Mathman's comment on my previous post got me thinking (yes, it happens from time to time) about one of the many disasterous programs of the Bush Administration, the No Child Left Behind Act that places testing above educating. The Act also requires that the schools distribute the name, home phone number and address of every student enrolled to military recruiters, unless the student (or the student's parent) specifically opts out. Train the kids to take tests, and then send them out to fuel the war machine.
In April, I saw Nilaja Sun perform her one-woman show, No Child, at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Sun's play takes place in the fictional Malcom X High School in the Bronx. It is based upon her experience as a "teaching artist", invited into the school to teach drama workshops. Make no mistake, these are not the kids from Fame. These kids can barely sit still, with learning disorders, and severe emotional and psychological challenges. This is the world that the very young Ms. Sun enters, to teach “Our Country’s Good,” Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play about a group of convicts putting on a Restoration comedy in an Australian penal colony. Her goal is for the students to learn, and perform, this play.
Today's teachers have it rough. I'm serious, this is not me being sarcastic. Teachers are underpaid, often in overcrowded classrooms, and thanks to Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, all they really get to do is prepare children for perpetual testing. Teachers are not able to find creative ways to teach, to open young minds to ideas. And those teachers who ARE able to do so are likely in affluent suburban schools with a highly priviledged set of students.
Our system has failed, and we are squandering our greatest resources: young minds.
When I went to see the play, I had no idea what it was about - it was simply part of my subscription series. When I left, I was stunned. Ms. Sun is an incredible actor. She played every character in the show - she was the only person on stage, yet it felt like a full cast, that is how good she was - and her energy was magnificent. Subtle changes in posture, vocal inflection and walk morphed her through each character. She gives voice to the cacophony of the class (she's told early on that it is normal to expect the kids to arrive anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes late for the 41 minute class) that addresses the real need for crowd control over instruction more often than not.
Her play addresses the flaw in the system, a system so patently unfair that it is absurd. How can we standardize what is in truth quite individual? The hype about the NCLB program is all about raising the standards - one more example of the NeoConservative ability to spin words of compassion into a lie, a contradiction - when in truth NCLB is all about numbers over ideas.
The students in her play are not angels. They are gang-bangers; they are from broken homes; young thugs and thuggets (is that a word?) who fall into racist and sexist name-calling and threaten each other on a daily basis. Still, she manages to find a way to open some of their minds, if only briefly, to the similarities of their lives to the prisoners in far off Australia, in another century.
“The theater is an expression of civilization,” one student, quoting from “Our Country’s Good,” announces to Ms. Sun, after she has given up on the school show in utter exasperation. “The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment.”To all the teachers of our nation, I applaud you. No child should be left behind. How many will be, though? How many?