by Joe Straw and Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D.
I generally don’t go to one-person shows, partly because it’s a numbers game. If I write up the show, I generally get two readers—the performer and me. And for me, it’s all about the numbers. No, it’s mostly about the numbers, and then, me.
But, joking aside, something intrigued me about A Child Left Behind written and performed by Alan Aymie directed by Paul Stein, produced by Gary Grossman and Les Williams and presented by the Katselas Theatre Company. It is playing in the small intimate 30-seat theatre that is part of The Beverly Hills Playhouse.
What captivated my interest is the fact that I have two children, one in grade school, the other in middle school and I can tell you this: When it comes to education, all children have special needs and they all deserve the best.
But there are troubling facts about the schools in California; namely they are severely underfunded. Before the recession California ranked “46th of all states in per-pupil expenditures, Now: Today, these conditions, challenges, and comparisons are worse. Much worse. Today, for example, one in four California students lives in poverty and is likely attending a school with reduced funding, larger classes, and fewer instructional materials.”*
One need only walk by a Culver City schools on the weekend to see fundraisers going on the other side of the fence. And these fundraisers seem to go on 24/7.
“Our research also found that high-poverty schools have less capacity to generate private donations than low-poverty schools, and they raise one dollar for every twenty raised by schools serving few poor students. The median response among all principals surveyed was that they raised $20,000. However, schools with few students from low-income families received an average of $100,000 in donations compared to $5,000 for schools with a high proportion of poor students.” **
So let’s put this into perspective: For every hard earned $1.00 collected for the High Poverty High School (HPHS), the Low Poverty High School (LPHS) collects $20.00. In other words seven pencils to share among 35 classmates as opposed to 140 pencils to share with 25 classmates. Pretty damaging testimony about the haves who live in gated communities and are not willing to pay their fair share of taxes.
Natheless, the play opens with Aymie’s father teaching young Aymie how to stand up for himself at school, in the playground, and on his walk from home. These are the lessons learned that make him a magnificent specimen of a man, a loving father and a teacher.
Aymie is a dedicated, if not quirky, teacher. And, as the play opens, his current assignment is not particularly challenging—teaching in a wealthy community’s public elementary school. These community resources keep the school equipped with an endless supply of materials, staff, and volunteers, 24/7, three hundred-sixty-five days a year. Aymie is grateful for this after 5 years of teaching in an inner city, low-income, low-resourced school.
But, Aymie’s world is jarred when the Los Angeles Times publishes value-added scores for individual teachers in Los Angeles United School District. Value-added analysis show which teachers are better at teaching students that score higher on standardized tests. While well intended, this evaluation approach is problematic in that it captures only one dimension of a student’s performance—test scores. The published value-added scores serve to label some teachers as good or others as bad.
Aymie ends up in the “below-average” category and must redeem himself by returning to the inner city, low-income, low-resourced school where he taught earlier. Since he left this school, nothing has changed except to get worse—there are more students, more gangs, fewer teachers, no supplies, and less staff.
Aymie intends to make the best of it. He has one year to improve test scores so that he can earn his ticket out. He’s resourceful and creative in his approach. When his students have trouble understanding negative numbers, he uses the real-world example of the neighborhood gangs—Bloods and Crips. It works because gang members do erase each other, something that his students know intimately. Unfortunately this gets him a reprimand from the principal, who insists that Aymie teach in a more conventional manner.
At home, Aymie fights another battle. His very bright son is about to start kindergarten. He can do complicated math, knows all of the dinosaurs, understands the solar system, and plays chess. But his son is also somewhat quirky and needs help understanding social cues and interactions. Aymie knows, and does not want to know, that his son’s issues are more than just quirks. In an anguished scene, Aymie is provided with his son’s diagnoses of Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism.
Now, Aymie’s at-home teaching job is to get his son to understand gestures, idioms, nonliteral meanings, and emotional language. This is a tall order and Aymie is sometimes frustrated but he never gives up. We appreciate the immense love he feels for his son. His greatest challenge is keeping his son safe from the bullies.
Alan Aymie plays himself. He is an accomplished actor that knows his craft. He is physical, imaginative, compassionate and a creative performer. One can’t help but openly weep when he declares: “My son is a f@&king genius!” A father and son relationship is a beautiful and touching thing. But it is not only the love for his son but for the children he teaches. He besots himself with the art of teaching. And he also remembers them when he sees them later in life. Also, the characters he creates on stage were multidimensional and very imaginative. The gang-banger, the gang-banger’s father, and the principal were all characters, which Aymie creates a conspicuous relationship.
Paul Stein, the director, did a fine job keeping the action going. There was no time in letting the action stop for a moment. It was very fast paced in letting us know how a teacher, in these times, performs sudorific gargantuan tasks to keep not only his classroom running but the school as well. So fast was the action that the actor was sweating profusely during the course of the performance.
In this small, dark, intimate 30-seat theatre, our eyes are opened by the insight into the unfairness of our educational system, as we know it today. And students without desks, materials, and clean facilities are a disgusting display of our democracy in action.
This is a poignant story of teachers as parents and parents as teachers. So if you love a special-needs child, you will be moved by Aymie’s love for his son. If you have been a teacher, been a parent, been taught, or been parented, then this is the play for you.
Run to see this show and take a teacher who doesn’t get out much because he/she is spending their hard earned money on school supplies.
* Educational Opportunities in Hard Times: The impact of the Economic Crisis on Public Schools and Working Families. UCLA IDEA, 2010
** Free Fall: Educational Opportunities in 2011. UCLA IDEA