A Performer’s Commitment to Education On Stage and in the Classroom
by Fanny Garcia
pLAywriting in the city
I barely made it out of the Los Angeles Unified School system. I think my salvation was books. Books provided an escape from a troubled home but also provided the solid foundation that would later support my writing interests. I don’t blame the teachers, although most did ignore the weird and timid girl that I used to be. Mostly I think I just got lost in the huge labyrinth of the LAUSD. In elementary I was busy learning English as quickly as possible so that I could join the “normal” kids in the regular classes. By the time I was in high school I was behind on the interpersonal skills most kids develop in middle school and my face was deeply imbedded in one book after another. Teachers just didn’t have the time to connect with the “weird” kid that I had become and so I barely graduated high school and dropped out of community college a few years later. Fortunately, I found theater and it got me back to the path I had always wanted to pursue, writing and teaching. Which is why watching Alan Aymie’s solo performance of his life as an LAUSD teacher reminded me about how important it is for artists to teach the next generation. If test scores is the only value of a student, then higher education is out of the question. But this is a myth and Aymie proves this by reminding his audience that everyone learns at a different pace.
The thrice-extended “A Child Left Behind” by Alan Aymie at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and produced by The Katselas Theatre Company is a piece of work that every artist who teaches should see. A few years ago, Aymie was given his second pink slip and later graded by the Los Angeles Times in the much talked about “value added” scoring system that the Times developed to rate teachers based on the outcomes their student’s standardized test scores.
In his play, Aymie describes the daily challenges that teacher’s face in their classrooms and the pressures of sticking to the standardized testing model of the LAUSD while his students emotional needs begged for interventions that no formulaic teaching systems could provide. While he struggled with underserved youth in his classroom, he was also facing the very real needs of his son who was assessed with Asperger’s Syndrome. These two battles are portrayed brilliantly in the fatherhood metaphor. The LAUSD as a father figure who has failed many students in it’s refusal to adapt a comprehensive and individual teaching strategy for each student and Aymie’s refusal to fail his son. Aymie succeeded in accepting and adapting his son’s his learning needs. LAUSD should follow suit.
The play is a profound view into the teaching challenges that many in the United States education system are facing and the struggles to get it right. After the show, I had the opportunity to speak with actor and playwright Alan Aymie about his piece:
What was the LA Times “value added” article about?
What the LA Times piece did was that they came up with this rating system for teachers and you can type any teacher’s name and it would give you a score. And they contacted me and said “We came up with your grade and if you want to check it out, here it is.” So you could find any teacher and it would say below average, or average and I think I was slightly below average in Math and slightly above average on Language Arts, but it was just kind of like anyone coming to your job to evaluate you and you don’t know me and you’ve never stepped foot in my classroom and it felt kind of unfair and invasive and their a newspaper! I didn’t know that they were in the grading teachers as well. And a lot of people who spoke out against I just thought it was a bit too much.
In your play, you discuss that you don’t think protesting brings about any change? What do you think will work? My play is a protest but it’s my style e of protest. I was actually there because I felt guilty and I was there with a fellow teacher and we’d stopped by to get a burger and I remember being there with a friend and sitting across the street eating a burger and it was pouring rain and these teachers were soaking wet and the union president was the only guy safe under a tarp talking and there was nobody else there. No parents, no media, nothing. All I remember is seeing this homeless guy there with a shopping cart and Michael Jackson was playing and he was break dancing and I remember thinking “I’m sure this guy is really concerned about where his children go to school.” I just didn’t think people realized how futile this type of protest is and this may be the way they want to speak out but I didn’t think this was the way to do it. And it just got me thinking about a play. I had another play produced my first year of teaching and I thought that this might be the way that I offer my protest.
What support is available for teachers struggling with students with disorders on the Autistic spectrum? LAUSD has what’s called the IEP and so by law, if you say, “I want my child examined or assessed” they will assess your child and they come up with strategies. Maybe at some schools they come up with effective strategies and at other schools, maybe not. I know in particular with Asperger’s [it’s different] because you have a really smart but quirky kid. It’s hard for teachers to see that he or she needs help. Schools are based on how well kids do on test scores and standardized tests and the Asperger’s kid is really smart but it’s hard to see where they need the help and how to help. Some teachers at LAUSD have a hard time getting support for some students with autism because test scores show they are really bright but they are struggling in other areas. California is struggling right now [financially in education] so there is not much that can be done. Our school psychologist works a six different schools, she has four hundred cases so there is no support because there is no money.
Are you teaching now? I am teaching now. I was laid off again this year. Every year they do this big lay off of about 5,000 people so then what happens is they do furlough days which is just another word for pay cuts and they give everyone their jobs back and so I am teaching again now.
What lessons has your son taught you? One of the things that I see is how similar he and I are. I see parallels. One of the things is that as a parent you have expectations, just like the school has expectations… how you should be at this grade or that grade but what I realized is that he is on his own path and we just have to follow that path. And I think it speaks to the school system as well, not every child learns at the same pace. Everything is so standardized, everyone should be here at this point or that point but life doesn’t work that way. I guess what I learned from my son is patience and to go at his speed and follow his journey, not set his journey from my viewpoint.
Do you want or plan to tour the play? The play has gotten extended once before and this is the third extension. We are looking to go to Ojai in the fall. Some people on Facebook from around the country have been asking me to do the play in Oregon and Maine. I think there is an audience because it talks about education in general.
In spite of all the struggles, what keeps you teaching? I feel like my dharma is to teach – whether that be in the classroom, stage or printed page… Right now my “classroom” is a classroom and stage – if it should grow to a bigger forum for my work – great but for right now there is where I am…. I just couldn’t see myself taking a job that didn’t line up with that belief.
A Child Left Behind by Alan Aymie is extended through July at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. The play is produced by The Katselas Theatre Company. For tickets and information please contact them at (702) 582-8587 or visit them online at www.ktctickets.com