In May of 2012 (the year that Mayor Mike placed my school and 20+ others on the slate for Turnaround) I found three staff members huddled outside my Drama room, harrumphing and looking displeased.
The AP, a slouched, weary man who'd been thrice passed over for promotion, pointed me to the tech booth in the back of the room. "Some students broke in there. You left it open."
I shrugged. "I don't have access to that."
"Yes, you do," he insisted.
"No, I don't." I presented my keys to him. He nodded, forehead still in a tight little knot, unconvinced.
All watched as I made my way to the tech booth, weaving my way through husks of potato chip bags and Slim-Jim wrappers, half-empty soda cans and crushed McDonald's bags. Always locked and full of dated but otherwise pristine equipment, the room, perhaps once envisioned as a school media center in the vein of 90210 (the first one, not the cruddy reimagining), functioned as a storage closet. I tiptoed in, thinking, What now?!? My first year at the school, students had broken in and peed all over the costumes. A year later, it was the blunt rolling closet, riddled with cigar shavings. This year? Some crafty students had again re-purposed the booth; the floor was littered with used condoms, many of which still had DNA in them.
While the powers-that-be stood by, shifting blame in tense whispers, I snagged a roll of trashbags from the janitor, double-bagged my hands, and set about cleaning the booth. The AP opened the door; "That's not your job."
"Someone has to do it," I said, as I scooped up another dripping condom. I left a month and a half after that, but to my knowledge, much of the same staff remains at the helm, and those students that I keep in touch with regale me with the same sad stories of chaos and disorganization and violence (oh my!).
This was one of dozens and dozens of "WTF?!?" moments that lead to the writing of my current play, And Miles to Go. (Memorable others include a hallway stabbing, a frightening number of alleged sexual student/teacher improprieties and administrative enrollment mishaps that threw the school into chaos for weeks on end). This piece took me well over a year and a half to write (and percolated for months before that), and was one of the most challenging experiences of my career, finally taking shape as a fictional "a day in the life" examination of (some of) the chaos and dysfunction of one of the more challenging NYC public schools. As viewed through the lens of a veteran teacher whose entire life and identity is wrapped up in her school (like a number of educators I met in a number of schools across the city), the basic premise is one where, as this veteran considers retirement, the city considers retiring her school alongside her.
While it's modestly short -- 70 minutes from tip to tail -- I believe it's theatrically a Baby Bear porridge length, just large enough to dip its proverbial toe into the water and kick start conversation, but not so long that we're bogged down in unsolvable problems (no play has ever solved the worlds problems, nor should it attempt to).
Writing this play was a purging for me and functioned as a cathartic experience of sorts. Some important things that I discovered during the writing of this play that I am just now able to articulate (in no particular order):
• My six years in the school system were spent as a Teaching Artist, and I equate my former position to that of a weekends-only, fun-time daddy. (Come in! Make some art! Leave them wanting more!) I worked After-School programs five days a week, and also worked in a number of schools across the city during the school day, teaching programs that ranged from theater skills to "Starting your own non-profit" to "Peer Mediation." (During one stretch, I played a victim during anti-bullying assemblies...which is another post altogether.) The frequency with which I appeared in the schools allowed me to function as a fly on the wall, sitting in teacher's rooms and principal's offices, watching classes change in the hallways and basically soaking in the very best and worst the system has to offer. My view is extensive and insider enough to "get it," while limited enough that someone could probably poke holes in the logic of the play.
• My view of the school system is admittedly clouded by my own educational upbringing and experiences. I was raised in a tiny hamlet of a town in Maine, graduating in a class of 40 in a school of 200. I'm of the mindset that schools with classes larger than 20 and student bodies larger than, say, 500 are potentially more factory-like than they should be (during his research, our set designer discovered that city schools and prisons are constructed in largely the same fashion, draw your own conclusions there.) I simply don't believe that it's possible to be effective with mass numbers of young people, and that the best you can hope for is saving a few, here and there.
• I capital-L Loved teaching, but I could not be a full time teacher. I was asked to apply at one school and turned them down. I truly believe my outspoken nature would have gotten me rubber roomed the moment the never ending bureaucracy, ill-equipped teachers and Beckett-esque policies got the best of me. I remain confounded by hiring practices, shitty pay and politicians whose oft-empty campaign promises are truly, in the words of one Ms. Whitney Houston, shitting on "...the future." (Di Blasio and Lhoto, take notice: I'm talking to you!)
• As the father of a new little boy, I am unequivocally on the record as saying I would not allow my boy to be educated in the overwhelming majority of the schools where I worked. I would home school before that, and risk my boy being ill versed in pop culture and socially awkward around kids of his own age... there's always college, right? (True story: During one workshop I did with an entire school faculty, the principal asked: "Would you want your child to attend our school?" None of them raised their hands.)
I miss teaching. Terribly. (Two months after Mayor Mike's unsuccessful attempt to Turnaround my schools, I took a cushy job in a tech firm.) I still keep in touch with a number of my former students, I still write letters of rec, and I still mourn when young lives unexpectedly veer into the dark corners of violence, unplanned pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and other situations I wouldn't want for anyone.) On the flip side, my former students' successes gleam with the same radiance as my own.
• At the risk of sounding bumper-sticker-esque, I believe that teachers are the Light (there's that capital L again!). I believe that any worth their salt are overworked and underpaid. (I'm sometimes disgusted by my own decision to leave the profession for easier money.) I believe that too many stay on too long, that too many aren't nurtured and supported and developed appropriately to be truly successful. But I also believe that the ones that shine, shine truly fucking brightly and impact more lives than they can ever hope to understand. (And conversely, the shitty ones do more damage than they know.)
• I acknowledge that the beliefs echoed throughout this rambling little essay often lean towards the pessimistic. I wish I could offer more towards a solution and less towards the problem. I'm not sure that anyone can -- and recent history suggests that those who truly seem to be toeing the line towards revolutionary (I'm talking to YOU, Michelle Rhee!) are cut off at the knees. Still, I DO think change is possible. As the father of a new life, I have to. I just think that until we make education a priority -- a REAL priority -- we'll keep spinning in circles. I don't think most people give a shit about the schools, especially our media. A few years back I pitched a television show to a handful of writing managers and entry-level development execs, based on a dysfunctional public school and its embattled inhabitants. I was flatly told, "No one cares." I now wonder if that's endemic of our society as a whole.
• I know I said it already, but I really, really miss teaching. Writing this play allowed me to live vicariously through my experiences and remember the truly great things about the profession. And as easy as the darkest things typically are to recall, I've found I actually remembered more of the joy than I would have otherwise expected. This experience has also afforded me the opportunity to see some familiar faces: last Saturday twelve of my former students came to see the show. They gave a standing ovation and spread the word. On Wednesday, another ten came through. Upon leaving the theater I heard one of them remark, "That made me miss high school."
I was momentarily shocked -- you...what?
And on the train ride home an hour later, I realized the obvious, which is perhaps the blessing and the curse of it all: I agree.
Chad Beckim is a playwright and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions. His plays include And Miles to Go, "After."; "'nami" and "...a matter of choice." He was an Adjunct Lecturer of English and Creative Writing at Brooklyn College, as well as a Teaching Artist in the NYC Public School system.
And Miles to Go runs Wednesday through Saturday at The Wild Project in Lower Manhattan (195 E. 3rd Street between Avenues A & B) through November 2. Tickets are $20. Teachers, students, and industry professionals are offered a $10 ticket (half price!) at the door with their ID's. Group rates for 15 or more are also available. (Visit www.partialcomfort.org or https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/926685.
Partial Comfort Productions has scheduled three industry talkbacks with experts in the realm of policy and education:
October 11: 8PM performance of And Miles to Go, followed by a post-show discussion with Leonie Haimson (Executive Director, Class Size Matters)
October 17: 8PM performance of And Miles to Go, followed by a post-show discussion with Ansley Erickson (Assistant Professor of History and Education, Columbia University)
October 26: 8PM performance of And Miles to Go, followed by a post-show discussion with Jonathan Zimmerman (Director of the History of Education Program, NYU Steinhardt) and Tom Loveless (The Brookings Institute)
Want a peek of our play? Peek here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zumRVlTNzEk