Saturday, August 21, 2021

Meeting Students During COVID, or "Don't I know (part of) you?"

School started this week. We are back in the building, full-time, for the first time since COVID bit us in the butt in March of 2020. Seventeen months, almost to the day. Which makes this the third school year that has been butchered by the pandemic. 

I'm not going to go into the horrors of teaching via Zoom. That topic has been beaten to death, and even I can't handle another freaking article about 384 WAYS TO ENGAGE STUDENTS ONLINE or TEACHERS NEED TO PRACTICE SELF-CARE, EVEN THOUGH TEACHING ONLINE TAKES UP 30 HOURS EACH DAY, with a bunch of completely unrealistic, even infuriating, "tips" that really only give you even more to do between crying jags.

Just this graphic is enough to send me over the edge, even without the Comic Sans.

Neither am I going to broach the topic of teaching in Covidland, with the landmines of distancing and mask-policing, the differences between Delta symptoms and allergies, the uselessness of taking temperatures at the building entrance and of not sharing pencils.

So... I got vaccinated as soon as I could find an appointment, March 7, 2021. This turned out to be about a month before we returned to school.

One and done, baybee!

We returned to the building in April of 2021, just over a full year after we left. We'd spent August 2020 through March 2021 online. (Actually, some of us spent June through March online, offering fun and/or useful summer "classes" via Zoom, because we were trying to keep the kids in touch with other humans.) When we came back to the building, of course, school did not vaguely resemble normalcy. Some students did not, for various reasons, join us in the building, and we spent the rest of the school year navigating "synchronous" learning (some students in person and some online, at the same time), which was even more difficult than completely virtual.

Some students are in the room, some are Zooming in,
and teachers are holding fistfuls of their own hair while screaming into the void.

When Coterie Theatre classes moved online in 2020, with everyone else's,  I had already been teaching online for months. It was exhausting, emotionally and mentally, so I told my beloved Education Director, Amanda, that I simply couldn't face doing more of it. She was sympathetic, and I ended up taking the summer off, for the first time ever. Of course, we had no idea that online teaching would become the norm, into the fall and so far, far beyond. 

But this year, I'd been vaccinated, and so I agreed to teach in person this summer. Maybe I had some idea, when I first accepted the class offers, months before they were to start, that we would be able to go sans masks. I'll chalk it up to being optimistic, I guess. Maybe naïve is closer to the truth. 

I'm not saying that elephants are the only ones, or that no elephants pay heed to scientists,
but there does seem to be a pattern.

Every week, a new class started, at a different satellite location, with different students, who were every age between 5 and 18. All of them, masked.

And this is the point of this post: I didn't know what my students looked like. When they took off their masks for a brief snack break, I was always a little surprised. I realized that I'd mentally filled in their appearance, above their necks and below their eyes, and they didn't actually look like what I'd imagined.

Oh, the lower half of your face is that of a wolf?
Well, that will help me when I run into you at the store, post-COVID

As I pondered this, I thought back to last fall, when we had new students at school, and I'd met them on Zoom. I only knew their faces. It didn't occur to me that this would pose any kind of problem, but then we had an outdoor, masked social gathering for the whole school. Suddenly, I knew no one, because the only thing I'd known them by, their faces, were the only things that I could no longer rely on for identification. What made it worse, of course, was that so many students were adverse to turning their cameras on during class, so they could identify me, but I could not reciprocate. It became a joke as we parted: "Nice seeing how tall you are!"

Other staff and faculty members were experiencing the same thing, and we were all asking each other who that student, over there, was. I had to rely on things like their taste in jewelry and their hair color - which, if you know anyone of this age, you know the likelihood of their hair remaining the same color for more than a week is pretty slim.

But you have to be Marnie, your hair is pink!

And now, here we are, at the beginning of the third COVID-smashed school year. We have many new students at school, and they are all masked. On Day One, I already had a hard time in one class, differentiating between three girls with straight, blonde hair.

This time, at least, I'll be able to use their height and mode of dress as identifiers. If we are ever able to be safe from COVID without masks - a possibility that seems more remote with each passing day - that will be helpful.

Are you sure you live here? Can you show me some identifying birthmarks or scars?

Monday, January 18, 2021

(Fill in the blank)ING IN THE TIME OF (fill in the blank)

"HERE IS GOOD": Social distancing in the theater

This is going to be one of those posts. I hope it will also be more than that.

In March of last year, my school was about halfway through rehearsals for It Can't Happen Here (which I thought was important to present before the election), when we went on Spring Break and never came back. The novel coronavirus, known as CoVID-19, hit this country, and everything shut down. 

At first, my school just extended Spring Break by a week. Then two. And teachers everywhere had to learn a new way of teaching, never being in the same room with our students, NOW. It was extremely stressful. I cried a lot.

Isolate at home. Social distance. Hand sanitizer. Face masks must cover both your nose and mouth. No bandanas or gaiters, those aren't the same as face masks. Hand sanitizer. Wear latex gloves when you go out. Wipe down your groceries with anti-bacterial spray when you get home from the store. Hand sanitizer shortages. Toilet paper shortages? Essential workers. No restaurants, bars, gyms, concerts, movie theaters, weddings, funerals. Sanitize your hands after getting the mail, then let the mail sit for 24 hours before you open it. At least six feet apart from anyone you don't live with. No handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the back. Hand sanitizer. Droplets. Aerosols. No shouting. No singing.

But shouting and singing are all I know how to do.

Then school didn't come back into the building. I emailed the students in the cast and crew, canceling the show. I cried.

Broadway shut down indefinitely.

Teaching online proved to be far more exhausting than any of us realized. It became routine that, within an hour of my final class on Fridays, I was crying, and/or asleep.

As difficult as it was for me, I know it was harder on the students. We have an awesome school counselor who really emphasized the need to focus on the mental and emotional health of our students, as well as ourselves. Of course, parents were struggling too. Our world changed, practically overnight, and we were all navigating territory that we hadn't even imagined.

I went back to the school building in May, to pick up some materials and clean a few things out before summer... And everything was frozen in time. The rehearsal calendar was still on the callboard. There were costumes that we'd started to pull, still laid out in piles onstage. The backdrop had been chalked out, but would never be painted.

Hm. Red and blue costumes. It's not Romeo and Juliet
so I wonder what the color scheme of this play about
a revolution against a demagogue President could possibly indicate?

I sat down in the empty theater and, as a surprise to absolutely no one, I cried.

Over the next few weeks, theaters closed down. Many, many friends, who were contracted for various summer shows, were suddenly out of work. We thought: hang on until fall. 

I lost work too, as a teaching artist for The Coterie, a job I've cherished for over a decade. There's no teaching in person, and I couldn't handle anymore Distance Learning. The education director was very understanding, and I can't even imagine the pressure she was under.

The Kansas City Fringe Festival voted to go completely online. Bryan and I had been writing a play about the 19th Amendment, which was turning 100 years old in August. The way the play was structured, we decided, would not communicate well if it wasn't onstage. So, for the first time since 2008, we sat out.

Equity told union actors and stage managers that they were not allowed to work until further notice. No theater in the foreseeable future.

George Floyd was murdered, on video, by a grinning police officer. Black Lives Matter. So much police brutality toward peaceful protestors, all over the country. My niece was one of the countless who found herself in a cloud of tear gas.

A senior at school organized a #BLM protest, with help and support from faculty. About 75 people from our school community showed up, having wanted to participate with the larger protests, but frightened by CoVID, as well as police with flashbangs and tactical gear and tear gas and guns.  

KCA students walk the walk.

My school tried many things to keep in contact with students and parents, to stay in touch with people who couldn't go anywhere, do anything, be with anyone. Some of us volunteered to teach online classes and one-off workshops through the rest of the summer. I taught History of the Marginalized, a class that I'd been proposing for years, a play-watching discussion group, and beginning crochet.

Bryan's grandmother died, but CoVID had already rendered funerals nearly impossible.

I spent the summer reading as many "monologue" plays as I could get my hands on, in an attempt to find one that we could do at school, with social distancing. 

I realized that, in all my years as a theater professional, the fear of not having work was never because there simply wasn't any.

I directed an online reading of the play Bryan and I had written for Fringe. It took way longer and was way more difficult than any of us realized when we started. Fortunately, the cast was brilliant and imaginative and brought so much to the project. But it was exhausting and it was not theater.

My mom got rushed to the emergency room, and admitted to the hospital. I couldn't visit her, because of CoVID. (She's okay now.)

School started again. Online. It's no easier than in the spring.

I submitted a document of seven possible scenarios for a theater production at school in the fall semester. Each scenario was exhaustively thought-out. The principal and I agreed on one, where there'd be no more than four actors, performing monologues, on any given night, and no more than 15 masked audience members. All actors would have their individual entrance/exit, so backstage would be distanced as well. For the first time, I insisted upon reservations, so we could separate groups by the minimum six feet. And so many other details. So many.

My mom had major surgery, but I couldn't visit her, because of CoVID. (She's recovered well.)

I held auditions for the school play. I made up a rehearsal schedule, so no more than three students were rehearsing at any given time. We all wore masks and distanced from each other.

My dad was taken to the emergency room, and admitted to the hospital, but I couldn't visit him, because of CoVID. (He's fine now.)

Rehearsals were only 60-90 minutes long; again, to limit our time together. Most people were only called to rehearse one a week, occasionally twice. It was incredibly hard to get any momentum going.

My god, how they tried, though!

I twice asked for help building the set, from one tech-knowledgeable student, whom I knew I could trust to focus and be safe. Another student and her mom came and started to organize the costume room, which desperately needed it. The rest of the time, it was me, alone. Often, crying. Because, as I tell my students, theater isn't meant to be done alone.

The presidential election. All elections, for me, are stressful. Presidential elections, almost overwhelmingly so. The anxiety surrounding this presidential election was nearly unbearable.

Then, it didn't end. The current President demanded recount after recount, and lawsuit after lawsuit, because he insisted, publicly and angrily, that he actually won. "By a landslide," in fact. The electoral college had voted 306 to 232, so there was no way. But still, he lied and shouted and insulted. Lawsuits were either lost or thrown out. He furiously claimed - "baselessly," as every news outlet agreed - that it was all a conspiracy against him, and he had been reelected. His followers got louder, and waved signs saying "Stop the Steal" of the election from their fearless (read: deranged and dangerous) leader.

Less than two weeks before we opened, a cast member's parent was diagnosed with CoVID. That meant, among other things, that student would have to quarantine for two weeks. So she couldn't do the show, and I had to rearrange the performances. That included checking with the other actors to make sure they could be there on different nights, and contacting folks with reservations to offer alternate performance nights.

But a few days later, we made the connection that second cast member had been to the first's house only two days before the diagnosis. (The parent has since recovered, by the way.) So she too had to quarantine for two weeks. What's more, she'd been to rehearsal twice since that visit, so everyone who had been to rehearsal with her had to quarantine, at least until she got her test results back. And that included me. Rehearsals had to be suspended.

It was less than a week before we were to open.  

So, on Monday of production week, before test results were back for the second cast member, I made the horrible decision to cancel the show. Again. 

I cried. A lot. I'm starting to cry right now, in fact, just thinking about it.

My dad had major surgery, but I couldn't visit him, because of CoVID. 

I was so scared. At this point, it was most likely a cumulative effect. I mean, yeah, it was his heart, but also, just everything. It was only a couple of days before Thanksgiving. He was, incredibly, released the next day, feeling great.

Two of the cast members were moving out of state over winter break, so I hurriedly scheduled time with them to video their monologues. They had a hard time grasping why we had to do so many takes. I was suddenly teaching acting for the camera, but without time to actually teach it.

The CoVID vaccine was released. An unbelievable scientific achievement.... that the President has decided to take credit for.

Christmas was virtual. And with all families' Christmases being virtual, Christmas was also very short. 

Despite over 300,000 American people dead of CoVID, many people still followed the President's early claim that it's a "Democratic hoax" that's "no worse than the flu." Wearing a protective face mask in public is an infringement of their personal rights, they continue to say.

New Year's Eve was virtual. The general feeling is 2020 was obviously cursed, so 2021 had to be better, right?

The Georgia run-off election. Control of the Senate was riding on it. The President continued to insult and lie about that too. 

It was finalized the next day: both Democrats won. Before we could fully take it in, the outgoing President, who was holding a rally at the White House, again proclaimed, with absolute certainty, based in nothing that resembles reality, that reelection had been "stolen" from him, and set his vitriolic followers on a march to the Capitol Building. 

Insurrection. Violence. Destruction. Attempted coup.

Impeachment #2. A new record. Congratulations.

Pictured: Sick and tired of winning.

And there's so much more, always. Every second of every day, it seems there's more to worry about.  My worry cup is overflowing, and so I put myself on a news diet, but then I feel guilty because I know it's my privilege to be able to do that at all.

The point is: A (whole, real, amazing amount of) lot has hit all of us, at the same time, for an unbelievably long time. I can't stand the term "unprecedented times" anymore. That it's true only makes me more sick of it. The hits just keep on coming.

But I'm an adult. I have a lifetime of figuring out various coping mechanisms. Even though we're ten months into a pandemic that's just getting worse, and affects more facets of daily life than I ever would have imagined, I can hold on. I can figure out how to muddle my way through, hide when I need to, kick myself in the ass when I need to. In a depressive valley, I know that I will, at some point, find the sun again. 

You're welcome for the earworm.

My students haven't entirely figured that out yet. They're amazing people - smart and kind and caring - but they don't have the life experience to know about the sun. Because sometimes it's dark for way longer than you ever knew it could be. It's hard to remember that the ice will melt and flowers will bloom. 

As I get older, the Dark Times take up a smaller percentage of my life. For young people, though, the same length of time is actually far longer, in comparison to how much life they've lived. Yet, I hear so many adults crabbing on them about being lazy. They're not lazy, they're just spending all their energy trying to survive without any tools.

I have tools. I still have income. I have a house. I have a support network, health insurance, food, clothes. I have agency. I am extremely lucky. I have all of this, but I'm still struggling, daily. 

Young people don't have any tools, but they're somehow expected to bounce back better, sooner, higher than the rest of us? That's not fair to saddle them with that. 

So if they learn nothing academic from me this year, but are still able to periodically find joy and hope, maybe even optimism, I'm going to call it a win for us all.

Pictured: Sick and tired and winning.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Learning the Language of a New Production

Language fascinates me.

I will never tired of etymology.

I've said many times that dissecting words was one of the most important things I've ever learned. And it's something that my interest in language led me to do on my own. No one taught me, and that's a damn shame.

I have many multi-lingual friends. I have a friend who speaks five languages, including one I'd never even heard of, which happened to be her first. I have another friend who, over the course of her life, has practically collected languages: Armenian, Arabic, Russian, Turkish... I can't remember them all. I have friends who are ASL interpreters. Friends who teach French, Spanish, Chinese. And, although I have no scientific research to back this up, my guess is that most non-Americans in the world speak at least two languages.

Then there are languages of vocation that are complete mysteries to me. I have a friend who's a midwife. Sometimes I send her screengrabs of my medical test results, so she can explain them to me. Another friend is a neurologist. Another has a PhD in geology. I mean, jeez, I barely passed my geology class in college, and do you know why? Because they're ROCKS, man. I can't tell the difference. But Adam is a DOCTOR, of ROCKS. Totally different language there.

Image result for geology lab
Pictured: How I learned that showing up, every morning, to an 8:00 am college science class can 
earn you a grade that your test scores would deem completely impossible.

I speak Theater. It's a language spoken by most of my friends, at least conversationally. We all understand "flies" and "upstage" and "FOH" and "call times." We know "Thank you, five" and "Q2Q" and "curtain speech" and "call board." We understand what someone means when they describe something as "Brechtian" and we know that "absurd" is not the equivalent of "weird." Some will converse at length about Artaud and Boal and Heathcote.

I get frustrated when people who don't speak Theater assume they understand anyway.  Kind of like when Archie Bunker put an "o" at the end of words so Spanish-speaking people could "understand" him.

Image result for archie bunker elevator story
ARCHIE BUNKER: Hey, good boy, Pedro. HECTOR ELIZONDO: I am not a boy. I am a man. And my name is Carlos. ARCHIE BUNKER: "Carlos" it is, Pedro.

I was in my first play when I was ten years old. I directed my first play when I was 24. I started teaching acting in the early 2000s. Since 2012 (when I thought to start counting), I have had 1,345 theater students. I cannot even begin to remember, let alone count, the hundreds (thousands?) of productions that I've been involved in, as an actor, playwright, director, assistant director, acting coach, props or costumes or set or lighting or sound designer/crew. That's a lot of experience, and yet I am still so far from knowing even one one-jillionth of All Theater Stuffs that I can't even perceive of ever being close to regarded as any kind of expert.

Case in point: Last year, at school, I decided that our spring production would be two one-acts. Because directing two one-act plays would be the time/effort-equivalent of directing one two-act play, right?

Sooooo not right.
Related image
Kind of like how four warm-weather American cities are equal to one frozen continent...?

It's directing two plays, at the same time. As it turs out, the length of the material doesn't matter, because each play is completely different in every way except length: directorial concept, tech (props, costume, set, lighting, sound) design, cast, pacing, genre... everything. Including, I discovered, language.

Each play, each production, each cast, and each cast member has a different language. I've recently discovered this, and that if I'm not open to learning the new language of each new set of circumstances, it leads to misunderstanding, frustration, and resentment.

At school this past spring, I directed The Laramie Project. I knew it would be tough, emotionally, physically, and every other way. I was right about that.

But I didn't expect the language barrier. Not with the cast, but with the process.

The Laramie Project has about 80 characters in it. It's written for eight actors. We had eleven in our production. (Kansas City Academy is a very small school.) That means everyone played 6-8 characters. Tricky for them. What was unexpected for me, as I was blocking (writing down where everyone moves onstage) it, was keeping track of 80-ish characters at all times. Writing blocking for eleven actors? No problem. Writing blocking for 80 characters, most of which are invisible at any given time? Lots of problems.

I had to figure out ways to record "where we left the character" onstage, as most of them are recurring, and so had different costume pieces or props, which would be left behind as the actor crossed the stage to "pick up" a different character.

How much sense does this make?

Is it at least better than this
Because they say the same thing.
For instance, if Jeffrey (there's no Jeffrey at my school) entered downstage left as McCool (there's no McCool in Laramie Project), then crossed upstage right, and entered next as Petunia (don't look for Petunia either), we had to remember that "McCool" was last seen UR, so when we needed McCool again later, Jeffrey had to make it back there to put McCool's hat back on before his next entrance. At the same time, if Petunia exited the stage up left, before Jeffrey portrayed Golfer #4 (there's no golf), we had to make sure Golfer #4's stuff was UL, and that Jeffrey had to return there to get Petunia's eyeglasses and scarf. Right? And since there's a Golfer #4 (no, there's not), that indicates that there are at least three other Golfers that aren't Jeffrey, and they need to know where their golf clubs/characters are too.

And so on. But that example was just Jeffrey, and three of his characters. Now multiply that by eleven actors and 80 characters. (That math doesn't actually work out, but you get the point.)

So, I had to develop an entirely new language, for me at least, to figure out where actors were, which was different from where characters were, how to move them all around the theater, and how to communicate all this to the cast, many of whom had never been onstage before.

I won't go into details, just know that the whole thing gave me a brain ache.

But wait! There's more! Because this was basically all for me. What about the actors themselves?

First, not all actors were in the habit of actually coming to every rehearsal that they were called to. (Responsibility and accountability are things a lot of adults haven't even learned.) So I had to use place-keepers, so everyone who actually showed up to rehearsal could keep track of where a missing actor was supposed to be.

So, stuffed animals with actors' initials. Yup.

Seen here: My prayer that fewer than five actors would be gone at any given time.

So, that takes care of the actors. But what about all of those characters? They're invisible, until we have costumes and props, and that makes them very difficult to keep track of. Enter recyclables.

The role of "Jen" in tonight's rehearsal will be played by Creamcheese Containerlid.

The actor could pick up, say a Triscuit box, which represented their current character, and would know exactly where that character was "left" at all times, and so could know where they had to be onstage before that character appeared again. Oy.

So that's my phrasebook for Laramiese.

The language of The Man in My Beard (AKA The Ballad of Frank Allen, by Shane Adamczak), the show we presented at this year's KC Fringe Festival, was completely different. Because duh. Different show, different language.

J. Will Fritz and Bob Linebarger
Photo: Crawford
Bob Linebarger and J. Will Fritz
Photo: Crawford
Did I mention that there were songs too? Yeah, songs too.
Photo: Crawford

Part of the necessity for the invention of a new language here was the fact that I cast four people in a two-man show. The play was written for a bare stage, but I had this awesome (?) idea that we could enhance the story with the use of projections and shadow-play. So I cast two people to pretty much live behind an onstage screen for the entire show.

You know what they say: Three hands, warm heart.

"This won't be confusing at all," or anything remotely similar to this, is not even close to any thought I ever had, before actually starting rehearsal.

First, in addition to Bob and J. Will, who were seen during the whole play, I had to block people who weren't actually onstage, and yet, they were an integral part of the production and had to do stuff to keep the show moving. But I couldn't see behind the screen to know who would be doing what, so I couldn't write that "Jill does this" and "Natalee does that" with any knowledge of that actually being possible. So, I ended up writing "SFX" (how the kids these days spell "special effects") does this and that. Easy enough. Except...

There were many different types of effects: transparencies for the Olde Tyme overhead projector, shadow acting, and sound effects. So, the titles "SFX: TRANS," "SFX: SHADOWS," and "SFX: SOUND" started appearing all over my copy of the script.

Bob and Jill Gillespie's shadow, out to dinner. Also, slight political barb.
Bob, Natalee Merola as "Old Lady in Hat at the Bakery," J. Will 

So, yay. That's taken care of. Now, back to directing...

These. Two. Simultaneous. Shows.

They're onstage at the same time, but the show in front of the screen and the show behind the screen are very, very different. They're dependent on each other. They interact with each other. They cue each other. But they're not the same play. They're two halves of a whole. But they're still separate, with very disparate needs and I had to figure out how to talk to them both, at the same time, in two distinct languages.

How, at this stage of my career, do I still not realize what I'm getting myself into? Me and my bright ideas. Rushing headlong into a potential theatrical imbroglio.

And then, figuring it out. Or at least, trying to. Maybe that's the whole point. If I really knew what I was getting into, I might avoid doing it.

I don't feel like I dream big. I do, at times, dream weird. I dream in color. I dream in language.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The DeVos Debacle, Part 2

Introduction to Part 2

If you're new here, I would recommend reading the intro to Part 1, and save us both a bunch of time. In fact, read all of Part 1, otherwise, you'll probably be very, very lost. I know I was, and I was there.

If you're continuing on this journey, here are the next installments to my DeVos diary. The dates are when I originally posted them on Facebook.


Thurs, 9-21-17

Episode Five: Saved by the Betsy

In our last episode, Tara was talking to US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. With no one else speaking up, Tara started the roundtable discussion by asking DeVos' about her plans for Title IX, referring to the a appalling announcement she'd made in a 30-minute speech one week before. Tara asked the question twice, and DeVos continued to give non-answers, so Tara decided to be direct:

"Okay, so, do you know you're not answering the question?"


"When the person I'm looking at stops moving their mouth,
that's when I say the memorized sound bites, right?"

DeVos paused slightly. "Well, I... I think I am," she stammered. "I think that, very broadly, every student needs to be in a - "

Oh, not this shit again. I once more interrupted her.

"Well, very broadly, but that includes, you know, being able to report when they're not safe and making sure that that's taken seriously. It's already difficult enough - for people who have been harassed and abused, et cetera, it's already difficult enough to be taken seriously because we are undeniably living in a rape culture, and by making it more difficult to make those complaints heard, and take those complaints seriously, then the children that you say deserve to be safe, are no longer safe. I shouldn't say 'children,' I should say 'young people.' Really, it's all of us, actually."

There. Dodge it again. I dare you.

As if this was an entirely new spin on my previous four attempts, DeVos started, "But if your question with regards to Title IX is specifically with regard to sexual assault - "


"Well, that's what you've been talking about recently." ... you spineless little...

"And I have applauded the last administration, " she said, "for really raising this issue and wanting to address it in a very comprehensive way, and continue to believe that sexual assault needs to be taken very, very seriously, and never again swept under the rug, and at the same time, it is also important that due process is taken seriously."

Hm. Sounds familiar. Oh, right. That's some of the exact phrasing she used in her speech last week.

"Do you feel it's not?" I asked. I mean, there are countless rapists out there, who actually got charges pressed against them (rare), were put on trial (very rare), found guilty (almost unheard of), only to be released because the court decided that such a conviction might ruin his future. It's absolutely sickening.

"It hasn't been, in a lot of circumstances," DeVos asserted, "and, in fact, a lot of students who have been victims and survivors become re-victimized because we have situations where due process has not been followed, and then they have to be re-adjudicated, and they become victims again. We really need to have a balanced approach where everybody's rights are taken very seriously and respected."

"Okay, but it seems - "

I was interrupted by a very worried-looking faculty member. "I think we need to give some other people a chance to ask some questions, and actually, Secretary, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

Later that night, at a bar with many KCA community members, a teacher who was sitting across from me during the meeting told me that this was the point at which my knees started jumping up and down in a furious tempo.

"Furious" is an excellent word for it.

Actual photo of a KCA classroom. Apparently.

Sat, 9-23-17

In our previous episode, Tara was asking US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about her plans for Title IX. DeVos gave long and involved non-answers, and Tara called her on the dodge. Tara continued to press and then...

"Okay, but it seems -"

I was interrupted by a very worried-looking faculty member. "I think we need to give some other people a chance to ask some questions, and actually, Secretary, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

Later that night, at a bar with many KCA community members, a teacher who was sitting across from me during the meeting told me that this was the point at which my knees started jumping up and down in a furious tempo.

"Furious" is an excellent word for it.


I was not angry at the suggestion that someone else should have a turn to speak. Not at all.

I was angry that progress finally seemed to be made, and she was "rescued" by the change of subject, apparently so she wouldn't feel too uncomfortable, or leave with some sort of bad feeling about KCA. She doesn't need protection from us; we need protection from her.

I was angry that the interruption was cloaked in the lie that  "other people" should have a chance to talk, and then this same person took that time for themselves.

But I was absolutely livid, beyond compare, that the interruption of a time-sensitive and dangerous conversation, like changing federal policies on dealing with campus sexual assault, came in the form of a question of astounding vapidity. "Have you ever been in a school this small before?"

How insipid. How denigrating.

And DeVos answered it. "Um... I have... Probably more in my hometown area, in Grand Rapids, in years past..."

I'm totally not mentally pairing this image with an evil scientist laugh.
Another teacher then introduced herself as having a long career in public schools, and asked DeVos if she was planning on visiting any of those. DeVos named exactly one. The teacher went on to say that she implemented a lot of her observations of KCA, from when her child was a student here, in her public school classroom. She expressed confidence that some of these methods would work in a public school setting, and asked how DeVos planned on supporting that.

In her 30-second reply, DeVos twice used each of the following: "Rethink School," "community," "changes," and "embrace." I phrase it in this way because there wasn't really an answer in any of that.

So, the teacher asked, "But how will the United States Department of Education support that, those efforts?" She listed a number of requirements, such as time and money, to make this happen, and also slipped in the suggestion that we do away with some of this "onerous standardized testing." (This is when I would have turned on the APPLAUSE sign.)

Oh, don't mind me. I'm just sitting over here with my HELL, YES.

DeVos answered that the "Every Student Succeeds Act, which all of the states are putting plans together right now, takes an important step in that direction. Congress' goal was to return flexibility to the states and to, you know, undo a lot of the burdensome regulation" ...I admit to a snort of laughter at this, but no one seemed to notice... "oversight from the federal level. I'm very much aligned with that, and think that states and even all of the state commissioners and superintendents, and all of the leadership at the state level - I'm encouraging them to grant that same kind of flexibility to local districts and even local school buildings. I think the change is going to happen the most significantly at a grass roots, local level, where communities address the needs that they have, right there, and if they can do that, free of a lot of burden from higher up, it's going to allow it to happen much more quickly."

The count for that last answer:

"State"/"states": 5

"Local": 3

"Federal": 1

It seems pretty obvious the significance that the US Secretary of Education puts on the existence of the US Department of Education.


I've come to the end of what I wrote in the days following the visit. I will consult my detailed records of the visit, and be back with the rest of the story as soon as possible. Though I think it's really important to share the story, it's hard finding time for this; I'm a teacher, you know.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The DeVos Debacle, Part 1

On Friday, September 15, 2017, controversial US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited our school, as part of her "Rethink School" tour. She's a billionaire, with no experience that one would think would be necessary for this job (but then, the one who appointed her has no experience necessary for his job either), and has made it very clear that she is terribly disconnected from the reality that non-billionaires live in, nor how her plans would impact children, families, or society as a whole. She's also demonstrated a clear disdain for LGBTQ equality, an ignorance of science, reinstated heavy financial penalties on students who've defaulted on their loans (because that makes sense) and, the week before her visit, announced her plans to basically gut Title IX protections of sexual assault victims on college campuses, because the accused perpetrators have been so unfairly treated.

I could go on and on, but you have Google.

We'd had a couple weeks' notice that she was going to come. We were told to keep it under our hats for a few days, probably because she's received so many threats in her first seven months in office that she now travels with armed US Marshals.  Just a guess.

Anyway, when it was made public, I got a flood of questions and information requests about the visit, from friends, many of whom are public school teachers, artists, queer, and/or any number of other traits that she's shown clear disrespect for. I knew little: arrival time, a rough schedule, and departure time.

That, and a group of organizations had pulled together to organize a protest. I only knew about this when I was invited to attend.

But I couldn't, really, because I had asked to be part of the "roundtable discussion" with DeVos herself that day.

The days leading up to her visit were very tense. Generally, our students are very politically astute. They'd been waiting to hear about her confirmation in February, and got very angry when it happened. They knew her positions. They did their research. They knew she wasn't supportive of them. They wanted to make their positions known, so some teachers found themselves in positions of dropping everything to come up with a positive way of expressing their views.

Student self-"expression boards" included statements and images of what's important to them. In this collection: Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, no racism, transgender rights, DACA, toast (because, come on, toast is great),
and the strangely moving "All 3 of these Pokémon have no gender."

"No More Families Torn Apart," "Protect DACA," Black Lives Matter, "Obama!", puppies, Canada,
"If it's not your body, it's not your decision," breast cancer awareness ribbon...

"The people start to think," "Embrace Creativity,"  "We're all full of gooshy red stuff," "Why can't we all just use one bathroom?", "Am I go forward...or am I go back?", "Born in Violence,"
and possibly the truest statement ever made, "This world needs weirdos."

I was in on a little of that, but mostly, I found my own classes so full of questions about DeVos, and protests, and armed guards, and her policies, and her impact on our school, her impact on other schools... And anxiety. Lots of anxiety, worry, tears, "What if," and so much else. I ditched all my lesson plans, because students were consumed with concern about the visit. I thought that the most important thing was making sure they felt safe, and addressing their fears was way more important than learning where downstage was.

So very many people in my life wanted details. I, too, was overwhelmed - before, during, and after - so I wasn't able to just sit down and say what happened that day in one fell swoop. Small chunks was the only way I could deal with it, so I posted installments on Facebook. The following are those installments, including the original post dates, in their entirety.

Please note: I'm not finished with these diary entries. I'd already scheduled auditions for the school play when we got the news that she was coming, for earlier that week. Between DeVos, trying to get my classes back on track (I figure I lost easily a month of instruction time, because of all this), my other jobs (because I teach at a tiny private school), rehearsals/performances of the school play.... I had to put the rest on hold. I'm hoping to finish this week of winter "break," which, all teachers know, only means that you work in your pajamas, but do at least as much as when school is in session.


Sun, 9-17-17
I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks.
I am, weirdly, still shaken up by the events on Friday. I was hoping I could catch up on work yesterday - the work that I'd shoved to the side for a couple of weeks, in order to prepare myself and my students for Betsy DeVos' visit to our school. But apparently, yesterday was made for staring into space, rocking back and forth, and taking unexpected naps. This thing depleted me. 
It was obvious from the beginning, of course, that she was not interested in listening to us (students, teachers, parents). I couldn't completely figure out her angle, though, until the press release. At that point, I knew for sure that she was using our loving school community to twist into sound bites and photo ops to further her agenda. I know, I know... But I had this silly little Pollyanna flicker of hope that maybe she really did want to learn. 
I've more or less stopped wearing makeup, but you know, the press was going to be there, and who knows what was going to happen, so I thought I'd go all out and wear eyeliner *and* mascara. The whole time I sat in front of the mirror, I felt like I was putting on war paint. I was preparing for battle.
I really had no intention of actually saying anything. I wanted to give the precious little time we had with her to students and parents. But when it was time to start, no one else spoke up. So I did.
By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad.

I wasn't alone. Protesters outside KCA.
Mon, 9-18-17
My apologies. I realize now that I should have started earlier in the story of De(Vos) Day.
I fretted a long time over what to wear. If nothing else, if I did not speak, I knew that my choice of attire could stand as communication of my views. Several teachers had decided to wear black, in protest, but I'm not that subtle.
I finally settled on one of my KCA t-shorts, the one that has a huge orange square on the back that says WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY? Seemed appropriate, but I underlined "YOU" in sparkly stick-on gems, just to be sure I clearly communicated the message. I also put on the black armband that I've been wearing on and off since January, and nearly every day since school started last month. I wore rainbow earrings, for my LGBTQIA students, and took the buttons that I usually have on my purse - "#illgowithyou" over a trans flag, and the one with Fannie Lou Hamer's quote, "Nobody is free until everybody is free." -  and pinned them to my shirt, along with a safety pin (signifying "If you need help, I am a safe person"). I slipped on my Human Rights Campaign bracelets, and one I just bought in Atlanta earlier this year inscribed with  Laurel Thatcher's Ulrich's famous quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
Then I packed my pussy hat. I didn't want to wear it before the meeting, just to be sure I wasn't going to be told to take it off before it started. 
A friend had invited me out the night before, but I declined, wanting to go to bed early, as I anticipated not being able to sleep. Good decision. I was awake at 4 a.m.
I was in knots as I drove up and saw all the police officers walking around the school grounds. I parked, and invoked my white privilege to unhesitatingly ask one if we were (please please please) expecting a boring day. He said that they weren't worried.
It was about 7:15 a.m. Protesters were gathering across the street. Some friends had asked me to live-tweet the day's event as it happened. I knew I also had a ton of people on Facebook who were awaiting details, so I took a photo of the early crowd: "It's started."
Walking in to the school - a side door, rarely used, was our point of entrance - was like walking onto a movie set. Not that appearances were different, really, but there were small groups of people all over school, going over plans, and a strong air of anxious anticipation. If you didn't know something big was about to happen, you would still know that something big was about to happen.
I used the restroom. My zipper broke. Because why not? I was about to be in a roundtable meeting with the United States Secretary of Education, so of course I'd meet this billionaire with my fly down.

Tues, 9-19-17

Prequel, Part 2:

From the last episode: Tara was minutes away from a roundtable meeting with billionaire Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, and the zipper to her thrift-store pants had just broken...

It apparently wasn't actually broken, but stuck down inside the little pocket at the bottom of the zipper. I left the stall (and washed my hands!) so I could have more room to maneuver. Another teacher walked in on me, wrestling with the damn thing, in the middle of the bathroom. She suggested I go to my office, where I could actually take my pants off to fish out the zipper pull. She led me there, walking in front of me "to cover" my crotchal area. It was all so ridiculous, I had to laugh.

Office. Pants off. Zipper fixed. Pants on. Down to the meeting room.

I walked into the room at the same time as one of the student representatives to our school board and another teacher. I jokingly said, "I need to sit next to someone whose hands I can squeeze when it hurts." They laughed. Wait, did I say it was a joke? Yeah, okay, maybe it was.

Most of the teachers and students who were coming to the meeting were there. I was so nervous, I felt sick. I figure that, at these times, other people are feeling similarly, so the job I've taken on in my life is that of comedy relief. So I asked all of them so come together for a photo, and said, "Show us how you really feel." The result is a picture with mostly smiles, although a couple seem exaggeratingly tense. One person is sticking their finger down their throat. One person is making an expression that I can only describe as "angry Barney Fife in the headlights."

This is not that picture. This is more like... a Tuesday.

A couple more minutes of milling, and one student rep came in and said, "She's here." 

Places, everyone.

I put on my pussy hat.

I had taken a seat on the far side of the room. When Betsy DeVos entered, she started around the circle of tables, shaking hands with each of us, in the direction that put me toward the end. I suddenly remembered that we'd been given advance notice that she was up for selfies. When she got to me, I shook her hand (a good, firm handshake, by the way) and introduced myself, then whipped out my phone for a photo. The first one was pretty "normal," in that she's smiling at the camera, and I'm making my usual selfie face, which is an overly-excited, open-mouthed expression. Then, I realized that this was the billionaire US Secretary of Education, who was working to dismantle our public school system and take away protection rights of a large percentage of students, so I didn't want a "normal" selfie. So I immediately made a stupid face at the camera, and she glanced at me, and click. That's the one I will share.

BFFs. Obvs.

We all sat down, and she asked our principal if he was going to join us. He said, "I hadn't planned to, but since there's an extra chair..." which happened to be right next to her, so he sat down at the circle of tables.

She made pleasantries, and asked about the school garden, stuff like that. The principal said, "So, does anyone want to start?" and opened it up to the floor, specifically inviting the students to talk. There were murmurs of "nothing right now" and "I don't think so." I was sitting between two student reps, and one of them is the most outspoken person I know. Neither said anything. I had already resolved to keep my big mouth shut, if a student wanted to talk. This is about them, after all, and I wasn't going to eat up any of our precious 25 minutes (more like 20, if you take out the intros and the garden talk) if they wanted the time with her. They're not dumb. They're very savvy. They know what's going on in the world.
So, now I think I'm caught up with the first installment of this story, the one that starts with, "I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks." It ends with:
"By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."

I wasn't the only one who wanted answers: Protesters outside KCA.

Wed, 9-20-17

Episode 4: Back to the Present (which is actually the past, but at least it's not a prequel)

In our last episode: "I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."


DeVos looked at me and stated, "About Title IX."
"Yes. Title IX. Go ahead."
"Okay," she said. "Well. I will take a step back and say, more broadly, I think every student should have an opportunity to find their place in a school that is right for them and works for them, so I'm really excited - I know this is a non-traditional school in, you know, the rest of the world's review, but I think this is terrific that you guys have found a place that is right and fits for you, and I couldn't be more happy and pleased for that, and really want to see that opportunity for all students across the country. We've been on a Rethink School tour this week, starting in Casper, Wyoming, and making our way across the heartland of America, visiting lots of different schools that are doing things creatively and differently, and the encouragement is really to rethink school, because for too many kids, they're starting their academic year in a setting that is very similar to what they did a hundred years ago, and that doesn't work for everyone. So we're highlighting and learning from a lot of different schools that are doing things to meet students' needs and help them find their way and become everything they can be, And so, again, I'm really pleased to be here at Kansas City Academy."

And then she stopped. And looked at me. 

It was a stock answer, obviously memorized by rote. It was practically a press release. But maybe she just forgot the question? Did she get so wrapped up in the introduction of her big tour that she went off the rails and didn't know how to get back on? 

So I figured I remind her. "Great. So what about Title IX?" 

And she asked, "Well, what about it?"

Really? Is she saying that she answered my question? Does she think she did? It was one week ago that she made the incredibly controversial announcement that Title IX "wasn't working" in sexual assault cases on college campuses, and that she intended to overhaul it so that the accused got the benefit of the doubt. Which they overwhelmingly, obscenely, nauseatingly do anyway. I mean, she gave a 30-minute speech about it, citing a handful of anecdotes as proof that the thing needs to be torn down and built up again from scratch. The story was everywhere. The public was furious She couldn't be that dense, right? I strongly believe that she's tragically unqualified for the position she holds, but it didn't occur to me that maybe she actually lacks intelligence. Or focus. Or both.

So I said, "Well, okay: What are your feelings? What are your thoughts? What are you wanting to do about that?"

"Well, I - again - I think that every student should have the opportunity to be in a school and in a
learning environment is that is welcoming and is nurturing and safe and that every student should
be able to pursue their learning in a place that is building up of them and - "

At this point, it's obvious that she's just playing dumb. She's trying to avoid answering. She's dancing around the subject, in a little presentation called "How Could I Possibly Know Which Part of Title IX You Were Asking About?" She's using the tried-and-true hot words, like "opportunity" and "different" and "individual," as well as her catchphrases, which include "learning environment" and the ever-popular "rethink school." 

Politicians love this. They love talking and not actually saying anything, because they want to get reelected, so any chunk of the population they might piss off, by saying something actually honest, is precious to them. So no pissing off allowed, which is why election campaigns sound overwhelmingly alike. 

It's a lame ploy, and it makes me really angry. Stand up for your beliefs or shut up and give someone else your time. Even more lame though: DeVos was not even elected. So she hasn't polished up her evasion tactic. She isn't good at it.

Whereas before, I was confused and only somewhat annoyed, she's now removed all doubt that she's trying to play me. Play all of us. Does she really think she's that clever?  Does she really think that I think that she's saying anything of substance? She sucks at this game, and I won't pretend to play it anymore.

So screw it. Screw her. If she insisted on playing cutesy, then I owed it to my students, all students, their parents, and my fellow educators to nail her to the damn wall. I was done playing nice. 

I interrupted her. "Okay, so, do you know you're not answering the question?"


To be continued...