Monday, July 30, 2012

Chim Chim Cheroo, Tuacahn, The Finale

Note: I had to split this one! So in order to understand it, please read "WHO AM I?" first.

"Gather the most talented kids in the state and produce a summer stock program for kids. We hope that by bringing those kinds of kids here, they will stay. Make it happen."

Another biggie! Woot!

In my interviews, Hyrum mentioned that they wanted to create a summer youth program that would combine the most talented kids from the state into a "high school summer stock" show produced by Tuacahn and Tuacahn High. But I never heard of it again until my principal laid the script on my desk one day and said "I was going to do this myself, but I think I'd rather take the summer off." I nearly choked on my tongue. But I remained calm. "Do you know the show?" he said. Yes. I knew it well. I had just directed it at Lehi the year before.

So because I had so little to do, I had the time to create a summer arts program that worked right out of the gate. Thanks to Tuacahn's executive team, my sister Penny and all the families that hosted cast members for the summer, we were able to create a magical production that people still talk about to this day. Matt Clegg, who played my perfect ValJean, and 30 other beautiful kids that I borrowed from all over the state made it possible for Tuacahn to see what Hyrum had seen. In one fell swoop I had put down roots. I'm so grateful.

Tuacahn's Summer Theatre Institute started changing the perception of the school from a place to drop off the drop-outs, to something very seriously academic and artistic. Those 30 kids returned to their schools and started talking about "awesome Tuacahn." Step one. Get the word out.

Step two? Be awesome. Teach superior skills. It's not about the bells and whistles. It's about teaching kids to bring those characters, dances, music up from their soul and to communicate with the audience. Nobody knows that six months ago a kid could not hit pitch, that a canvas has been used six times or that the dance floor is 25% gaff tape. Because the arts are so teacher-driven, make sure you have teachers that are committed to rigor and have pride in what they do and what the public will S.E.E. THEN you will have a superior arts school. As teachers left, we made sure to hire those kinds of teachers and they are still there.

I had an idea to give the school more focus and thanks to another teacher named Mr. Webb, we redesigned the school's graduation requirements to include 6 arts-based academies. Anyone could come to school at Tuacahn, but we were best able to serve young artists. We were no longer the school trying to get kids, any kids, to fill seats. We were the teenage school trying to get the RIGHT kids.

Forget about your humble theatre space. It was called Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts, which to me, meant that we had to give the public a product that was superior to anything a student could get anywhere else. But in the beginning, the theatre didn't even have a working light to speak of. Everything was borrowed from The Center after their season was over. Once you plugged a light in that had been outside for six months, all you could think about was the permeating smell of smoking bugs. Thanks to The Institute, we now needed to light three shows at once and both entities gave money to make this happen. Eventually, we could do just about anything in that space.

So after seven and a half years, what did I get out of it?

Andy. I got Andy out of it. I was a 40 year-old spinster when I found myself sitting on my thumbs with nothing to do after school. I finally had time to feel human again. We got married almost exactly 1 year after I started working at Tuacahn. That NEVER would have happened if I hadn't listened to The Spirit and uprooted my life when I did. How many times do I have to say it people? GOD. He knows all. Trust Him.

Why did we leave?

I couldn't make everyone happy. It's lame I know, but after seven years of putting in a 14-hour day (and getting paid for 8 of it) when you are criticized for not doing enough, it hurts so much.

Some will argue that I wasn't great at being an administrator. I don't have formal education in that area, that's for sure. I have a couple of letters in my file that prove I went about change in the wrong way, but at least I was trying to make change. Hyrum always says, if you aren't making someone mad, you aren't doing enough. I know what he means now. I made people mad sometimes because I was standing up for kids, and that's the truth.

Especially after the economy crashed. The school was exploding with kids. We were fighting over our only performance space. We needed more teachers too, just like EVERY school does. In the theatre academies we had doubled the number of performances we offered, and were casting twice as many kids to get them all in at least one show. But that meant we were living at the school. I hadn't had a raise in seven years, Andy in six, but our work load had doubled with no end in sight.

Back in 2005, when classes were small, the pay cut was worth it. To my understanding, Charter school teachers do not make as much money as regular school district teachers, by and large it's because their classes are smaller. Then we started getting a name for ourselves and people were moving to St. George just to get their kids into the school. When their kids didn't get cast in shows, we were dealing with that disappointment more and more. I was watching Andy implode. Then there was a faculty meeting where he asked if anyone was concerned that we were no longer true to our mission statement of having smaller class sizes and someone said, someone that we love and respect, "would you rather have a job or meet the mission statement?"

I know he was under so much pressure but that little wedge set itself in the back of my neck and eventually split me in half. If the Lord is going to insist that I still raise other people's kids, I need to feel like part of a thriving team. Goals, vision and growth are as important to me as air and water. Surely there are other ways to survive without adding more students? I wish I had time to study the answer and give an answer. I just can't add that to my plate. But I've said it before...whoever can solve that problem will win my vote.

I know I told everyone that we were returning to our aging parents who, it turns our are not 39 years- old as we have always thought they were. We need to be closer to them. It's our responsibility but that's only part of the truth.

Here is the very crux of the problem. I have been saving this information for my blog. Please understand:

I was responsible to provide a product that would entice people to bring their kids into our awesome school seeking that awesomeness! Marketing was my responsibility. But once they got into the school I would then have to find them a place in a play or a concert to make them awesome too and that was eating me alive and making teachers and parents mad at me. That conflict of interest made me no longer useful at Tuacahn. There it is.

We leave behind some of the best people on the earth. I'm not kidding. That faculty and staff is filled with enough gems to re-crown the queen. I need to tell Mel, Jana and Heather, specifically, how much I will miss them. I can not think about going back to school without any of them. It nearly kills me.

I wanted it to be the place I would retire. But my particular bucket was empty. They have hired a new guy with a full bucket and he is awesome. I know him well and he'll be a great asset to the school.

What do we want?
When do we want it?
How do we get it?

Strong, positive, urgent...Tuacahn High!

I love you all! Break many legs!

Chim Chim Cheroo: Tuacahn Part II, Who Am I?

2005 - the good faculty at Tuacahn didn't know why I had been hired. They felt blind-sided. Maybe I had been hired under some veil of secrecy that felt a little more like mafioso, than public school admin. Consequently...There was no red carpet if you know what I mean.

I can't really blame them. There was a rumor that I had been given permission to fire everyone. I'd be scared of me too. But I had no such power, nor did I want it.

In the past 16 years, I had gone from Davis High, with it's thousand+ seats, fly system and orchestra pit, to Mountain Ridge with it's brand new theatre, tech deck to die for and endless storage space. Then on to Lehi with it's 800 seats and separate set building shop to Tuacahn's tiny 300 seat auditorium that was originally built to be a music concert hall and not a theatre at all. As I walked through, I said in my mind "God, what are you teaching me?"

I was informed, however, that the high school gets to use the Tuacahn Amphitheatre once a year and I felt better after that. It is 1920 seats big with a backdrop only God could design. I immediately thought about the musical Children of Eden...perfect in this space... but to date, no one had given me any assignments to direct. As far as I could tell, the current principal was the designated play director and I was...who was I?

It had been three months since I was hired but I didn't have a classroom or an office when I arrived. They talked about putting me in an office upstairs, but it was still full of someone else's stuff. I didn't have any assignments, nothing to do at all. For the first time in my career I was twiddling my thumbs at a desk next to a secretary who didn't need me either. It was a feeling akin to sitting on a bed of nails while watching paint dry. I'm a red personality and in order to feel useful, I have to be producing something. Non-stop. I was miserable in about three minutes.

Principal says, "I'm not sure what they want me to do with you," chuckle, eyebrows raised...Who is "they?" I wondered. "Who is THEY?" I said out loud. "The board of directors. We already have a vice-principal and none of us are quite sure, what we are supposed to do with you." T.h.e.y. a.l.r.e.a.d.y. h.a.d. a. v.i.c.e.-p.r.i.n.c.i.p.a.l? And of course he was the nicest guy. Turns out he was doing an internship, hopeful to have a full-time job eventually, and I waltz on in him waving a full-time contract out of nowhere. My very presence meant that he was going to be done at the end of the semester. I was a job robber. I had already done something unforgivable and I didn't even know it.

So...why?...I had been given one directive: "Turn this school into the Julliard of the West." I just figured it was broken and they needed me to direct a big show and send a message to the public that it was all better now. I knew how to do that. I call it the "Big Fat Musical Medicine." I went into schools with new or dysfunctional arts programs and beat the halls until I had 75 or more kids in a musical. 75 kids singing harmonies to "Ya Gotta Have Heart" equals instant superhero status. All better!

But Tuacahn was not broken, it was just young, only six years old. A mere baby. They were the pioneers of Utah's first charter school, and they were still making it up as they went along and rightfully so! Julliard was a 100 year-old school with powerful alumni. This school's alumni was still in college and on missions. What was I doing here?

So I started spending time with Andy Hunsaker and Chad Taylor, who were just 50 miles north at Southern Utah University. I had directed both of them in plays at home, and we were very good friends.

When you're a drama teacher, you don't have much free time for friends. I'm positive that one of the reasons I wasn't married was because I just didn't have the time it takes to surrender to one more thing...a social life. I just didn't think about it. My social life consisted of doing theatre outside of my day job. That's why I insist that young drama teachers keep one foot on stage. Otherwise, twenty years down the road, you'll end up like I did, covered in dust holding a warm Diet Coke and barking out stage directions to 16 year olds and that's the FUN part of the day. That's not fun. That's how you pay your bills.

We are lucky in a way! We theatre types are able to turn our hobby into a career. But then the line gets blurred and without a social life to lean on, you forget that you love it. And all some dumb kid has to do is complain about their costume and you end up on the front page of the paper "Teacher Goes on Killing Spree" and you're on death row with the rest of the world's weirdos.

I digress.

Where was I? Oh yeah...sitting on my butt doing nothing. Which is not a feeling I enjoy.

One of my first official jobs was to go into the halls when the bell rang and "facilitate movement." Each and every time the bell rang, the administration would move into the halls. Fun and friendly conversation happened while they hustled kids to class. The administrators would say things like "Hey Rob, how'd ya do on your math test?" It was awesome. They were right in the middle of the kids six times a day. It created a predominate feeling of family...more parents and children than Principal and students. Except for that bastard child, Jan. Anybody know anything about her?

I decided to wander around and observe. I saw a student with her leg out-stretched up against a wall like a circus performer. She was warming up for dance class. Then a kid that had helped me bring in some boxes, passed me and sang "Oh what a beautiful morning!" and smiled at me. There was music going, everywhere, and I saw a poster of Einstein that said "Imagination is more important than knowledge," and I said to myself..."I have found my people."

I listened to kids. I watched plays, concerts and assemblies. I talked to teachers, tried to get opinions, tried to make sense of it. I was not familiar with charter schools in general and I didn't want to look like an idiot, but there were things that were genius and things that looked ridiculous to me too. Everywhere I went, I created silence or anxiety. It was painfully obvious that my presence meant the school had no power. I tried to keep my chin up, I was going to win them over somehow. Between the crying bouts. And the silent, lone hikes up the canyon screaming at God about what just happened. How could he deceive me so? I sold my puppies!

It was an utterly horrible time in my life. I can say that now. One of lowest points in my career for sure. Its taken me a long time to say that out loud. And I get to say that. Thanks blogger gods!

So I kept waiting for the faculty meeting that would explain who I was, and what my role would be, but it never happened. Instead there was a "parent meeting," a pre-cursor to the lynching, and it was an open forum in which I listened to the parents that had never exchanged two words with me, say things like "I heard she wants to be the new principal," and "I read her resume online and it's nothing special." They didn't even know I was in the room until I said out loud "NOBODY ASKED ME TO BE PRINCIPAL and I wouldn't take the job if it was offered to me. Those are not my skills." Silence. Heads turn simultaneously. Blank stares. "That girls has balls." They didn't say it, but I'm sure that's what they were thinking.

Then a strange thing happened. My dad had a heart attack out of the blue. I became human to everyone at Tuacahn. A real person with parents. My principal actually hugged me. ! And within about 10 minutes of the phone call, I was on my way home praying that my dad would live until I got there. I was able to think and pray about someone else for a minute. By the time I got there, he was out of surgery and was doing really well. My emotions were already riding the surface of my skin and all my mom had to say after we left the hospital was..."how is Tuacahn?" And I let out a "mighty yawp" that scrubbed my soul for 24 hours.

I told her I was on the verge of resigning. I thought she would think I was an idiot. I told her about the tiny little stage, the fear, the miscommunication, and I mourned the passing judgement, I guess. I was pretty good at following The Spirit and it was soooo obvious that I was W.R.O.N.G. I wanted her to forgive me for putting them through all that. Sort of like a $100,000 wedding for a marriage that only lasted two weeks. And I had sold my puppies. WAHHHHHHHHHH!

She said all the right things of course. I don't remember the exact conversation but I stopped crying eventually, turned around and got back on I-15 headed South. Of course I fully planned on stopping in Cedar to talk to Andy, and laid out the entire situation to him too. The whole ugly thing including the fact that I thought God had abandoned me.

Andy talked me into staying. He said things like, who do you think you are? Your legendary status up north isn't going to do you any good down here. You'll have to start over. Stop blaming, stop being the victim. Pray for things to do. Stuff like that. Practical man advice. But he was so right.

I had prayed for them to get to know me, for them to see me as an asset, but they were running a charter school for crying out loud. They all wore ten hats and I was just a little blip in their daily path. "That lump sitting there? That's just Jan, never mind her. We don't know why she's here."

So....I started praying for tasks. And it was hard at first. My first big task was to do accreditation. I had been on an accreditation committee once. I was not afraid to read the books and learn how to do it. The blessing was...time. I had time to teach myself how to do it. I read those books with a dictionary nearby, and a box of Kleenex. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was teaching myself what makes a good school. It took me two years to complete that task. 18 months to learn how to do it and 6 months to write the book. It was a biggie.

Instead of waiting for them to offer me an office, I set out to see if I could paint an upstairs storage room myself. They said I could. I even Spackled the holes in the drywall and cleaned the carpet myself. The message was pretty clear. I wasn't going anywhere...that week. And if I did, I made a mighty fine maintenance lady.

Other things happened that were out of my control, and should not be resurrected here. But I had not even reached the peak of "horrible" until a MySpace page appeared called "The Natural Haters of Jan Shelton." It involved passionate kids making death threats and court injunctions to create a bubble for my safety. I know kids...and I never feared for my life. I feared for my tires, but never for my life.

I just kept praying that someone would see my real potential. And that someone was Mel Scott. The art teacher. She never listened to the rumors I guess. She was somehow, gratefully, above it. She said to me one day, "I'd like to work full-time. That's why you're here, right?" And I said... "I think so." And she told me about her ideas. I felt I had made my first friend at the school. Someone that wasn't scared of me because she cared enough to find out that she didn't have to be. Mel's not scared of anyone. I love that about her. That might be my favorite attribute for a person to have and she had buckets of it.

My other savior was a boy named Trent and his friend Josh. Trent was from Lehi. I had taught his sister at Lehi High and he knew what I was capable of doing. His mom had moved his great talent to Tuacahn and after they got there, they realized it wasn't all they thought it was going to be. Then I showed up, and he decided to stay. Trent started an underground fan club of sorts among the serious artists. Because of Trent, the Principal assigned me to put together a Region Drama team and I was coaching again. I was even directing a little one-act for competition and the cast was incredible. Trent was pulling kids in off the halls and eventually the team had 61 kids. He's playing a superhero right now, but he's always been one to me.

Prayer...more prayer....then a golden ticket was laid on my desk. A script called "Les Miserable."

I knew it well.