere until I say” were inflected in what I later learned was German. I made fun of this, practiced making my voice like hers. She was terrifying. Gossip swirled, her origins becoming the stuff of myth. I think now that when she was a little girl in Germany, she never imagined herself at a suburban intersection in Virginia guiding kids across the street en route to school, and yet there she was.

This post is really about why so many people hate going to school. Shakespeare knew it, said it in his “Seven Ages of Man” (“All the world’s a stage”) speech growled by Jaques in As You Like It, as the second age, after infancy: And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail
/ Unwillingly to school.  

The trouble with school, of course, is that it’s an institution. After a while, Ideas often become Institutions, so whether it’s school or a corporation or a Republic or a Communist State, at some point we humans cease to remember the founding principles and begin instead to feed the Beast that is the Institution.

I was reading this morning a review of an American Masters documentary about Woody Allen, who when walking past P.S. 99 (in New York, public schools have numbers) said, “I still think of it as a curse.” I had a student in my first year who told me the story of his mom taking him to kindergarten that first day, and when she picked him up asked him, “Well, how was it?” and he said, “Okay,” and she asked if he had anything he needed to do for tomorrow. He paused, looked at her. “I have to go BACK?” He hated school for the rest of his life.

It seems to me that there are three groups of people who absolutely hate school, and two groups contain people who like to Do Stuff:
·      The first are the Arts and Sciences Geniuses, those kids who are ready to observe, make experiments, listen, play, discover, much of it involving initial daydreaming time, and none of it wasted.
·      The second are the Mechanical Geniuses, those kids who have a gift for building, making, fixing, planting stuff, and who want to get their hands dirty doing it.
·      A third group—who may well also belong in the first two (or a fourth one, below)—are the kids who are physically, mentally, or emotionally “outside” the “norm,” who, whatever their talents or energies, stand apart and are visibly “other.”

School, as it is currently institutionalized, sucks for them.

A fourth group, Everybody Else, contains the people like me, in the hump of the bell curve, who get fairly solid B’s and C’s and really are pretty happy to be institutionalized. We just go with it. We don’t stand out much. We are straight, or know how to fake it, even to ourselves. We like learning things, would never have the imagination to find this stuff out on our own, and for the most part enjoy our exposure to new people, literature, writing lessons, science, math, history, and even the standing broad jump challenge in P.E.

As the years go on, around 7th grade say, we in this fourth group may start to realize how weird we actually are, how much we are not really “of” the institution at all, and we find this out because we meet someone who says what we’ve always been thinking but had not articulated, someone who trains an imaginative lens, or a cynical eye, or an amused twinkle onto a typical school situation, and we look in their mirror and find ourselves. Possibly our own inner soul inspired this new friend to brave the observation. Then the institution loses its grip, in a good way.


What do you remember most about school? As an exercise before reading the rest of this post, write the first five memories—images, assignments, people—that come into your head. Don’t judge them or censor them (no one will see it), and set it aside.

Take your time. I’ll hum.

All done?

Okay. Here are my first five, written just this second:

1.     Mrs. Angle and her purple suit, powder skin, red lips, cat-eye glasses.
2.     Tile floors.
3.     Trees visible around the periphery of the school, always glimpsed over courtyard walls.
4.     Cindy Sears, tall and gangly and large-toothed, merry-eyed and energetic, walking up to Miss Covington’s desk to do a 4-count burpee as penance for saying “Okay” as a verbal filler, a tic repeated a half dozen times in any sentence, and agreeing to this exercise in self-improvement, and how I deeply admired her spirit for it.
5.     This very nice woman, a young, sun-weathered jock of a gal—it’s her face I see, very pleasant—who taught us square-dancing in the Multipurpose Room when I was in fifth grade, and the smell of old tater tots and sour milk enveloping me as the tinny fiddle sounds came from the record player, a man’s voice commanding us to allemande right and left—her encouraging face against the light of the high windows.

Analysis: What I See in My List: It’s what I don’t see in my list.  There’s nothing here about reading. I can say with complete honesty that I remember absolutely nothing I read in school until I read “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in Mr. Rampley’s 9th grade English class. There’s nothing about math, science, history; no big concepts or giant breakthroughs; not even the playground.  And yet all the listed memories as well as the unlisted ones are part of life experiences that helped to make me a teacher, actor, director, writer, editor; to live in the country in Virginia and in the wilds of New York City; to study Virginia Woolf at Oxford and perform comedy at the People’s Improvisational Theater on E. 24th Street. Plenty of people who were part of the same institutions as I was took entirely different paths, will remember totally different things, and yet we are all part of the same story.

Aside: None of my memories appeared in the form of a multiple-choice question.

All this said, Woody Allen the Artist turned out pretty well. It’s hard to imagine him becoming an even better filmmaker, whether or not his art is to your taste. Most of us turn out pretty well, my evidence for this being how well the vast, vast majority of 10 million people behaves in the New York subway system on a daily basis.

And yet.

There is unhappiness, disappointment, and a feeling of profound confusion and worthlessness among many of us, even as we get up, shave and shower, make coffee, and remember to mail the goddamned bills. Can better schools preempt this?

So perhaps another question to ask about your own school life is this: What lessons, teachers, encounters, experiments, or academic moments can you point to, directly, and say, “Because of that, I am X”? What would you have wanted more of? Why?

AN EXERCISE: To be completed whether or not you think Public Education as an institution matters, should you love me. (Yes, I am playing that card.)

Part 1 of this exercise: Before you or I spend one more ounce of brain energy and heart-squashing rage on the institution that is school, Miss O’ asks that you expound on your political views of education as an institution. What do you believe? Write a tract. Why do you believe as you do?

Part 2 of this exercise involves reflecting on your own education: From the playground to the music room, from subject to subject, classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, over all the years you attended, what do you remember? What stuck? Give yourself several days and pieces of paper to jot notes. It takes time. Write a while and then go back to whatever you were doing. It’s amazing what a short walk to a new task will do to jog a memory.

Part 3 involves doing a bit of geometry: First, reread Part 1. Then reread Part 2. Now: How do you see your experiences leading to or informing your beliefs? Then turn out a theorem on What Education Should Be. If school could be whatever you had wanted, how would it work? What would it be?

A Guideline: Miss O’ is asking you to use your own experiences, and she knows that for readers out there with children this may be impossible, since much of your view is now clouded by the experiences that your child(ren) appears to be having. I say “appears” because, well, look what I remember about school. You’d think with my B’s and occasional A’s that I was more academically minded than I really was.

To close, one more memory: I am in a skirt and knee socks, hair in pigtails, standing on the school loading dock (old bread smell, overcast skies, white light) during recess in 5th grade and telling my best friend at the time, Lori German, “I hate your guts.”

Sweet times.


If you care to, send me a 100-word or so “Statement of School Belief” in the Comments of this Blog Post. I would love to read them, and I am challenging you to summarize.

Until next time, when we hear Miss O’ say, “Don’t go the direction I say, go where my hand goes.”

BONUS TRACK: “The Seven Ages of Man” by William Shakespeare, As You Like It

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,                       
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,  

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, 
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, 
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quote Collecting

On Quotations and Their Uses

Somehow I think my actual education, so-called, began when I started remembering things people said and wanting to write them down. The quotation thing started, as most things did, with my mom, Lynne.  Here are the three I began with, and they are written as I remember them:

John Milton, Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.”

William Thackery, Vanity Fair: “The world is a looking glass and gives back to each man the reflection of his own face.”

Tagore: “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like the dew on the top of a leaf.”

I think it’s fair to say that I have lived by these lines since I first wrote them down during my freshman year of high school, on papers I taped into the front of the three-ringed binder I would use all four years, adding many lines from my first literary muse, Oscar Wilde, whom I learned about when I watched the 11-part Masterpiece Theater series, Lillie, about the life of Victorian actress and Wilde muse, Lillie Langtry. (Eat that, Run-On Sentence Police!)

Being drawn to quotations is by most accounts I’ve read a characteristic of eccentric people.  The people who hoard quotations the way others hoard seashells, or Singer sewing machines that don’t work, or carnival glass, are easy to spot by the way they reach for paper napkins in the restaurant to write down what someone next to them said. Not that I’d know from experience.

In my first years of teaching (at my first school), I challenged myself every day to come up with an apt quotation each morning and put it on the board—first on this square chalkboard on the left side of my (actual own) classroom by the bulletin board. (I later began collecting these quotes in The Good Book, added to lovingly by students, friends, colleagues, and my own discoveries all the years of my teaching life.) This room was “my” classroom only for that first year, when the principal recognized that as I 1) was a first-year teacher; 2) was a teacher with three preps; and 3) had two classes of students who had most all failed English 9 the previous years (that’s right, plural), maybe I could have a room of my own. The room of my own evaporated after that first year, and for the next two years (and for the first five at my next school), I changed rooms every single period, moving from downstairs, to upstairs, to across the courtyard, and back upstairs down the hall, giant canvas tote bag in tow (thanks, L.L. Bean!).

As I’d become “that crazy woman who writes quotes on her board,” I felt okay going around the school each morning (with the permission of the classroom owners) to put my thought for the day in a corner of each chalkboard, thereby increasing my audience substantially. The eccentrics, therefore, crept out in greater numbers, too: There were at least three types: 1) the kids who’d casually take out their notebooks, as if exhausted or annoyed, and copy the quote; 2) the ones who’d read it, comment out loud, and may or may not copy it, but wanted to talk about it; and 3) the quiet, confident little scribes, who’d happily admit to saving them up like green stamps they’d get to cash in for a big prize.

Quote Unquote

This morning I was awakened at 3:00 AM by the powerful ka-pow of a car backfiring five times in rhythm before starting, finally, and heading down this Queens block. I decided to follow the advice of my horoscope in the Village Voice (Rob Brezsny):

Taurus Horoscope for week of November 10, 2011

How's your relationship with your muse? Don't tell me that you're not an artist so you don't have a muse. Even garbage collectors need muses. Even farmers. Even politicians. All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life's next adventures. So I ask you again: What have you and your muse been up to lately? I say it's high time for you to infuse your connection with a dose of raw mojo. And if for some sad reason you don't have a muse, I urge you to go out in quest of new candidates. (P.S. A muse isn't necessarily a person; he or she might also be an animal, an ancestor, a spirit, or a hero.)

To that end I looked up, first, Oscar Wilde, and here is what I found.


"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"Nothing succeeds like excess."

"There is no sin except stupidity."

"He hasn't a single redeeming vice."

And then there is this.

From The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

·      The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
·      There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
·      In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them, they leave them alone. In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public do take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him.

·      On the whole, an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself. Of course, the attacks are very gross, very impertinent, and very contemptible. But then no artist expects grace from the vulgar mind, or style from the suburban intellect. Vulgarity and stupidity are two very vivid facts in modern life. One regrets them, naturally. But there they are. They are subjects for study, like everything else. And it is only fair to state, with regard to modern journalists, that they always apologise to one in private for what they have written against one in public.
—Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.
--OSCAR WILDE, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist


He was a philosopher, dandy, wit, man of the theater, and also a socially conscious being with a huge heart for the ills of the world. People know Oscar Wilde’s funny lines—such as “I can resist everything except temptation,” mostly from his plays and his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray—but the essays quoted above show a sober, reasonable citizen who while an artist first, was going after social questions (with love and with the soul of an artist). Wilde made me expand my world view (art is a political act, and isn't that a burden), and also made me aware of how the burden of political knowledge prevented me from pursing my theater arts life in full—the desire to be of use in a social contract sense took over (the opposite of what he intended). I have had more than a few friends think less of me for being politically noisy. Claire Booth Luce said, “Politics is the refuge of second class minds,” and I often worry she was right.


“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

 “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

 “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

 “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

 “When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?”

 “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”


·        When a subject is highly controversial — and any question about sex is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

·         Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Virginia Woolf wrote as I actually thought. Reading her novels Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando; her diaries; her criticism: Virginia Woolf’s words took paths that were a map of my own mind, if my mind had been capable of articulating and recording and depicting and expressing as brilliantly as her able, wild, imaginative mind had. Reading her was a relief, and a terror. The greatness of her empathy that was almost unbearable in my relative youth is a solace in my middle age.


Both were bisexual, both in the acting out of physical love and in their ability to get inside the heads of male and female characters. This is no small thing, I see now. Both were not only creative novelists and playwrights (he wrote mostly plays and stories, and only one novel; she wrote mostly novels and stories, and only one play), they were literary and social critics of the first order. They took their roles as geniuses seriously. They did not take themselves seriously. (Until they did, at the end.) Oscar Wilde used the past (as a Pre-Raphaelite) to show an unflattering mirror to the present (Victorian) age. Virginia Woolf, born only 13 years before Oscar’s ruin, sloughed off the Victorians, ever looking ahead and helping to create modernism. Yet both were of their times, loved their countries, loved life. Both were social snobs, living the paradox of caring about the poor and uneducated, truly, while being unable to co-exist comfortably with them, indeed, while disdaining them. Both were the victims and agents of their own tragic ends—he for bringing about the lawsuit that exposed his illegal homosexuality, leading to his imprisonment and destroyed health, dying at 46; she—living through yet a second world war, losing her London home to a bomb, married to a Jew and therefore both on Hitler’s blacklist, and a return of the “voices” and depression that she felt sure would hold everyone back from escaping England should an invasion occur—took her own life by drowning at 59. And still, they created so much, shared so much, lived so fully, in spite of it all.

While having no claim to genius or to the drama of these life stories, I do own that Oscar and Virginia give solace even to the lesser being. As an actor and director, as well as a writer, I have had to transform into genders that are not always easy to define as male and female. Oscar’s characters are virtually interchangeable in the play The Importance of Being Earnest. Virginia’s novel Orlando daringly grabbed the notion of gender and upended it to spoof not only biographers  (it’s a fake biography), but also property laws that excluded women from inheriting (this done for her friend Vita Sackville-West, who lost Knole, bequest of Queen Elizabeth I to her ancestor, because while she cared for it, cherished it, honored it, she was a girl, so the property went to a lazy, disinterested cousin, Edward, and eventually to the National Trust.) Both writers were and remain dazzling wits, Virginia shining not with the epigramic brilliance of Oscar, but with a slyness that penetrates to the heart more deeply.

Both forms of wit are indispensable.

The artist must be of her time and aware of her time if she is to be an artist. And yet politics always threaten to drown the art.

Oscar Wilde is one of my closest friends. Biographies of him were cruel and nauseating (I’d read two in high school) until Richard Ellmann’s appeared in 1987, rescuing Wilde from the black muck of the haters and scorners, to have his genius restored and placed up front. It’s his own words—his art—that matter, after all.

Virginia, too, has had her share of life interpreters, but has fared better (mostly) in biographies. Her writing is not easy going, but she goes in my direction. I have come to know her and to think of her not only as a great writer and thinker, but also as a great friend.

I think this is natural to do, when one is naturally solitary. And yet one must not live in this solitude. Oscar and Virginia are friends with whom I commune, and are not to be made substitutes for actual living.


Recently I came across this quote. I’ve read nearly everything VW ever wrote, from essays to diaries to novels to criticism, and never in my life would I imagine her saying, let alone writing, this:

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
Virginia Woolf (not)

As it turns out she didn’t.  Someone else queried the same thing, I learned, when I searched around and found a site called Quote Investigator—and while versions of it have been said by various artists for years, and even Woolf writes of losing her “virtue” by taking some writing jobs— that quote is so not my Virginia, and this attribution to her is a fairly recent mistake.

“A poet can suffer anything except a misprint.”  —Oscar Wilde

What is it about quotations that has fascinated and continues to send us off searching the Google and the Bartlett's? Quotations are companions, I think, for lonely people, or for moments when people feel alone. I was very much lonely in my youth, as are a lot of creative people, in that there are so few people we can actually share our thoughts with when we are young and our minds so wild and unwieldy and, well, terrifying. So until we meet our friends out in the world (our true friends), a kindred thinker’s words—and they were safe, Oscar and Virginia, because they were famous and revered, and, I later learned, controversial and complicated, and so much the better for me—can be a life-sustaining gift, wrapped up in tidy quotation marks, easily stored in the mind.

“Forget about quotations. Tell me what you know.” --Emerson

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Discipline

FIRE THEM: How Is It That America Lost All Respect for Teachers?

I read an article recently that now more than ever it is PARENTS who control how schools are run, especially in the state of (wait for it) Texas. This is because teachers—those whores who slum it in classroom crack dens for 180 days a year all for the luxe time of summer OFF—all suck, and if some of them don’t suck, that’s just because they’re faking it better than the suck-wads who really suck.

In other words, some parents—who did not become teachers, but in fact chose or fell into other professions, and either chose or fell into the role of “parent,” for that matter—think that because they WENT to school, they know how to RUN one, and because they “had” a kid, automatically know how to teach this kid everything he or she will need to know for life. I mean, we all drive cars, and so, to extend this analogy, we may comfortably assume we can all BUILD the cars. And we stand outside of GM and Toyota plants, day in, day out, dictating to the auto manufacturers just what parts we want and don’t want in our cars.

To hammer home my outrage with another analogous bludgeoning: Suppose you hired Stacy and Clinton from TLC’s style makeover show What Not to Wear as your fashion consultants, and then ordered them to buy the clothes you already know and wear. “Screw Armani,” you explain, “I wear Old Navy sweat pants. Now, buy ’em for me.”

THIS is the state of American Education.

And I can hear people whispering, “Miss O’ is such a liberal douche. Duh, I’d get the makeover, but also DUH, teachers suck and I’d do it better if I had time.” I see your douche whisper and raise you a tool.

The Business Model of Education: The Beginning of the End

The only thing worse than what should be 21st century progressive educational practices that are forever bogged down in an Enlightenment curriculum poured into molds carried by an Industrial Revolution factory conveyor belt (so sayeth Sir Ken Robinson), is same wrapped in a Business Model plastic wrapper.

Can you feel me not breathing?

The year was 1987, coincidentally the year I began teaching. As usual, I blame myself: Schools are Businesses, so decreed the conservative state governors, and yet I stayed.

Before I continue, let me say I loves me some Thomas Jefferson. Loves me some Enlightenment. Not ashamed to say it. I know life is better for Renaissance learning, poetry, free exchange of ideas, all that shit. The point is, as the elegant Sir Ken explained, THAT WAS THEN. The Enlightenment was revolutionary in 1790.

It’s 2011, and iKnow, we know, it’s time to Think Different.

School as Business: Parents are Shareholders and Customers; Kids are Commodities; Teachers are Workers; Principals are Management. This view is sick for a number of reasons, and I could and will go into it in a big way sometime, have already in other posts, but here’s the crux of the argument for me:

If Schools were really Businesses, I should be able to buy stock. “I’d like 100 shares of Caitlin, please, because I know she’s going to Harvard and will make a shitload of money. When she does, Caitlin can pay me dividends and I can retire.” You might argue that the workers in a Capitalist society cannot own the means of production, ergo a Teacher can’t have a piece of that, as it were. And if she did, it would be Insider Trading.

KIDS are not commodities. Schools do not produce “products.” Schools are part of the social contract: We are all in this nation together, and as such, its citizens should have a basic, working knowledge of civics, math, language, science, art, music, culture, history, and the rest of it. But when Parents start telling Schools, “I only want my kids to be told that discoveries in history and science are 6,000 years old at the oldest” or “I don’t want slavery mentioned,” they become the customers who tell Ford, “No muffler for me.”

The business/school analogy is breaking down.

And the other problem with the whole “product” theory of education, is that when a business creates a shit product, or is given shit materials to develop a product, an actual business can use the ol’ dumpster and start over. Kids, though—in the case of schools turning out “products”—are the materials you are given, must work with, and cannot “dump” no matter how much you may want to.

The analogy falls apart still more.

In the Business world, when a product line fails because the whole managerial product idea was lousy, the materials suck, and no money was provided to do the work properly—the first people to pay for these mistakes are the workers.  This is the big attraction of the Business Model: Schools fail? Fire teachers. The public/ customer/ shareholder has the illusion that “things are happening” to “rectify” the “problem.” Whatever that was. (What is “education” again?)

The analogy is in shards at your feet.

Schools are not Businesses. And here to further drive the point home is Billy the Future Murderer of America, age 17, sitting in the third row, in the middle of that row, sans all materials except a retractable pen, a jean jacket, and will of iron.

YOU CAN’T FIRE KIDS: Why Classroom Discipline is a Real Trick, Not a Business Problem

Billy the Future Murderer of America was in a bunch of different classes throughout the 13 or 14 years he attended public schools. And now he’s gone and done what everyone saw coming—Murdered a Lot of People—and naturally hindsight is 20/20, but uncorrected myopia is forever, and there it is.

How is it Billy the FMOA never “got treated” or evaluated, even, for the mental problems he probably had all his life? The game of today’s Business-Model School starts with the Rules: 1) The Principal wants the perception of a school that runs. 2) Teachers want to teach. 3) Parents have all the control. 4) Kids do what their Parents deem acceptable. (Some Kids are past all Parent control.) But how to explain to anyone—a doctor, a school superintendent, anyone—why this Billy the Future Murderer of America is really, really scary? Because it’s harder to explain than you might think.

Billy the Future Murderer of America is in your class.  Here is what he does.

SCENE: Your Classroom on a Typical Day, mid-year (Miss O’ will field it)
CHARACTERS: Billy the FMOA; MISS O’, the Teacher; assorted Other Students.

MISS O’: Hi, everyone. Over here on the board is the Thought for the Day: Mr. Jefferson, “One man with courage makes a majority.” Do you think that’s true? Turn to a partner to discuss it while I take roll.

BILLY: [coughs; deliberately?]

MISS O’: [using seating chart and computer roster to grab roll] I’d like to see everyone talking—if you don’t have a partner, join a pair nearby.

BILLY: [coughs, coughs, coughs; holds fingers to throat, gasps] Miss, can I get some water?

[This requires a hall pass. MISS O’ writes one as she finishes roll. BILLY, no longer coughing, takes pass, grins, winks at TOMMY, leaves the room. Did BILLY “grin”? He pulled back his lips in what looked like what one might call a “grin.” Did he wink? It looked like a wink, in that one eyelid shut while in the direction of another student. And TOMMY is laughing, at least MISS O’ would call the pulled back expression and accompanying noise a “laugh,” but this is all her own perception, according to state law.]

MISS O’: So what do you think? First of all, what does the quote mean? Clementine.

CLEMENTINE: I think it’s true.  Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in when no one else does. And your view is the right one, so you are a kind of majority.

ALAN: A majority of ONE?


MISS O’: Give me an example, someone, of when you believe Mr. Jefferson’s statement is true. Then we’ll look at one example of the other side. The question is: What makes your view more important? When is, or is, one person a “majority”?

[BILLY the FMOA has returned. He trips on a backpack in the aisle. Or did he “trip”? It looks faked, but was it? BILLY turns to ALAN.]

BILLY: Hey, douche, move your bag.

MISS O’: Billy, language. Are you okay? [BILLY grins (?) at no one, takes his seat in front of ALAN.] So, who wants to give me an example?

BILLY: What are we talking about, Miss? I had to get water for my throat.

MISS O’: [not wanting to waste precious time in this little intro exercise before talking about the story of the day] The Thought for the Day. Now, Clementine…

BILLY: I can’t help it if I had to leave the room. I deserve an education, too.

MISS O’: [ignores him; sees a hand] Yes, Alicia.

ALICIA: So, like, if I’m black, and I am, and I want to go to a certain store, and only white people go to that store, if I have the courage to go into that store—and I should have that right—then I become the majority. I mean, I would be right.

[BILLY the FMOA has begun clicking his pen during the previous speech. He clicks rhythmically, continuously, staring into MISS O’s face.]

MISS O’: Okay, great, that is one example of that view. Let’s hear an opposing view.  [Walking over to BILLY’s desk, quietly] Billy, please stop clicking the pen.

BILLY: [a bit loudly] Oh, sorry, Miss. Sorry, everyone. Sorry I was clicking the pen.

MISS O’: So anyone else? [BILLY the FMOA farts.]

BILLY: I am so sorry. [grins (?); the class laughs, some girls say, “Ew,” ALAN moves to the back of the room]

MISS O’: So, does anyone have the other side? [Silence; students are shuffling papers, talking about the fart, the word “nasty” is heard; is about to try again.]

BILLY [resumes the pen clicking, “catches himself”] Oh, sorry.

[The CLASS is more or less in BILLY’s control now.]

MISS O’: Open your books to page 193. [Waits for another BILLY interruption. But BILLY will be quiet for maybe a full 10 minutes. Then just when it’s quiet, he will fart again. And apologize sincerely. And then click his pen. And apologize.]



The problem for teachers: Billy the Future Murderer of America has done nothing wrong. He has coughed and needed water; he has tripped and fallen; he has asked to be educated; he has engaged in a little “tic” behavior; he has expelled gas, as is only human, and had the courtesy to apologize. He has, in the process, destroyed the entire lesson, derailed what might have been a provocative discussion, and in fact has proven the day’s quote: He is one man with courage, and he IS the majority. But he has done absolutely nothing that can be “written up.”

What should Miss O’ do? What would you have done?

Here is the dilemma: Talking to him quietly, as we have seen, does no good. Talking to even a guidance counselor may be of no real use—you have a “bad feeling” about him?  Any principal would smile indulgently and say you are “maybe a little uptight.” There is nothing you can tell a parent. “Your son is disruptive.” You don’t KNOW that anything he did was deliberate. You do know, but you have no evidence.  (I used to call home, leave messages, and the kids would erase them. But I couldn’t prove that, either.) Even if he returns to the room with cocaine in his nostrils, all you can say in a conference (as explained to me and my fellow teachers in an in-service with law enforcement) is that Billy often has “a whitish-looking substance around his nose, and is that normal for him?”

And this is why discipline is hard, why teachers feel stuck, and one day will just throw a desk.

Society may say: Billy the Future Murderer of America is better off here than on the streets.

Miss O’ says: Billy the FMOA does not have more rights than the majority of kids in my room, and yet he does, doesn’t he, because he’s allowed to destroy the learning of all the kids in every class he takes and always has been. If a teacher does not want a kid in her room, she doesn’t have the right to say, “Get him out.” That would be prejudicial, because racist or homophobic teachers could do the same thing. Only if the student has been verbally abusive, physically threatening, with witnesses up the wazoo, can a student be removed, and even THEN there is a hearing. And the paperwork is unreal. And what then? “Alternative School”?

This is another conversation this country has to have.  Billy needs SOMEthing. It ain’t school. Not the way it’s done in the above scenario, a scenario that works for a lot of kids, but not for a lot of others. Billy needs to keep his hands busy, he needs near life-and-death STAKES: If he doesn’t dismantle the bomb, he’ll blow up. Those kinds of stakes. It’s the only way to keep him focused, though he should clearly never be allowed around explosives (but he will be, won’t he, when he is accepted into the Army). But couldn’t he be put on a farm and made to grow all his own food or starve? Why not?

PARENTS: The Biggest Reason Seasoned Pros Quit Education as a Profession

I have a hundred scenarios I could share about Parent-Teacher Conferences. Some were really productive. Several began with parents saying, 1) “My child doesn’t lie”; 2) “You have an attitude problem, Miss O’”; 3) “You are a bitch”; 4) “Why didn’t you tell me my kid was failing? I don’t know when report cards come out”; 5) “You are a racist”; 6) “Hunting accidents happen”. And those are just six examples. What had Miss O’ done to deserve these threats? Clearly she must deserve them, as it happened not once but many times over the 15 years she taught in two school systems. Allow me to share a few of the circumstances.

1)     I had collected the first essays from my Humanities 10 class one year. When I returned them the following week, a girl I’ll call Kay said, “I didn’t get mine back,” and I told her, quietly, “I don’t have one for you, and I wanted to talk to you about it.” She very sweetly explained that she had turned it in, and that no, she couldn’t reproduce it, as she’d included the draft and thrown out the notes (these were pre-computer days).  Could I have lost it? I could confidently say, “No way.” When I collected papers, I put a rubber band around the whole bundle, labeled the assignment on a Post-It, and put the labeled bundle in my tote bag. The one irresponsible thing I did do, though, for the sake of time, was ask students to pass the essays forward. “Could someone have taken my essay and changed the name?” Kay wondered. Too late to check now. I had to give her the benefit of the doubt, so I said, “How about I give you two choices: Write me another essay for full credit, or take a 65.” She took the 65, since she just didn’t have time to write another one. I felt awful.

The next essay: I collected everyone’s BY HAND.  When I got to Kay’s desk, she said she would use her “gift”—this allowed her to turn in her essay one day late without penalty, as I only allowed one late assignment per quarter. Kay never turned it in for a gift. I had no record of it. When I returned the second set of essays and once again she didn’t have one, she maintained, very nicely, that she’d given it to me, with “GIFT” written on the top, while I was taking roll the class period after. I must have lost it, she said. This smelled all wrong.

I had a “Gift” folder—and at the moment a kid gave me such an assignment, I recorded a “G” under the corresponding assignment square in my grade book—and would have certainly done it while taking roll—and then placed the assignment in my Gift Folder. But Kay was so sure. I had no idea what to do about this.

The next day, I had a note from Ms. Blake, Kay’s guidance counselor, to say we were having a parent-teacher conference during my planning period.

I walked into the reception room to see Kay and her mother waiting. Her mother did not look at me. In Ms. Blake’s office, Kay’s very well-dressed mother said, distinctly and firmly, “Miss O’Hara, I have taken off work today, which I cannot afford to do, to be here. I don’t know how you ever got to be a teacher. You have lost not one but two of my daughter’s essays, essays she worked hard on. MY daughter does not LIE, Miss O’Hara, and as a single mother I make sure MY child achieves. I will HAVE YOUR JOB, Miss O’Hara, I WILL SEE TO IT that you are FIRED before this day is out, having it in for my child. MY CHILD does not LIE.”

And at that moment, my career passing before my eyes, Kay said in a trembling but clear voice, tears in her eyes, “I lied.”

Ms. Blake mouthed, “GO” to me and shooed me out. Kay never returned to my class or to the school. I later learned that her mom had had her transferred. That Kay chose me over her own ass that morning has never failed to move me—she was not really an academic child, her mom pushed her hard, I could see it all then. What to say? I hope they are okay—but if Kay had stuck to her story, and as convincingly as she’d played it for me, my career would have been over.

2)   In the midst of introducing my class expectations on the first day of school to an English 10 class (I had one prep that year, the only time I ever did), a large young man sat at a table on the side of my room (as the desks were too small for him). He began rocking as I spoke, and at one point said, “Oh, I see how it’s gonna be, I see how it’s gonna BE,” and he had a nasty sort of smile on his face, sighed, tried to get the class to see his view. I looked on my seating chart. “Paul,” I said, “let me finish, please, and I’ll open it up for comments,” or something equally stupid. After two days of this sort of commentary, I called home. I explained his behavior. “Miss O’Hara, Paul has already said you have an attitude problem, and I can hear it now. You are the problem. My son is a good son and he does not like you.”

By the middle of the year, I had figured out the “problem,” but never really recovered that class, or any of those classes: The previous year, most of my kids had had a very poor first-year 9th grade English teacher. She was urban, hip, gorgeous, charming, and utterly unprepared. She was also not terribly bright and really should not have been in a classroom, but again, I point to Colleges of Education and wonder what goes on.  She had failed her teacher’s exam, and so was probationary (given the benefit of the doubt on the strength of recommendations, she never passed the exam—a flawed test, to be sure, but still—and two years later had to leave; by then she was only a teacher’s assistant in Special Ed). But the kids loved her! She was sassy and funny and gave well-meant A’s. And then the next year they got Miss O’Hara, BITCH WHORE FROM HELL, who was also sassy and funny, but in a Simpsons way that they didn’t get, and was a demanding teacher. The kids suddenly had to read, write, talk, present, keep up. I was a very kind person, by my expectations were seen as really unfair. Eventually I could see their point, but as I say, it took me almost a full semester to figure out where their anger was coming from.

An Egyptian kid from the ESL program (English as a Second Language, now called ELL, English Language Learners) explained it to me.  We’d had a rough time, too, I and this kid, and one day it dawned on him that he was really learning stuff. “Ms. Liming, you know, she was really nice, but you know, she really, uh, doesn’t know that much, not like you do,” he said. “I think it’s been really hard for me because I didn’t think high school English could be this, uh, hard.” (Paul had had Ms. Liming, too. Most of them had.) If I had known that, I might have been less direct in my delivery, started them off more gently. I really would have. (Paul got over it, by the end of the year, but it was an ugly year. And, well, I quit, but that was planned.)

On Ms. Liming and The Bad Teacher (and I met relatively few truly bad ones in my 15 years): No parents in my experience notice a poor teacher when their kids are getting A’s. Parents instinctively seem to think, “Wow, what an inspiring teacher,” or “My kid is great.” But when Miss O’ records on the first interim report, “D” and “requests a conference,” that Miss O’ teacher must be a bitch. (A parent once complained to me about her A-student son’s grade of C, blaming my poor teaching. I offered to give him an A instead. She was confused, “Well, that’s not what I mean,” she said. Really? Then how about we talk about how he might improve.)

3)   Sarah was always absent. She would come once every 28 days, because after 28 days the truant officers come. She was probably a genius. Sarah was the oldest of 8 children and her single-parent mom needed her at home to help with those kids and to babysit the ones her mom took in for a “daycare” business. Her mom petitioned for homebound instruction, on the grounds of “asthma,” but as there was no doctor’s note, she couldn’t get that. (Curiously, Sarah worked at the mall and could be seen there, healthy and working, every evening.) Her mom balked at sending her kids to school at all, and was pissed that she had to. So every month, all of Sarah’s teachers would have to give Sarah the full month’s make-up work, and Guidance told us we had to let her make it all up, including the quizzes and tests and presentations. After school, on our time. So Sarah would hang around for maybe a week, and being a genius, would finish all the work, and disappear again.

As the year’s end approached, Sarah had been missing for nearly 2 months. I was in the midst of preparing for finals, finishing drama club stuff, doing a massive Multicultural Festival with my Humanities classes, the Theater Production Prompt Book project, and figuring out how my English 9 kids were ever going to pass. One morning, in walks Sarah, carrying the usual note from Guidance, into yet a different section of my Humanities 10 (she had a schedule change!), saying I have to give her all of her make up work, let her do the project, etc., and I said, “No, ma’am.”

The upshot is, her mom called me, and I could hear Sarah in the background, “That bitch, that total bitch won’t help me,” and Sarah’s mom saying, “You bitch, I am calling the superintendent,” and I said, “I think that’s a really good idea, let’s have that conference, but I am not listening to abuse and am hanging up now.”

I was told by my assistant principal, in no uncertain terms, that I was insubordinate. I could have lost my job for defying a school order to give Sarah her make-up work, and for forcing a confrontation with this parent, because (I later realized) it could have been perceived that my school had been negligent (when really they thought they were helping the student).

The school covered my ass, and Sarah failed English 10 for the year, and had to repeat it (though she took regular English and not Humanities).

Coda: A very Christian teacher colleague (who called me out as a heathen more than once) said to me the next year, “Wow, I don’t know what you did to Sarah X. but she calls you a bitch all the time.”

“And you allow her to do that?” I asked.

“If the shoe fits,” the colleague said. (This relationship took a sour turn years before when this Christian teacher single-handedly ended the tradition of teachers and students wearing costumes to school on Halloween, defending her move by saying to the English department, “Halloween is Satanic,” and I’d said, acidly, “That is garbage.” “That’s what I believe,” she countered, and I said, “What you believe is garbage. It’s the Druid New Year that was appropriated by Christians and made into All Hallows Eve before All Saints Day.” I love history. I closed, “People like you ruin all the fun in life.” I’d never been afraid to make everyone uncomfortable, and she’d been trying to get me fired ever since.) (P.S. One person with "courage" made a majority, didn't she? There's your negative example.)

“That’s extremely unprofessional,” I said, and she shrugged, “but tell me this, does Sarah come to school? Every day?”

“Every day. Why?”

“That’s all I need to know,” I explained.

I think there should have been an alternative scenario for Sarah, too, though forced child labor seems wrong to me. In any event, I ran into Sarah several times, years later, at a gym, and she didn’t even recognize me, or if she did, she deserves a Tony. Fascinating. And, yes, she graduated.

4)   through 6): Create your own scenarios. I’d love to hear what you do with Number 6.

In sum: It’s in the specifics that we learn how complicated it is to teach school, and so I hope these examples help fill in another part of the Big Picture: When parents are in control of schools, schools can start to suck. The corollary—and I will address this in a future post—has to do with the marvelous parents, because unless parents are involved in schools, schools will definitely suck. Finding that balance is the trick, and it’s exhausting, and what I hope is that someone brilliant will shine the light and solve the case.  To begin with, assuming teachers are professional and deserving of respect—giving the adult teacher the benefit of the doubt—would be a terrific start.

Until next time!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Miss O's New York Diary, Oct 3-8, 2011

October 3—7, 2011

October 3, Monday
Monday morning commute, 7 Train to the N at Queensboro Plaza. In luck—an N Train pulling alongside us at the platform. Disembark to hear behind me two women screaming at each other. A well-dressed (which means expensive, conventional) 50ish white woman, blonde hair carefully parted, chin length, heavy set in her green coat, being held back by a man in a business suit as she growls/shrieks, red-faced, “You KICKED me…” and I see the man is also holding back at arm’s length a slender Asian woman, long-haired and hiply dressed, trying to look younger than she is, as she screams in thickly accented English, “You kick ME first,” and she goes to the N train, my car, where the green coat woman follows, and the kicking match continues. A tall, younger business suit and a short labor type separate the women, and the suit says, “Behave yourselves, you know better than this,” he repeats it and repeats it, and when they are still yelling, Miss O’ pulls out her loudest and most direct teacher voice, “You both need to STOP. NOW.” And for about a minute and a half, they do. And then they don’t. Flying through the tunnel now at full speed, they start the accusations again, the hipster first, and everyone has been thinking she is the nut job, including the woman beside me, and the green coat sneers, “Speak English,” and I turn to the woman beside me and say, “They’re both unhinged.” At 59th and Lex, the green coat says, “Let’s go,” and they leave together, and I see people move as if to stop them, and I say, “Let them GO. Let them wrestle it out on the platform.” The woman beside me says, “But…” and I said, “Why not?” And really, why not?

Evening: Paul at work has an extra ticket to see a free dress rehearsal of Robert Wilson’s The Threepenny Opera at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in German, with the Berliner Ensemble, did I want to go? So we have to scramble to finish up so we can leave by 6, get to BAM, realize we won’t be able to eat and the show is 3 hours long, but I’ve never seen Robert Wilson’s work, and now’s my chance, and nor have I seen The Threepenny Opera performed, so again, here’s my chance. On the ride there, a beggar is on the train, and something compels a bunch of us to give change to him, hard to explain why, but we do. We get to the Nevins stop, walk to the BAM Opera House, get our tickets, and it’s general admission, so I find us wonderful orchestra seats, because I’m good at strategy, and down the row from us Paul spies Mikael Baryshnikov sitting with Pedro Almodovar! Down two rows from them, on the aisle, is Robert Wilson himself. I hear behind me two older people—very old, a man and a woman, with different companions, talking separately about how they’d seen the American show with Lotte Lenya, how they’d loved it. Only in New York, that history. Robert Wilson himself introduces it, saying, slowly, carefully, “You may, if you are so inclined,” and he paused, “laugh,” just as the world’s tallest man sits directly in front of me. Still, the show is stunning—cold and creepy but so well-acted, so gorgeous.  At intermission, I hear behind me the two older people again, first the man, “What is THIS? This isn’t Threepenny Opera, nothing I can see,” and the woman says, “What is THIS? I don’t like it.” I thought again, “Only in New York.”

October 4, Tuesday
Play lab night. After work I walk to Gramercy Park to Stellios’s place, taking a different street each time to work my way over to 3rd Ave and a bagel at this deli I like, and tonight it’s 31st Street. I love the walk across town because I get these great expanses of avenue to trounce down, not very crowded the farther east I go. As I near Lexington, passing the Jews for Jesus building, I hear a woman’s voice, “Miss? Excuse me?” She has a Southern accent—Carolina—and I turn. She’s a dark-haired, well-coiffed woman, great caramel skin, my age. “Do I know you?” she asks. I really look at her. “No,” I say simply, and she’s staring. “Do you work for Martha Stewart?” she asks, and I can’t help it, I burst out with a giggle, “No, I don’t,” and she says, “Wait! Last night, you were on a subway, going somewhere with a man, and you gave money to a beggar,” which I would never have remembered and I say, “YES!” and she says, “I only come here a few days each month—I work for Martha Stewart—I’m sorry if I’m keeping you—it’s just that I have never seen the same person in New York twice, not ever,” and I say, “New York is magic like that. It will happen all the time now.”

October 6, Thursday
I am missing my co-op board meeting because I’d forgotten I have a ticket to see Septimus and Clarissa by Ellen McLaughlin and the Ripe Theater Company—a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s beautiful novel, Mrs. Dalloway, showing to great acclaim at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center on E. 25th St. Sitting next to me is a pair of women my age, the one directly abutting me (roundish, big brown coif, black slacks, big purse) says, “Finally, I can have in intellectual night out on a full stomach,” and goes on, telling her companion not to bother seeing Follies, as it’s “fossilized people playing fossilized people and who wants to see that?” and I decided I hate her. She gestures to the stage area in front of us, alive in a preshow as people are seated—a gigantic wrought iron staircase, underneath of which a young man is nervously moving about; above which, in a framed out area of the blue wall a woman is standing in the window, in red satin—the simple stage has beautiful white Georgian doll houses on casters, white doorframes placed in iron bases on castors, and just as I’m thinking “How theatrical, how exquisite,” the black-slacked woman says, “The sets were so cheap, like this,” and her companion sighs, “This is, well, it’s not very…” and black slacks sighs, “What are you gonna do?” I am so sad that I will have to sit next to this sighing and stupid woman, when a palsied old gal in jaunty cap comes in with an usher, who points to her reserved seats in the center of my row (I’m third from the end), and the woman says, “I can’t get down there,” and I offer her my seat, “Shall you sit here and I’ll move in?” “You don’t mind?” she says, and “so kind,” she says and I say, “Glad to do it,” and mean it in both ways, and marvel at my luck. The show is emotionally full and devastating to me from the opening, where the ensemble spins and spins the giant staircase, Clarissa on top shining in her red satin and lost look, and Septimus grabbing onto whatever he can to hold on down below, and it keeps spinning and I am weeping. At intermission, the woman’s husband finally made it and the old gal asks me to switch back, but that is fine, because I’m fully in, and when black slacks retakes her seat she says, “Those women”—the lithe, expressive dancer actors who are breaking my heart with their connection and story-telling, dressed in perfect 1920s drop-waist satin—“are too fat to wear those dresses.” At the show’s end I am on my feet, I and about four others, as the woman wanly applauds, and I think, “This—life, London—this, theater, New York—” and am satisfied.

Nighttime ride home after the show: On the 7 across from me is a very solidly built Hispanic man, short, middle-aged, thick black hair, slicked back, a man who must do serious labor. He is reading. I notice his large gold watch, his white and pink horizontal striped polo shirt. His well-tended moustache is visible over the title of magazine: House Beautiful. It was then that I saw the small pompadour swirl in the front of his dark hair. The more one stares at a person, and really looks, the more one must reconsider everything.

October 8, Saturday
A glamorous day of laundry and cleaning, followed by meeting Ryan at 47th St and 9th Ave at 6 for coffee before seeing a show. That was the plan. So I leave at quarter to 5 so I can be a little early and walk around, and also because it’s a big construction weekend on the local Manhattan-bound track on the No. 7 line, meaning we have to go up to 61st/Woodside to go down, so we can get an express to Queensboro Plaza, where the train will stop, and we transfer to the N Train to Manhattan. But it takes 45 minutes to get to Queensboro Pl, which is only two stops from where I live. I cannot believe this. Then another 10 minutes to an N Train’s arrival, and THEN they decide to bypass my stop, 49th St., to make up lost time. SO I have to walk from Times Square station, which is madness on a Saturday, over to 9th Ave, calling Ryan on the ol’ cell phone, who got the theater wrong and it’s actually 13th St Rep down on, you guessed it, 13th St., so via cell we reconnect, but not before I pass the Fish Market on 41st and 9th Ave while they are breaking down for the evening, washing down the store, tossing the fish soaked ice out into the gutter of the avenue. Find Ryan at 44th and 8th, southeast side, where we hug and walk to 42nd up to Broadway and get the 3 Train down to 14th St and walk to 13th where we run into Guy (Alky actor friend) and his partner Mark! We greet—they are on their way to the West Village for dinner, and I love NY for this. Then into 13th St. Rep (where Miss O’ began her theater life in NYC but it’s too traumatic to revisit in this post) and we get our free tickets to see “The Accidental Pervert,” written and performed by a terrible actor but charming person, the funniest lines of which were the porno titles he was addicted to. After the show we head over to 5th Ave/University Place and find a lovely Mexican place where nachos and sangria make up for a multitude of sinful theater. The ride back home around midnight is mercifully uncomplicated, if packed. Walking home I am entranced by the ¾ moon and the bright single star (or planet), when I hear behind me, “Lisa?” and it's Kelly and her husband Adam, my back porch neighbors, coming home from work. She’s a swing in Mary Poppins and he is playing Simba in The Lion King. As Kelly says, “We’re living the dream,” and I tell them about the show I saw, the title of one of the pornos: “Cherrie Poppins.” We laugh, talk about the new park that’s come in beside us, here where we live.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light: The Uses of Theater in Education

Picking up on my radical ideas about ways to start educational reform (by just, you know, talking)—I’d like now to use what we in the education biz call A Specific Example, this to illustrate why grouping high school kids around their interests might be preferable to grouping them by age. In my Theater Production class, I had 10th, 11th, and 12th graders all in the same room. In the Drama Club freshmen were in that mix. They all had stuff to say to each other, and we (I’m in this, too, as teaching was in fact my LIFE, and I’d like my life to feel full and meaningful as I live it and not something merely to be endured) all began with the love of theater. Some had more experience than others in certain areas, and this was always a help, and some had none at all, which is also useful, because in the teaching of others we "experts" learn more ourselves.

Let’s start with the Lighting Unit. Light is the only real "special effect" in theater, and after the play and the acting is the single most important thing on stage. I think. SO: To get kids thinking about light, I assigned the following project. The project requires no background in the subject, which is the point. Included with the assignment is the way the project will be assessed (which students ought to know), and following that is a discussion about how one can assess a project that seems “touchy-feely” rather than “hardcore academic.” I will also expound on its artistic and academic uses. First, The Project.

DUE DATE: ___________

PURPOSE: To observe light sources, examine intensity, and assess moods suggested by natural and artificial light for later application to lighting plays for the stage

MATERIALS: Loose leaf paper and pen or word processor; manuscript format guide from the Luxe High School English Department

TERMS (to be reviewed in class): Source, shadow, highlight, hue, illumination, intensity, angle, mood, effect

DIRECTIONS: Follow the directions for each part below. Keep some notepaper with you as you begin to reflect on light, as it were, because you never know where the light will “hit” you. Do not fake this journal: YOU MUST TURN IN ALL NOTES TO RECEIVE FULL CREDIT.

FORMAT: Please label each section by part number, title, and letter. Record the date and time of day of each entry. Write in complete sentences in the descriptive portions, though you may list qualities and other elements as appropriate. Bind all contents in a folder, or staple together with a cover sheet.

PART I, FEELING LIGHT: In a few sentences, evaluate the lighting in the locations listed: Describe the place. Explain the quality of light and how you respond to it.
            A.  A place you really like the light
            B.  A place you definitely don’t like the light
            C.  A place where the light seems to be appropriate to the setting
            D.  A place where the light seems inappropriate to the setting 

PART II, EXTERIOR LIGHT STUDY:  Select one (1) exterior setting and examine the light at three (3) separate times of day--though not necessarily on the same day.
Before beginning, describe the general setting, including natural features, proximity to buildings, etc.  Be as specific as you can, using the terms list where possible.  Also, share why you chose this particular setting.
PART III, INTERIOR LIGHT STUDY:  Select one (1) interior space, examine the light, and describe its effects under the different circumstances below; be specific:
            A.  The space during the day with only natural light as a light source
            B.  The space at night with an artificial light source
            C.  The space at night with a second “styling” of artificial light (your choice)

PART IV, CONCLUSION: Finally, write a summary paragraph detailing what you’ve noticed about light during the course of the project.

(___/# denotes the number of points out of total for that section)

NOTES: Evidence of observations, ideas, process
____/5 PART I
____/5 PART II
____/5 PART III
____/5 PART IV           TOTAL ____/20

PART I: A few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Place you like light
____/5 B. Place you don’t like light
____/5 C. Appropriate light
____/5 D. Inappropriate light                        TOTAL ____/20

PART II: Exterior details, a few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 First time of day
____/5 Second time of day
____/5 Third time of day
____/5 Location features, reason for choice             TOTAL ____/20

PART III: Interior details, a few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Space with natural light
____/5 B. Space with artificial light
____/5 C. Space with “styling” of light          TOTAL ____/15

PART IV: Conclusion
____/5 Paragraph with details
____/5 References to journal tasks
____/5 Evidence of thought, reflection                     TOTAL ____/15

____/5 Folder/stapled, cover, manuscript form, neatness
____/5 Format (labeled sections), grammar, mechanics    TOTAL ____/10




            At every school I worked in, from student-teaching on, I found Fresnels and scoops in the catwalk, and what Lekos there were, were above center stage. This is a travesty. If you want to teach stage lighting or run a drama club and do not know what I am talking about, I would heartily suggest you check out resource books and take a class in lighting at a nearby university. If such classes don’t exist, ask other local drama sponsors if they would like a lighting workshop, and if you ask a college theater department for a few hours on a Saturday, they will probably oblige for a small fee. DISCLAIMER: I never got to use anything computerized in terms of lighting in my life. Instruments have changed, no doubt. I guess I could do research, but this isn’t the point of this writing. This is memoir. And it’s concepts and methods I’m outlining, and any references I make will still be useful as a model of the teaching process.

            Good lighting, after strong actors and a good play--and this from a person who is mad for costumes and lived in a costume shop all through college--makes theater for me. Lighting effects are really all a theater has to create “magic”. Theater is literal smoke and mirrors. That’s the fun of the live. Now there are computer- generated effects, which I saw in the glorious revival of Sunday in the Park with George, here in New York where I now live, used to astonishing effect. (I saw a completely hideous lighting design for another Sondheim revival, A Little Night Music, where the designer took the work Night in the title literally and demanded we squint into darkness to see the action.) But there is still something about the humble cross-fade that transports a theater-goer--so simple, so beautiful. Whoever invented the cross-fade is my god. And I hope you know I’m being figurative.

            Visualizing a show’s potential in rehearsal is something that everyone in theater has to be able to do. Kids are very good at this--even teenagers have not lost that “let’s pretend” way of seeing how a cardboard box is now a boat. Theater gives magic back to audiences who thought they filed their innocence away with their first tax return or ob-gyn appointment card; and giving kids a chance to create that magic can be therapeutic, both for the kids and for you, to say nothing of the audience. But you are taking it to another level entirely when you show them how the lights go on, how the colors are achieved, and make the act of lighting a stage a consciously creative act, if I may paraphrase Leo Tolstoy.

            Take a moment to reread the lighting project, if needed. (See above). I’ll wait. I have some laundry to do. Dee, dee, dee....

            All done? Again, I assigned this project at the very beginning of the unit, before I had taught anything about lighting. Light is, after all, our most fundamental life element: Let there be light. Day and Night. Night and Day. Day out, day in. Grey skies are gonna clear up! Direct your feet to the sunny side of the street! You light up my life. On a clear day you can see forever. Okay, men, lights out.

            Light may often be taken for granted; I think the arrival of day, or night, is. When the day is sunny, I generally just get up. When I wake up at 6:30 AM and my room is unusually dark, I immediately turn to the window to assess the grey light and think, “Oh, rain...” and my day has a different meaning.

            Light affects people emotionally and physically in ways of which we may not be conscious. I learned this the summer I studied at Oxford when I was 28. I had long dreamed of going to England. I love rain. I love walking in it, battling storms, being out in the woods or crossing a field in a downpour. So imagine how astonished I was when after two weeks of grey and drizzle and cool damp air, I found myself clinically depressed. On a Friday morning I shall never forget, bright sun and blue skies appeared and I raced to University Park, sprawled on the grass under full sun, and wept. I didn’t leave for hours. “Burn me!” said my pasty skin, my doughy heart. “Hard.”

            Rain and grey are also what one experiences in Belgium, which was, because of the weather, the most depressing place I have been to date (she said in a seeming tangent, hoping the reader stays with this). No blue sky the entire visit, except for an hour in Bruges, where again, tears of gratitude filled my eyes. By the same token, there have been summers in Virginia where a drought was on and if I saw yellow rays streaking across the yard one more day I thought I would rip out that dead grass with my bare claws and throw it at that damned ol’ sun.

            But what of artificial light? My parents’ downstairs living room is simply dead, no matter how many lamps are on, if the TV is turned off. The TV was never off in the whole of my growing up except after we went to bed. In fact, the house itself feels dead without the light of a TV screen flickering onto the furniture. That’s how I experience it. In my own homes over the years, certain lights go on at certain times of day. It is officially “evening” when all four lamps go on in the living room and the under-cabinet lights are on in the kitchen. I don’t know why this is, but it is. It means “home” now.

            The ugliest light I have experienced in my life to date was the greenish purple fluorescent-tube light of the auxiliary gymnasium at my high school. Everything was so sickly, so other-worldly in a bad way, that the light, if you can call it that, sucked all the joy out of the roller-skating unit. That, and Bill Sprague starting a “chain.”

            The most beautiful light I have known occurs during that fleeting cusp of evening into night, every season, any night, when there is at least some sun. That dusky, hovering moment of light fills my soul and breaks my heart all at once.

            Now that I’ve shared all these newsy tidbits about my life in and out of the light, you may be asking, “WTF?”

            One of the reasons I was able to create quite lovely lighting in my little high school shows was because I was conscious of light and how it affects the mood of a scene. Backlight, low light, area light, warm light and cool--those visuals played in my head during rehearsals even as I wanted the acting to illuminate to the words of the play. Your mind may not do this, and it may not even interest you. My colleague (whom I’ll call Jane) couldn’t have cared less about lighting and didn’t notice much difference between a follow-spot from a machine out in the house and an area light from the catwalk. (It is a HUGE difference, in case you are wondering.)

            Random rules of thumb I learned: When in doubt, illuminate in a warm glow of amber or pale pink. Make sure everyone can be seen and fill in “dead” spots wherever possible. (Read the lecture notes to find out what “dead” spots are.) There is a lot of artistry to light, so except for the nuts and bolts of selecting, hanging, and turning on lights, you may want to skip this unit in your teaching, if you teach this. I hope you don’t.

            Here is a confession: I do not and never have understood electricity. I relied on kids who were interested in all that stuff, like Brent and Alan and John and Kim and Roxmary and Veronica, to understand it. They took my lighting books, studied our patch panel, lighting board, instrument inventory, wattage load limits, and the physics of gels. Bless their hearts. I said valuable things like, “I want to see streaks of sunshine here,” “We need it to look like twilight,” and “Do something cool.”

            Together we made magic.

            If you want to get lighting magic, you have to “see” light, and “feel” light, and you want to encourage your potential designers to see and feel light, too. That is the purpose of the Lighting Journal, which was a project I created when I was teaching Thoreau to some juniors and had them keep a nature journal (involving the study of one tree they saw every day as we moved from autumn into winter.) (The scientist E.O. Wilson said any scientist could spend a lifetime studying just one tree and never learn everything. It’s the process of studying that matters so much, but I digress). Around that same time I was teaching lighting to my TP kids, and thought I’d do a similar journal, only with light.

            Lighting is a feeling more than anything, as far as I’m concerned, so the journal starts with asking students to become conscious of how light makes them feel. Then they will study exterior (usually natural) light, and interior (usually artificial) light to become aware of light sources and how these shifts change the environment. Out of this journal, you can then talk about what lighting would best suit a production that features a rousing main street chorus number, or a picnic in the woods, or a midnight vampire attack.


            This project was generally very successful because it’s an equalizer: No one had to be able to draw, or paint, or have an eye for accessories: Everyone lives with light. (If you have sight-impaired or blind students in your class, discuss alternatives if they need them--perhaps how seasonal light feels on the skin, for example, or an exploration of day and night sounds, if they wish.) That said, I can imagine several questions and concerns you might have on this project. As always, modify it to suit your needs. (Note: Limit any project assignment you give to ONE PAGE. Any more requirements or guidelines may indicate that the scope of the project is unrealistic; the evaluation sheet should mirror this.)

            But let’s address those concerns: First of all, of all the projects I assigned in Theater Production, this one was the easiest to “fake.” I had kids to fake it every year, remembering at ten o’clock on Sunday night that the project was due and sitting down to the computer to type till their nails bled. The project, you see, is deceptive. It would seem to be simple, a few notes here and there. But start doing it yourself (which I recommend--and I hope you now see that my little opening essay was in fact a version of this project), and you soon begin feeling the pull of the associations, the visuals you need to explain. So even if a kid “fakes” it, he or she will have to spend a few hours and will learn something. The penalty for no draft notes is 20 points, which at Luxe High School meant they started with a C. I think that’s fair. A kid may also fake notes--it happens. You can’t control it. Tell them all this, if you like. I did. “Please don’t think me a fool if I don’t realize you pulled a fast one. Keep your mouth shut and offer up a prayer of serious thanks.”

            Second, while this is a “journal,” you will see that I expected kids to make notes and then translate these notes into complete thoughts. This, to you, may not be a journal. You may see a journal as less restrictive and view my expectation of complete sentences as sucking the air out of the discovery process that says “journal” to you. Whatever. Here is what I know: Complete sentences mean complete thoughts. I’m sick of IMs, fragments, jots, “yeah, like, I know”s, and word associations. I want kids to think deeply and write accordingly. At the same time, I know that good notes can be taken on a napkin, on a candy wrapper, even, when you grab the first paper you see to record an observation. Kids can give me those napkins. (I request that they be placed in an envelope and labeled--and no kidding, I sometimes got napkins and wrappers.) I asked them to organize the notes by sections, Parts I-IV, but I didn’t care what the notes were on. Some “notes” might be a regular draft on regular paper, and that’s okay, too. But I want to see NOTES. I also like to see that the notes are turned into thinking. It may be first-draft thinking, but at least they are pushing beyond notes to develop a few ideas.

            On Presenting: I like kids to take public ownership of projects and, by looking at the projects of others kids, to learn how others see. I didn’t do whole-class discussions for the journal, necessarily; observe your group. They will indicate to you where to take it. You can organize formal small groups to read projects aloud, have informal exchanges of projects, or have students share sections aloud for the class. But I think it’s helpful for students to see how others approached the project before they receive their projects back with a grade.

            On Evaluating: I gave the students a copy of the evaluation form and as always asked them to include it with their project. (They usually didn’t. *SIGH* Still, do this. At least they know up front how they are being assessed.) The grading form seems really hard, but that, too, is deceptive. Because this project can be the hardest to grade and the most time-consuming to read (many kids will write way more than the requested few sentences), you need a guide. Scim and scan: tick off the blanks with a check, “yes, yes, yes,” and DO NOT OVER-THINK. This is not a master’s thesis. (No record of date and time? Minus one. Move on.)

            Kids like to see signs that you read: Occasionally write encouraging words such as “Yes,” “Interesting,” “I see that,” “Say more about this,” and “Nice” . . . and mean them. Underline two or three good observations or unusual details, place a check mark at good points. Add up the earned points, and give a grade. In the comments area, say one good thing if they have a B or an A, and mean it; say one good thing and add an improvement item if they get a C. If they receive a D or F, clearly it’s incomplete--the form reveals this--and tell kids with low grades that you hope they get something out of the lighting unit in any case; i.e., keep encouraging.

            SPEND NO MORE THAN 5-7 MINUTES PER PROJECT. Do the math, and with a class of 30 this will still take you almost three hours to grade. Spend the 20 minutes that each project deserves and you will be at this for--do the math--10 hours. Multiply that amount of time by five to include your other classes, and you just bought yourself a 100-hour workweek. I don’t think you have it. But this is why teachers get summers off.

            Why Use a Form: The grading form takes the guesswork out of point evaluations. It also protects you from your own worst instincts when you are really tired and get so disgusted you tick off a random -15 for a missing part that should only be worth 3. It also allows the student to see at a glance the difference between receiving a C because of limited ideas and content, and losing 25 points for missing notes and failure to follow format. It all matters. Presentation matters and it deserves to cost points. But not all points.

            A Story: In seventh grade for social studies, I made an election notebook on candidate Jimmy Carter. This is back in the day before Internet and, no kidding, photocopiers, so all articles had to come from actual, physical newspapers and magazines. (My family got The Washington Post and Time (the subscription was a wedding present from my mom’s Auntie Clare, who kept renewing the gift), so I was lucky.) Despite having the requisite number of articles, analytical paragraphs, political cartoons, and a creative cover (including my own caricature of Mr. Carter as Mr. Peanut), my project got a C. Why? In looking at the A projects, here is what I was able to surmise: My notebook wasn’t pretty enough. I didn’t have zig-zag scissors, or even sharp scissors at home, so the edges weren’t smooth on the cut-out articles, let alone styled; I used brads pushed through construction paper (an option) rather than a binder we couldn’t afford; that sort of thing. Also, I came to be impressed with my chosen candidate, and said so in my final essay. (My teacher did not like him, I realize in retrospect.) My teacher said to me when I expressed surprise at my average grade, “I knew you’d say that.” That was all. It was the teacher’s prerogative. Maybe my analysis wasn’t deep enough, but aside from a comment about how I clearly favored Carter over Ford (whom I hadn’t researched because the project asked us to research only one candidate, so I picked the one I’d never heard of; and I was only twelve years old), all I remember seeing was a “C”. But I suspect a lot of the grade had to do with the pretty factor.

            This leads me to an important point about education and its biases: For any project, one kid will follow the format to the letter, do exactly what is required, make a nice cover, and display no great thinking in the whole project. Another kid will be a really deep thinker, an insightful writer, and leave off some labels, miss one section of the notes, and have no great cover. Who deserves the higher grade? (Hint: Most teachers (and humans) are suckers for tidy and complete.) Suppose each student were to get a B+. Would this really be so wrong? It takes all kinds, people (and most of us fall in between somewhere). In the theater, my lighting designer has to be able to make the lights go ON first. But I’d also like some beauty. I hope you see my point.

            Many of us have had the teacher who would give a zero on a paper because of one comma splice. This seems patently absurd, and it is (hence my evaluation form). But let’s be realistic: That sort of randomness is more honest, if we look at the way the world works: President Bill Clinton can do all the good in the world he wants, and we should be grateful, but we’ll always remember him for Monica. Monica was Bill’s comma splice, and a lot of people gave him a zero because of it, didn’t they?

            Now you can stop that nonsense and assign fair point values.
            A final point about points vs. your judgment: Let’s take a sampling of “A Place You Like the Light,” and grade a couple of examples.

One kid describes a room:
11/2, 9:30 P.M. My living room has a couch, a chair, a coffee table, and a bookcase. When the lamp in the corner is on, I feel cozy. Even though the rest of the room is dark, I like this little gold circle of light around the chair. It makes me feel like reading.

Another kid might say of the same scene:
November 2, 2010, 9:30 on a rainy night, a branch scraping the window of my living room: The deep pine green back of the antique wing chair casts a grey shadow over myriad bindings in the walnut bookcase when the corner Tiffany lamp comes on. The effect is both eerie and inviting when the golden glow with rainbow hues envelops me, as I snuggle against the plush cushions with my favorite novel.

            Who did the better job? Decide quickly. Now take a look below:

Here is the direction on the kids’ project sheet:
PART I, FEELING LIGHT: In a few sentences, evaluate the lighting in the locations listed: Describe the place. Explain the quality of light and how you respond to it.
            A.  A place you really like the light

Here is the evaluation form:
PART I: A few sentences with descriptions, date and time
____/5 A. Place you like light

I hope you realize that both students should receive the full five points. Before you judge, always look at the requirements: a few sentences with description, a date and time. But what, you demand, of the second student’s details? Doesn’t that prove his project to be more worthy? Okay: The first student did not explain furniture placement or describe the room in meticulous detail. But is “myriad bindings” in the second example really useful in a lighting description? That’s a judgment you can make, but is it worth weighing here? I would say no.

            Now let us suppose the second student with the great description left off the date and the time: Whatever you may think of his descriptions, you would have to deduct at least one point. That’s fair. But you may ask, Is an “equal” evaluation fair? Yes, when the requirement is spelled out, as it is with “date and time”.

(Suppose in all four sections, with all four items in each section, a kid never records the date or the time. This is a loss of 16 points. Do you want to do this? Yes, you do. How can you avoid this? In the days before the project is due, put a checklist on the board: How is your project going? Do you have all your notes? Are you remembering to record the date and time of each observation? Are you writing descriptions? That sort of thing helps kids remember. This is, after all, school. We are not trying to trip them up. Recording this detail, the date and time, is just the sort of life detail--the account number written on a check to the power company, for example, the address of the dentist’s office and date of our next appointment--that all of us need to practice when we are young. Right?)

Here is an example of an unfair deduction: Technically, the second student has only written two sentences, when “a few” would indicate three or four. This is your judgment call; you may be a stickler and deduct a point. Should you deduct this point? I would say absolutely not--that would be splitting hairs, and what would be your point?

            Consider a third example entry: You will have at least one student whose entire entry will read, Living room at night, one lamp, I like it. Based on my requirements, he would get one point, maybe two if he’s learning disabled or an English Language Learner--and that’s a place for a legitimate judgment call.

            When we are in the grading moment, depending on our distractions, levels of sleep deprivation, mood, and other factors, we can lose sight of what evaluation is all about. Teachers must develop a habit of mind when it comes to grading, even in an elective class like this. Let’s focus on the PURPOSE of this particular project. First of all, Theater Production is not Writing Workshop I. Second, grading is not compare and contrast (which is a useful learning tool but an unfair project evaluation tactic—I hope you see the distinction; this is a class project, not a government contract they are bidding on). You have to take students where they are.

            I hope you also see why it makes no difference how old a student is in a class like this.

            You cannot get hung up on false comparisons and assorted bailiwicks. That is how grading one set of projects can take you ten hours and cause arguments later, and what will keep you from assigning valuable projects, and also how valuable courses like Theater Production are not allowed to develop in the first place.

            I wrote in an earlier post about the need for a full course in creating Assessments as part of teacher training: Create clear requirements, and as you grade, look at your own requirements. (This applies to assessing ANYTHING.) I purposely avoid being too detailed by limiting the project sheet to one page whenever possible. In the Lighting Journal, you are asking students to pay attention to light and its effects. That’s IT. You read journals; some move you, some don’t. In the above examples, you may think you know which student is getting the most out of this experience, but you don’t know that at all. Some kids with a propensity for wordplay can pull poetry out of their asses and never feel a thing. Some write eight words and truly see the light. Real life example alert: For the record, a student who would become one of my best lighting techs turned in a journal that read very much like the first example. Suppose I’d had no evaluation form, had read her project, shrugged, and given her journal a C. Would she have stayed interested in lighting? Fortunately, she got an A, so I never had to find out.

            In the end, you need a good guideline AND your judgment. Use both.

            AND: As for your stupid teacher guilt over not devoting 10 hours to grading this project “because the kids put so much into it”: Your evaluation matters, but their doing it matters more. You are not giving them short shrift, but rather you are being a realist, which allows you to keep teaching: They each did one project; you are evaluating 30 (or 60, or 75). (Some projects will be so good you will just get sucked in, and that’s marvelous and useful. I saved the good ones to use as models, and I learned from my students which components made for interesting discoveries and which did not. The project you see here is a honed version of my first foray into the lighting journal idea.)

            I seem to be hammering home a point here, and I am. Please apply the following wisdom to your overall evaluating life: Think about the objectives you have, the information you want to teach, why you want kids to know it, how you want them to use it, what projects will help them practice and apply it, and how to evaluate and assess it. Eventually you will internalize all this stuff and it won’t seem that hard. Don’t hurt yourself.

            BUT THERE IS A LOT OF WORK AHEAD, my friends. One project does not a class make, a year make, a career make. You have a life. Live it. And get those damned things graded.


This section is about how one can apply actual learning in a classroom to a real-life situation. The kids in my Theater Production class helped design and build the very shows that patrons came to see, and we wanted to do our very best so that money was not wasted—theirs or ours. Of what better use is education? Beauty and truth.

            Unable to get a budget for a textbook--and really, no textbook existed that did what little I needed for a basic high school class--I created a lighting packet for my students for in-class use, culled from several books on stage lighting. For obvious copyright infringement reasons, I am not including that packet here, but I would suggest you review resources, teach yourself, and make packets that will be useful to you and your students. Here is what I created:

1. Stage Lighting Test based on photocopied materials about lighting fundamentals and notes
2. Hand-created diagram of how lights turn on
3. Game for kinesthetic and non-electrical practice of using lighting systems, involving ropes, color-coding and a “plot” so that the student became the patch panel, lighting board, and cables
4. A lesson plan for demonstrating what gels can do
5. A few lecture notes and practicum on the stage (i.d. of instruments, locations, etc.)

            Let’s think about light again, in a theater: If there is “a bright golden haze on the meadow,” and a man is singing this to me, I had better see a bright, golden light on that stage, as well as a hint of meadow. If it is “a dark and stormy night,” and the electricity is out, and only one candle lights the room, I had better see lighting that matches this scenario. I also have to be able to see what is going on on the stage, so the “single candle” will have to be cheated a bit, but as long as I get the picture, as it were, no one will complain.

            And there it is: Stage lighting in a minute. Good luck.
            Okay, there is more to it, and I’ll do my best to explain what that is.

            A Note on Resources: As I mentioned, I left teaching before my school got a computerized lighting board. Computers or no, that’s a technical point only and not the subject of this chapter. This is the subject: You have to understand what light can and should DO, or all the gizmos in the world will just go for naught. I think it best to begin with terms, a test, some exercises, and then a real-life example in the negatory. I’ll skip the terms, test, and exercises, and cut to the example.

            Real life experience alert: A very nice man in our school system, a certified “expert” on state-of-the-art lighting, came to my school to “help” us, at Jane’s behest (she was nervous about us being legally responsible for new regulations about the technicians and their safety, and I realized she had a point). His “designs” (I’m wondering how much more condescending I can “sound”) were low-wattage, all shadows and dead spots, sharp lines, and sickly gel choices, so I (read: my kids) refocused, re-aimed, and rebuilt his every design. Jane didn’t understand why I did that (she said she couldn’t see much difference), and our expert helper (paid out of our school’s drama coach stipend, which is to say my pocket) understandably got really exasperated with me. Oddly, he knew what he was about, in that he had actually planned for the lights to look that way. So it turns out he was (to my mind) just really terrible. I mean this in a loving way: nice man, hard worker, an artist not so much. I cannot stomach bad, no matter how well-intended, so I meddle.

            How did I know my adjustments made the lighting “better”? Good question. Let’s talk fundamentals. For example, for no discernable reason—in that there was no stage direction indicating “sunlight through tree branches” or a “porch light” effect, for example—a stage area he’d designed would often be dimly and unevenly lit. He might leave a wide swath of stage right in the dark, for example, so that an actor walking across the stage would pass from light into (inexplicable) shadow and back into light. Whole scenes might have a kind of horizontal line cutting off light at the tops of the heads of actors standing on a platform, and I’d realize the cats were aimed too high and were hitting the teaser on the act curtain. I’d make the techs re-aim these instruments or re-aim Fresnels on the first electric to illuminate the actors’ faces. I knew this man got aggravated--so before interfering I first would ask him to look at the scene and show him the problem, whereupon he would roll his eyes and explain that it looked right to him--and whatever I’d changed, he would make the kids re-aim the instruments as he designed; when he finally would leave, not to return until opening night, my techs would quickly fix the lights as I’d requested.
            This lighting man also left “edges” on his lights. Yes, lights have edges. And you can demonstrate this with two or three high-powered flashlights.

            OK: One Exercise: Have kids stand holding strong flashlights straight-on toward a volunteer’s face in the dark, walking up and back, and changing angles (sideways and up-down) slowly. Have the remaining students watch for the “lines” or “edges” to “soften.” (On an actual Leko, you can adjust the instrument for softness or hardness of edges, or focus it, while the instrument hangs in one place.) The idea in many cases is to blend the light coming from the two or three instruments to make a shadow-free “wash.” If the lights don’t do this, you will notice visual effects you may not have intended (and intention is the key here): an actor’s face may seem to have a kind of dark scar, but only until he moves away; or two actors standing together in the same “room” will be lit differently and not for symbolic reasons; or a costume will appear to have an odd “seam” or multiple colors in what should be solid-colored fabric. You may also notice the shadows of the actors appearing against the scenery, on the floor, on the sofa, and such shadows are surprisingly distracting on stage, while in life (on a sunny playground, or example) we just kind of accept them.

            Finally, we differed aesthetically, this expert and I. This man would put 500-watt lamps in instruments that needed, in our experience, 1000 watts. As a result, I don’t think the light from the catwalk ever reached our large and distant stage much past the apron. “What happened to our thousand-watt lamps?” I’d asked. I know he didn’t use them, because his own shows were practically in the dark. That was a lot of money, and I suspect he tossed them out. I had to buy all new lamps, which I had my techs “hide” until the final dress, when we put them in so he couldn’t say anything.  He preferred dim lighting (his own shows made me feel I was going blind), and I like to see. This is, I admit, my aesthetic choice. And, aesthetically, I didn’t like the yellow-tinted gels he preferred (I like pink) when he gelled at all. He achieved a kind of dim glare, if you can do that, and it really was not to my taste.

            And bless the hearts of my techs, they understood, artistically and just plain fundamentally, that first and foremost: YOU HAVE TO SEE THE ACTORS, and see them without distraction.

            In my view, for what it’s worth, I will reiterate what I said in the beginning: When in doubt, make shadow-free, dead-spot-free, warm pinkish light so that everything is illuminated, to coin Jonathan Safron-Foer, and so it all looks kind of generally nice. It’s enough. Only do artsy when you and your technicians really know what you are doing, when you have a budget of some kind to play with, and when you do a show where lighting effects really will enhance the action. It was a few years before I was willing to try real design, and my student Brent was the one who emboldened me. That’s another story.

I hope you see how involved even a Theater Production unit can be: art, science, and execution to the point of performance give regular course work measurable value. And for those readers wondering why teaching is hard, I hope this post adds dimension to your understanding. Reforming education—and I do think real reform is in order—has to be done in a full context. In the end, giant reforms are almost always enacted by a dozen or so men (Founding Fathers, Communist Revolutionaries, Dick Cheney) or dictators (Mao, Hitler, Dick Cheney), who use the cult of personality to advance an ideology by coercion and force. What is harder is doing something generous and good, and in a truly democratic way, across a broad landscape (Gandhi), in the face of so many divergent viewpoints, fears, and dreams.

Yep. It’s hard. It’s why I’d rather write a play, find some actors, and put on a show. Lights up full. Enter laughing.