You just came into a healthy inheritance.
You married a millionaire.
You’re going back to school so you can get something that pays better than slinging coffee drinks.
Or, you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it any more.
That’s the one that finally made sense to Jennie Brown, a teacher at Sherwood Middle School in Portland’s southern suburbs, whose passion and specialty was teaching drama. Brown, you may recall, was the author and director of Higher Ground, a play about bullying at school, which she wrote based on extensive conversations with the kids in the show. It talked about bullying for all sorts of reasons: because kids are overweight, or don’t wear the “right” clothes, or they’re the “wrong” race, or maybe they’re gay, or … you get the picture.
At the last minute, parents of three kids (out of 52 involved) protested to Principal Anna Pittioni, who called the show off. That was in February. The kids themselves voted not to water down the script so they could take the stage in a censored version (some of them claimed the show already diluted the harsh realities of life in their blackboard jungle), and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts invited them to present the play as it was written in downtown Portland, where it was received enthusiastically.
But for Brown, it was the beginning of the end. Her relationship with Pittioni crumbled. She was investigated by the school board (at one point her school-issued computer was seized and her email messages scrutinized). She felt marked. And last week, with nothing else concrete on the horizon, she quit a job she had loved.
Just another day in the Nanny Dearest environs of the public schools, you might think. And indeed, a similar case sprang up a few months later, when Portland actor Wade Willis sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000 because, he said, administrators at Southpark High School had “harrassed, intimidated and humiliated” him to such an extent that he was forced to resign.
Why? Because Willis, who taught drama, music and language arts at the high school, had tried to produce Moises Kaufman’s play The Laramie Project, a fact-based drama about the effect on a Wyoming town of the brutal murder of a young gay man. Principal Amy Gordon shut down the show and, according to Willis, things went south from there.
These are questions not just of free speech but also of common sense. Do the administrators truly believe that students in their schools aren’t already grappling with the issues these plays raise? Do they truly think that if they clamp the lid down fast, they’ll keep all those nasty little critters inside Pandora’s Box? Is it possible that they believe the path to knowledge runs through the Forest of Pretend Nothing’s Happening?
Brown, in an email to Art Scatter, said she sees a link between her case and Willis’s — and that link is homophobia. She wrote:
“Yes, I feel homophobia was the driving force behind the reaction of the three parents that opted to pull their children from the play at the eleventh hour, and also the impetus for the principal to cancel the play the same day she received the emails from the parents.”
That may or may not be true. It’s possible that the parents, rightly or wrongly, simply didn’t think Higher Ground was the right time or place for their kids to learn about sexuality: They’d rather teach it themselves. But they could simply have pulled their kids out of the production. And Principal Pittioni could have had the guts to let them pull their kids out, and let the show go on. Instead, Brown became the issue.
It’s a small tragedy when a gifted teacher gives up on or is forced out of teaching, and Art Scatter has heard from a lot of defenders of both who say both were, indeed, gifted teachers. We all pay when something like this happens, and not just in money — the $125,000 that taxpayers will have to shell out if Willis wins his case — but in the young lives that will not be touched and inspired because the inspiring teachers have been kicked out of the game. For a lot of kids, theater programs are the one saving grace of school — the one thing that keeps them hanging in there and helps them find a healthy place in life. It takes a special kind of teacher to understand that, and to deal with it gracefully. It takes a special kind of administrator to understand that not all kids or teachers are the same, and that different circumstances require different solutions. Unfortunately, it takes only a ham-fisted administrator to foul up the works.
Here’s what Brown wrote us, in response to our coverage of Willis’s lawsuit. If she sometimes sounds angry or intemperate, remember that she’s been through the mill:
“Speaking from the standpoint of someone who has dealt with close-minded, power-hungry, homophobic and pitifully out of touch school administrators first hand, I am convinced that our public school system is on a very dark path. Both talented teachers and the children they serve are at risk for losing heart, soul and the desire to teach or learn.
“I’ve been a devoted drama teacher for six years now, often donating my time and resources to the children and the school with whom I worked (not begrudging a second of it — but LOVING every moment I spent writing, directing, searching for costumes, painting sets, gathering props). But after dealing with short-sighted, bigoted and incompetent admin I have finally hit my wall.
“I’ve fought the good fight over and over, have ‘stuck it to the man’ several times and after all that, when NO CHANGE has been effected, I feel I have to move on from the district I’ve given eight years to in order to preserve my sanity. It breaks my heart to leave a program I worked so hard to create and build up, to leave the students I’ve grown to love and the parents who have been so supportive of the program and the cause, but I truly can no longer deal with the people whose only objective seems to be to squelch creativity and independent thought. All they care about is image and test scores. Fight them and you pay a high price, as evidenced by the way they’ve handled me and my attempts to broaden horizons. Fellow teachers remain mute because they fear the same fate — or fear for their livelihood — so you stand alone when you take a stand. If you have a union that exists to appease the admin, as I did, then you’re really screwed.
“No one advocates for you but you. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you have parents who are willing to go to bat for you, but they can’t attend the ‘investigatory meetings’ you’re forced to endure if you fail to ‘salute.’
“At some point it becomes a question of survival. Will you dig your heels in and fight, or will you move on? Isn’t it tragic that those are the choices? Assuming you aren’t a saluter, of course. There is nothing I would love more than to stay and touch the lives of the students whom I adore. BUT, I can’t. I was dying on the vine where I was.
“I want to teach on my terms and be a creative force in the lives of my students. I’m not cut out for pandering to test scores and cow-towing to the illogical, self-centered and destructive whims of incompetent and narcissistic administrators. I’m resigning from my position in my district, effective Monday. I hope to find a place where creativity, open-mindedness and the best interest of the student are prized above pettiness, ass-covering and out-of-control egos. I think at some point the students will revolt. If my situation (and Wade’s) is any indicator, the students will not go quietly into the night as admin continue to create a learning environment that is stifling and patronizing to them. They are much too savvy and sophisticated to tolerate these conditions for long. They are education’s greatest hope for change.”
In a followup exchange, I asked Brown whether she thought homophobia was the driving force behind her troubles at the Sherwood school. Yes, she replied — it was the discussion in the play of gay issues that seemed to bother the protesters.
“I honestly believe it was only a small handful of parents that objected to the nature of the content (three out of a cast of 52),” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the principal assumed that was how the entire community would react. She grossly underestimated the climate of the community, as did the superintendent, who backed her up. It was heartening to learn that overwhelmingly, the town of Sherwood supported the play. Had the admin handled things differently and had they a firmer grasp on the mentality of the town, this whole ordeal could have been circumvented. Instead, they chose to conduct a witch hunt in an attempt to save face and cover their asses. This approach backfired on them and was awfully unpleasant for me.
“However, as painful as it was, I’m not at all sorry it happened the way it did. I think the experience was extremely empowering to the kids in the cast, as well as other SMS students. It also created an awareness among community members that the prevailing attitude is not necessarily that of the narrow-minded, homophobic and Christian Right. There is a diverse population that has emerged with a very strong voice in Sherwood. This became apparent when the news about the play broke.
“Where do I go from here? Good question. I want to write, direct, work with kids. I absolutely do NOT plan to return to conventional classroom/academic teaching. Being a drama teacher in a creative, open-minded environment would be ideal. Writing on the side all the while.
I don’t feel my employability has been impacted in a negative way necessarily — if a certain district declines to hire me based on what they know of the situation, then it’s for the best. I don’t belong with people like that, anyway.”
Anybody out there have a job for a woman who’s mad as hell and would love to put that passion back into the workplace?