Tag Archives: Wade Willis

Why I quit my job: A teacher tells all

There are plenty of reasons to quit a job, even in a lousy economy like this one.

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.

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A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship

Here we go again: More trouble over a school play. Don’t these people ever learn? I mean the principals and school boards who do the censoring and always seem to do it so clumsily, as if critical thinking were anathema to education and free speech were a legislative inconvenience to be swatted away on a whim — usually the whim of a frightened administrator or a few right-wing parents determined to make everyone else line up with their rigid view of the world. Where do they think they are, Guantanamo Bay?

The play in question this time around, almost predictably, is The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s moving and mostly even-handed exploration of how the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 affected the people in his town of Laramie, Wyoming. This one’s just too much for the great 16th century thinkers who seem to be running, and running roughshod over, our public schools. Controversy? Perish all thought.

As Melissa Navas reported this morning in The Oregonian, Portland actor and onetime teacher Wade Willis has sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000, claiming he was “harassed, intimidated and humiliated” for his attempt during the 2005-06 school year to bring The Laramie Project to the stage at Southridge High School, where he had been a music, drama and language arts teacher. Shattered by the experience, Willis quit a job that he presumably loved.

His lawyer argued, Navas reports, that “a wrongful discharge lawsuit can be filed when an employer ‘maintained specific working conditions so intolerable’ that a person would resign.” Navas also reports that Kaufman had given permission to take out the play’s profanities to make it appropriate for a school audience, and she points out that although the play is about a hate crime against a gay man, it’s not about sex.

I don’t know Wade Willis, but I’ve seen him many times on stage, and he’s always struck me as an actor who approaches his job in a totally professional manner. (Right now he’s on stage in Broadway Rose Theatre Company‘s critically hailed production of the musical Les Miserables.) The loss to the students who no longer get to learn from him is of course impossible to measure, but I imagine it is significant: Here is a man who understands music and theater from the inside out, deeply respects his craft, is exceptionally good at it, and was willing to pass that knowledge along. Further, he wasn’t afraid to confront his students with topics that demand critical thinking — and what greater skill can a school hope to impart to the children in its care?
Continue reading A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship