Go Out And Get ‘Em, and a Birthday Note

Through high school, there were teachers I hated, teachers I respected, teachers I had crushes on and teachers who left absolutely no lasting impression on me whatsoever. There are very few, though, that I genuinely consider friends.

I was a teacher’s aid for Chad Sant’s more traditional academic course (History, I believe, though I was more concerned with grading papers and giving girls back massages), but the class I was an actual student in was his acting class.

I had never really done acting before that class. I took it because I needed electives, it seemed easy, and a couple girls I had crushes on were in it. Participation was mandatory. There were a lot of improv games: park bench, questions, sausage…that last one isn’t what you might think. We also had to memorize monologues and perform them for the class.

I liked being a smart-ass. I liked pushing the limits and being a class clown. All the same, I had yet to acquire my comfort for the spotlight. I was nervous being in front of so many people and reciting something or becoming somebody I wasn’t or reading something I had written. So it was with complete skepticism that I met Chad’s suggestion I should audition for the school play.

Now, this was senior year. I had never acted on stage before where others had been doing it for 6 years or more. I had quit band after 8th grade because I was afraid of anything that might get me picked on. But Chad insisted, my friends encouraged me and I went in and did a cold read that I thought went fucking terribly. I tossed the script in the trash on my way out, headed to the mall and – I don’t recall exactly – probably got drunk that weekend. I was an angry, lonely seventeen year old. I had a routine.

Cut to a week later when I happened by Chad’s classroom and found the cast list posted on his door. To my surprise, I had been cast as Dallas Winston in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I hemmed and hawed over it for almost a week before grudgingly accepting. I had never read the book. I didn’t even finish the script. Chad brought the movie in for us to watch and that was the first time I discovered that I died in the end and fuck yes, this was actually going to be awesome.

Spoiler alert, but that book has been out almost 50 years and the film for over 30. Matt Dillon played my character. Tom Cruise still had a fucked up nose and crooked teeth. It was truly a different time.

Anyway, the show did not go off without its hitches. In the premiere show for the school, in front of the artsy kids, the special needs kids, several teachers and the principal of the school, the gun I was supposed to pull on the policeman got caught in the pocket of my leather jacket. I let out a frustrated, “FUCK”, at which point I was gunned down, the lights dimmed and I could hear one of the girls backstage say, “Whaaat did he just say?”

I didn’t get in trouble. It still makes me laugh, because it really did warrant at least a detention. At least one. But Chad told the principal to chalk it up to nerves and when I apologized, he turned to me and said, “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Don’t….do that again.”

There are plenty of other stories from that show and the two others (Grease, Pirates of Penzance) I performed in under his direction. But this isn’t about me, as much as I like to talk about myself.

I bring up my experiences in theater because it opened up a lot for me. It opened up a love for the craft I never could have imagined. I’ve only done six shows, some high school drama competitions, a couple Renaissance Faires and a couple short indy films, but holy shit has it influenced my life.

I began writing more – short fictions, poems with plot, starts of novels, screenplays – because I fell in love with the art of storytelling. I owe being an author, screenwriter and poet in part to that.

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 21 because of a want to be an actor/writer. I failed so fucking hard. But that dream led me to one of the loves of my life and some of the best friends I’ve ever known. I felt more at home there than anywhere and I want to move back. The dream of acting led me there.

My theater experience in school led me to a few shows with city theater groups. I met another love of my life through that, in a passionate, ill-advised tryst. Through her, I was introduced to the karaoke bar I fell in love with until it closed. Through experience in musical theater, I was given the opportunity to judge karaoke contests and everything that entailed.

Chad Sant set me on this path as an artist. He took me aside and told me he believed in me. More than that, that he needed me to help complete his casts and bring everything together. Now, that’s bullshit. I was absolutely replaceable. Almost all of us were. But he made me feel like I wasn’t. He drove me to and from rehearsals. He talked to me about life between classes. He treated me like an adult and didn’t hold back when discussing and debating mature topics. He didn’t treat me like I was stupid.

Chad has purchased each book I’ve put out so far. He has brought them into his classrooms and told his students about me. He’s made an effort to keep in touch since I’ve graduated and put in a good word.

And you know what?  I’m not the only one he does this for. He’s gone to Jessica Singleton’s comedy shows. He regularly goes out for dinner with several of his more prestigious former students. He keeps us all apprised on each other and instills in us a sense of accomplishment not just in ourselves but with these former colleagues we suffered through high school with. He helps us maintain a sense of camaraderie through years without communication.

He’s a good man. A kind man. An inspiring man. He’s funny and smart and he sees potential in people. I wrote before that testing doesn’t equal teaching, and Chad is a perfect example of the educator who goes above and beyond to make sure his students are invested in learning, in being something more than themselves. When he sees the capabilities a person possesses, he pushes them to accept that role and pursue that path.

He convinced me to pursue that path and gave me the confidence and encouragement to keep the journey going. Those dreams and experiences have taken me to some of the best, most adventurous, most instructive, most fun, most challenging moments of my life.

Anyway, it was his birthday yesterday. It isn’t much, Mr. Sant, but here you go:

***

The toll of the bell indicated the day was over. Christian watched his students push themselves out of folding seats and pull their backpacks up from the aisles before filing out of the theater. A few kids raised their hands to high five and fist bump him as they passed. He did so pleasantly, a smile on his face, and wished them an awesome weekend.

After the last of his pupils passed through into the lobby, he pulled the faded red doors shut and locked them tight. He turned and strode down the stairs, carpet torn from decades of trampling feet and inattention. At the front of the theater, he lifted one leg and hoisted himself up on the stage. It had been spraypainted the kind of shiny silver-black obsidian was, but each year more and more slivers broke free, revealing the dark brown wood beneath.

Christian didn’t care. This was his dominion. The stage. In front of the crowd and under the spotlight. He glanced out at the seats, empty now by sight but always occupied by the spectres of captive audiences past.

He turned his back to the audience. It was a faux pas during performance, but he stayed behind for himself tonight, unconcerned with the judgement of memories. Instead, he faced the set piece his students had spent the past few weeks diligently constructing and painting. The prized portion was the massive forefront of a castle, twisted through by artificial trees on either side.

The show wasn’t due to start for another month during which he hoped the rehearsals would smooth themselves out a bit more. They often did due to the power of repetition and the growing confidence of his actors in their own abilities. Unimpressed by the standard recycled fare of shows most schools used, he had penned his own fantasy epic with a compelling romantic subplot. His colleague described it as The Princess Bride meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream and implored him to submit it for more professional venues. Christian resisted, insisting he had written it for his students. He wanted to give the kids an opportunity to be a part of something that had never been done before. Something that would be wholly theirs.

Well, mostly theirs.

While Christian had indeed written it himself, he had yet to reveal where the inspiration for the tale had sprung from. Indeed, he didn’t plan on ever confessing. There was too much risk to his reputation, his life, and those who trusted in him.

He lifted his hands and held them before him, palms pressed together and fingertips pointed towards the set piece. He closed his eyes and slowly pulled his hands away from each other. Almost immediately, he felt the fabric separating. A warm gust of air hit him full in the face, fresh with the scent of berries that carried no name. He could hear the gentle songs of four-winged birds as they zipped on by. The fertile soil of a well-worn path stretched out until it replaced the worn wooden floor beneath his feet. He didn’t need to open his eyes to know the passage to the other realm had opened smoothly.

“Mr. Sant?” a voice asked meekly.

The teacher whirled to his right, eyes wide in surprise. He saw Billy Tamlin standing there, a sheaf of papers barely held in his shaking hand. He was a quiet boy that kept to himself unless he was on stage. On stage, he broke out of his shell into a truly wonderful talent.

“I forgot my script…”

Christian swore to himself. He must have forgotten to lock the back door, the one leading out into the side hall, utilized for quick changes and getting any actors who escaped through the crowd back into the theater unseen.

Well. He hadn’t wanted to tell anyone where his inspiration had truly come from, but there was an expression about best laid plans.

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Testing Doesn’t Equal Teaching

This isn’t a post about the trials and tribulations of high school, bullying or teen sex, but it is about education. There is a problem in and outside of our schools.

On the inside, it feels like our educators have stopped caring about teaching our kids and are instead relying on regurgitating information, assigning projects,  dishing out homework and relying heavily on the outcome of a test to determine whether or not they’ve retained enough information to shuffle on to the next step of life. And that’s bullshit, because it is easy to memorize things long enough to answer twenty-five questions but it’s harder to keep that knowledge the minute you walk put the door of a class you care nothing about.

I’m not saying it’s all teachers. It’s not even most teachers. It is, however, enough to be an issue. There should be a focus on engaging the students instead of relaying to them. The best ones are the ones fresh out of college, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to exercise their ideas to get the kids as excited about the subject as they are. I got one of these my freshman year of high school and it’s the reason why if I ever decided to take up university, it would be to become an educator.

My junior year AP Language and Compositions teacher was the same way. He found humorous ways to convey information. He listened to the kids and displayed remarkable patience. He interacted with us and shared with us his own experiences and work.

My Creative Writing teacher was an aspiring poet and during and after class, he encouraged us to share our work. He helped us and helped us help each other. He encouraged us to story-weave and world-build as a group.

But then there are those educators who are just going through the motions. And it is a hard job. You’ve got pressure from the government, from the school district, from parents, from jack-off bloggers like me, and – most importantly – from the very kids you’re expected to prep for life as an adult. It’s difficult to not just go through the motions and do the bare minimum and I applaud the teachers who go to school every day and do put in that extra work.

It is inspiring to see teachers write into the paper and explain that they are doing their damndest with what minimal resources and pay that they have. Because for every teacher who gives up and goes day to day and spits the rhetoric just to collect the paycheck, there are ten who are still passionately doing it for the kids.

Which brings us to the problem outside the school: LOOK AT THIS SHIT. That is from May 20th of this year. DRASTIC cuts in education budgets almost across the board to the point that it is worse than before the recession.

And what are we focusing on? Paying our teachers more?  Nope. Why is it that, well, look:

image

What the fuuuuck? Come on!

Now, I do have some good news. The rate of high school dropouts as been steadily on the decline for several years, with 7.9% as of 2013. The bad news is we’re still ranked 10th in high school attainment.

Do you know who runs the greatest risk of dropping out of high school? Kids from broken homes.

The high school I went to consistently has between 1,600 and 1,800 kids in grades 9-12. Do you know how many counselors they have?

Four.

Four counselors to help with class issues, college assistance, issues with teachers and other students, and the occasional stresses and problems at home. Four people.

So for a few years, they hired two more. These two people were specifically hired to help those in danger of failing out of school. These were the kids who liked to fight, who liked to party, who felt ashamed and alone at school,  who came from homes that were broken and abusive and had absentee or addict parents. For many of them, it was the first time someone had actively given a shit about them. And a significant amount of them began to graduate because of it.

I spoke about it a school board meeting. I talked about the importance of keeping those people around because removing them meant directly affecting the kids who needed them most and who needed to be convinced staying in school was worth it. I said that taking those two counselors away would be failing the kids we’re supposed to be helping and encouraging. I emphasized that four people are not enough to help 1,800 confused kids.

Guess what? It didn’t do shit. Those crisis counselors were let go because they were considered an unecessary budget expense. Because people are too focused on guaranteed graduations and high school GPAs and focusing on the easy kids instead of trying to lift up the troubled ones.

Do I have any answers? I don’t know. Nothing quick and easy. I guess this:

Talk about this. Make an issue of it. Go out and vote for increased education budgets. Quit giving so much shit to teachers as a whole and take teachers who aren’t taking their jobs seriously to account (as you would any employee at any job).

If you’re a teacher, don’t just talk at your students. Don’t just lecture and give them problems to solve. There isn’t depth there. For kids with short attention spans (like me) or troubled home lives or who aren’t as interested in math or science or english or history as they are other subjects,  you need to find a way to keep them engaged. If learning is fun or interesting, it’s easier to retain information.

And if you’re an educator who is doing that currently, and there are many of you, good fucking job. Keep doing what you’re doing. You have my undying respect, gratitude and support.

When a community gives up on educating and supporting the children of the community in exchange for bare-bones “education” and grading, it gives my nerves a test as wracking as any I took in high school.

I scored an F. You can guess what that stands for.