Saturday, May 12, 2012

Chim Chim Cherooooo #2, "Fire Starter"

I worked at two junior high schools. Lakeridge Jr., (by the lake) for a year and Mt. Ridge Jr. (by the mountains), both in Utah County. It was a happy, happy time for me personally, but, being a red personality I resented the fact that people didn't take junior high drama first.

I took the Lakeridge job because it wasn't debate. I knew that if I wanted to teach high school drama, I needed to earn my stripes just like everyone else. Work through the system. But when those kids walked through the door on the first day, I thought I was back in the babysitting business. They are very small people for the most part...sort of stuck, in a way, between childhood and teenager. They are covered in acne, braces and bras that don't fit. They're still on the deodorant learning curve. Their voices are changing. They wear their emotions like an over-sized shirt. They protect themselves with lies and silence. The girls are often much taller than the boys. They are like baby animals: they socialize with caution and attach themselves to adults that will protect them as they go through "the change." If you are their junior high drama teacher, (or a coach) you are usually that person.

How do you choose a play for that weirdness? I was one of two drama teachers at Lakeridge. I was grateful to be teaching Speech and Drama and to have my weekends back! I met kids like "Greg" (We'll Call Him Greg) who had Turret's and yelled out "bereaved" because he was told that was the worst word ever. I wonder if he ever found out the truth? I listened to a lot of speeches, persuasive, informative, impromptu... they talked about things like "how to make a successful lemonade stand" and "ostrich meat."

As the new kid on the block, I was not allowed near the musical, but I got to direct a play. I chose "The Mousetrap" an Agatha Christie play with quirky characters and no romantic kissing. I have a hard time watching kids kiss. I'll blog about that later. That was a fantastic cast, and most of them are still involved in drama somehow even though now they are married and have kids. The lead in Mousetrap, Schmet Scmidchett, now works at 4-Wall Entertainment in Las Vegas and I spend a lot of money on lighting equipment and supplies there. It pays to have been nice to the kids that will make your life easier later on.... KARMA! Whenever you look at a squirrelly kid, think of them as your doctor in 20 years, it will completely change how you treat them. I always invest in that idea, it has never let me down.

At the end of the year, there was no longer a need for my position. My classes were going to be given to the senior teacher. My principal, a great, great man called me in and told me that all he had for me the next year was seven periods of seventh grade English. OH the H.O.R.R.O.R. I have minors in both English and Speech Ed. Whoops. Wish I could hide that certificate sometimes.

He felt terrible that the drama program was shrinking. So he let me in on the idea of "in-district transfers," wink, wink. He knew I would be happier somewhere else. Good principals do. So I applied for this consideration and waited. Maybe, some drama teacher in the district could be "taken out." Just kidding.

Meanwhile, with all my spare time I volunteered to help my friend Diane with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was the "make-up lady." No opportunity was too small. I smelled change in the air and I could feel the Lord working His magic. I was staying close to the Spirit, looking for opportunities, riding the wave.

Interesting side note: Andy Hunsaker was 15 years-old and playing the role of The Baker in that production. I put his makeup on him every night. I followed his work as he went through high school. Little did I know that 13 years later I would be bearing his child. Hahahahaaaaa......oh that's awesome.

I digress.

Diane was friends with a man named Sheldon Worthington who was a film actor and happened to be the principal at Mt. Ridge. We were using his stage for this community musical. He wandered in one day to ask us how we were doing and I was introduced to him. It just so happened that he was looking for a drama teacher and interviews were the next week. This program was only one year old.

I worked at Mt. Ridge with a faculty that can only be described as "perfection." Sheldon had combined genius and heart. Everyone that taught there opened their arms to me. Even the P.E. teacher, Jen, was a light in my life. The choir teacher, Cathy...I don't even know how to talk about her without crying. She was sister, mother and therapist to me all in one. She was also the music director for the musicals. We had a great lunch bunch, we went to each other's events...we laughed a lot. Even the Vice-Principal was amazing. The front secretarial staff was like an army. We kept the building clean because we LOVED the custodians and when I got engaged the LUNCH LADIES crocheted an afghan for me (not the people, the blanket). I'm not sure there can ever be a place like this ever again. Utopia with 700 goofy kids attached.

One memory encapsulates my experience at Mt. Ridge. Cathy and I were producing The Music Man with about 75 genius kids. We ran the show four nights and it was completely sold out. On the last night, I had to go outside to the line of people that were waiting for tickets and announce to them that none of them were going to get to see the show. There was groaning and begging...I felt terrible. Then from the back of the line, way down by the book drop in the bus lane, a man in a suit yelled out "I just got back from a business trip and I MUST see my son in this play, I will give you $1000 for two tickets right now." I said "right this way," and escorted him down the aisle to where my own parents were sitting and I said "mom, dad, get up, we're moving you to the light booth." The next day, I was informed that a $1000 donation had been made to the department. That community was sooooooo supportive.

I had a junior high-aged Tevye, Horace Vandegelder, Harold Hill and Frank Butler. I had a junior high-aged
Golde, Dolly, Marion the Librarian, and Annie Oakley. I remember them all. I remember their gifts, their struggles and their performances. I remember telling them to practice kissing because for so many of them it was going to be their first kiss and it would be in front of hundreds of people. I would tell my little leading man to take my keys and his leading lady and lock themselves in the light booth and "come back when it's no big deal." Truthfully I just wanted them to come back when it wasn't so hard to watch. Good times.

There were the Doxey twins and M. Bailey (who weighed about 62 pounds) my first real stage managers. Those kids saved my life. There was another kid - his name was Josh. He played Charlie in Annie Get Your Gun and he was brilliant. He is a drama teacher now and was very recently named Utah's "Teacher of the Year." P.R.O.U.D. D.R.A.M.A. M.A.M.A.

Should you teach on the junior high level? YES! Junior high kids don't have distractions. When you cast them, you aren't competing for their time. They don't have jobs. They don't date. They don't even drive (which is tricky if you need someone to go buy you another pound of 2" screws at Home Depot). They L.O.V.E. drama. They CHOSE you as their one precious elective class. They run into your room. They smile at you. They appreciate their costumes and they don't miss rehearsals. You are the person in their life that makes it fun. I've always liked that pedestal. I always giggle when I hear a math teacher complaining. It usually ended with "you shouldn't have chosen to teach such a horrible subject." Hahahahaheheheheh. When they hear me complaining about leaving the school after dark, they say "you shouldn't have chosen a subject that owns your soul," as they hit the parking lot at 3:00 shooting me a raspberry from their car. Touche.


So when you get them involved in drama at that age, they are hooked, generally, for life. I followed their progress by attending all of the high school shows (they never gave me a choice) and it was, 90% of the time, the SAME kids. So junior high drama teachers have the responsibility of being passionate about what they do. Because YOU LIGHT THE FIRE. That is not a small gesture. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it is NO SMALL THING when a child is placed in your path. If you are looking for a good junior high drama teacher, look at the high school program that it feeds. If it is big, productive and successful, you know there is a junior high teacher stoking it from below. Those jr. high teachers often feel like you don't notice that service. It feels pretty thankless sometimes, and because you can't go to a lot of competitions when you are a jr. high teacher, you can also feel invisible. But you matter! You are the fire starter! If you are a high school teacher receiving those kids...attend the plays at your feeder junior high. Work out mentorships with them, do ticket trades, matinees... build a bridge. Notice.

So five years after Sheldon opened Mt. Ridge, it was coasting at full-speed and he was called in by his district bosses to transfer to a school that needed a major remodel in every possible way. It was my own alma mater, Lehi High School or as the community of Lehi was calling it "the bastard child of the school district." They had decided it was time to send Sheldon in, diagnose the issues and F.I.X. I.T. I remember the call like it was yesterday..."Jan, this is know I've always believed that a school is only as strong as it's arts department." "Yessssss....," I replied. I'd heard him say it a hundred times. "I need you to come to Lehi with me."

The winds were picking up.

And I cried for two days because I had to leave that beloved school with the incredible faculty and the super supportive parents. I cried because I knew God was moving my weather vane in a different direction, again. I didn't question it even though it seemed like the strangest thing to leave a job and kids I loved so much to go to a school that was struggling and a community that needed a big old-fashioned musical pick-me-up. But it was the school I had grown up in! It was the home of the original fire! I felt that responsibility too. My younger brother Brad was at Lehi. That was a bonus. But I would be teaching debate again, AND English, AND even a period of American History. What the...? I'd be building that program as fast as I possibly could. I'd be ticking off those classes as fast as you could say "Auditions will held for Damn Yankees on Friday."

If you build it...they will come.

And they did.