A student play blasting N.Y. school reform is banned
By Valerie Strauss
Fourteen students from two New York City schools — Jamaica High and Queens Collegiate — wrote an impressive play about school reform under Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, based on the classic play “Antigone.” They were rehearsing to perform the play — complete with music, visual projections and lights — when they were told that their principals had decided not to allow them stage it. The play, titled “Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together,” was banned.
According to a teacher who was working on the project with the students, the principals sent word that they were uncomfortable with criticism of Klein and Bloomberg, and they would not allow the Dec. 17 scheduled performance to go on in the Jamaica High auditorium.
It’s hard to even fathom the thinking that went into the decision to stop the kids from performing a clever work that they created and that expresses their opinion of school reform that has affected their lives.
Eight years of business-driven reform under Klein were centered around standardized tests used to grade schools, and many of the troubled ones were either broken up into smaller schools or closed. Klein repeatedly pointed to rising test scores as evidence of his achievement, but recent revelations that the scores rose because the tests got increasingly easy to pass burst that success bubble.
The decision to ban the play shows a fear of upsetting authority — not exactly the civics lesson you’d want kids to learn in an American school.
The students were inspired to write the play in part by a blog post by Jamaica High School teacher Marc Epstein, called “The Triumph of Academic Apartheid.” It details how Jamaica High, a storied school, was slated to be closed (along with dozens of other schools) based on what Epstein explains were faulty data and assumptions.
For those interested in reading the work the kids wrote, here it is. It’s not too long, and worth reading.
Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together)
Conceived of by students from Jamaica High School and Queens Collegiate High School in the Actor’s Workshop at Queensborough Community College
Note: All lines in bold are taken from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Antigone.
Note: Newscast is pulled from a NY Times article from October 28, 2010.
Mom is in the kitchen getting food ready. Antigone and Ismene come home from school. Antigone arrives first, then Ismene, the younger sister…
Mom: Hi Antigone. How was school?
Antigone: I don’t want to talk about it.
Mom: Come on, it can’t be that bad.
Antigone: There were 42 kids in my math class. There wasn’t even a place to sit. Plus we don’t have enough text books to go around. It’s that bad.
Mom: Are you hungry?
Antigone: That’s another thing. We have to eat lunch at 10am while the kids at the new school get to eat at a normal time.
Mom: You mean Ismene’s school?
Antigone: Yeah. They get all the good lunch times. Not to mention better classrooms.
Mom: Well, try to understand. Part of this new school reform is investing in smaller schools.
Antigone: What’s happened here is that the judge has misjudged everything.
Mom: What’s that supposed to mean?
Antigone: Nothing. Just something we read in theater class.
Mom: Well, eat some food. You’ll feel better. I’m making stewed chicken.
Mom: Hi sweetheart. How was your day?
Ismene: Mom, we have laptops. Can you believe it? I mean we can’t take em home with us, but still. And there was this one kid, Neil, he switched the keys on the keyboard so people kept typing the wrong thing.
Mom: So it was a good day?
Ismene: Besides the fact that now I have all these text books I have to lug around. Oh, and I need you to sign this paper. We are going on a field trip to D.C. next month.
Antigone: It’s not fair. These new schools are getting all the attention. It’s like we’ve been left out for the birds to feed on.
Ismene sticks her tongue out at Antigone. Antigone responds.
Mom: Please, no arguing tonight. I have to work.
Antigone: Again? But you worked the night shift last night.
Mom: Look after your sister. There’s plenty of food. Call if you need me. Bye.
Mom kisses the daughters and heads out to work.
Ismene: Well, I got homework to do.
Antigone: Whatever. Just don’t bother me.
Ismene goes to her room and Antigone turns on the TV.
Antigone sits watching T.V.
T.V.: The New York City Department of Education said Thursday that up to 47 schools could be closed for poor performance, a huge increase from previous years if all remain on the chopping block. The schools on the list include John Dewey High School in Brooklyn and Jamaica High School in Queens.
Antigone: Ismene, quick, come here!
Antigone: Just get your butt over here.
Ismene: What is it?
Antigone: Here’s what has happened. There’s a general order issued and it hits us hardest.
Ismene: Can you stop talking like you’re in that stupid Greek play and talk normal!
Antigone: Just watch….
TV: In the eight years since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has used school closings as a cornerstone of his school reform strategy, 91 schools have been shuttered and replaced with new schools. Nineteen of the schools were to close last year, but won temporary reprieves because of a lawsuit brought by the teachers’ union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The schools face a potential “phase-out,” a process in which the school stops accepting students and loses one grade per year until it ceases to exist. Simultaneously, new schools open in the building.
Antigone: That’s where your school came from.
TV: To reduce the shock and anger that closing announcements met in past years, the city has a new process to explain its thinking before making a final decision.
Antigone: Yeah, they better explain.
TV: The efforts at dialogue respond to the broader issues raised in the lawsuit last year, which found that the city broke the law in how it informed and involved the community in the school closing process. The city’s final decisions on elementary and middle schools is expected by the end of November, with decisions on high schools by mid-December. Then the official, legally mandated closing process, involving additional public meetings and a final vote by the mayoral-controlled Panel for Educational Policy, begins.
Newscast ends. Antigone clicks off the TV.
Antigone: This is so messed up. We have to do something.
Ismene: If things have gone this far what is there we can do?
Antigone: Well, I’m not gonna let them close my school without a fight. And you’re gonna help me.
Ismene: It’s not my school. What do I care?
Antigone: You have friends that go to Jamaica, don’t you?
Ismene: Yeah, so? Besides, you know if you do anything to get into trouble again mom’s gonna flip out. She’s already so stressed out since dad left.
Antigone: Are we sister-sister, or traitor-coward?
Ismene: It’s not that simple.
Antigone: Fine. I don’t need your help anyway. I’m gonna save my school, even if I have to do it by myself.
Ismene: Easy now, sister. Think this through for a minute.
Antigone storms out, leaving Ismene sitting there alone.
Ismene: I fear for you ,Antigone.
The following week in school Antigone is hanging posters that say “Save Jamaica High School.” After hanging them for a while, she is approached by a school official.
School official: Hey you. What are you doing?
Antigone: Uh, nothing. Well, I’m hanging these posters up.
School official inspects the posters.
School official: I’m sorry young lady but you can’t hang these in this hallway. This hallway belongs to the new school and you’re not authorized to hang anything here.
Antigone: But it is all the same building. And besides, this is important- the city is trying to close our school. Don’t you want to help save it?
School Official: I’m sorry, but we must do as we are told.
School official starts to leave.
Antigone: If these men weren’t so afraid…
School Official: What did you say?
School Official leaves. Two students from the new school approach.
Student 1: Did you hear they’re going to close Jamaica High School?
Student 2: I guess they deserve it. I heard their graduation rate was like really low.
Student 1: I don’t know. It doesn’t seem fair. I mean we get all this new technology in our classrooms, and they get shut down. Hey Antigone, What are you doing?
Antigone: I’m trying to hang these posters up so that students know about how to help save our school. Maybe we can get a big protest going.
Student 2: Do you really think that will make a difference?
Antigone: Maybe not. But it still has to be tried. Hey, I know, maybe you can help me. I’m not allowed to hang any in your part of the building. But since you both go to the new school, maybe you could….
Student 2: Oh, I don’t think so.
Antigone: Just a few on your way to class.
Student 1: Well, I guess we could do that.
Student 2: No way, I’m not getting in trouble for Jamaica High School. You all hate us anyway.
Antigone: That’s not true.
Student 2: Anyway, maybe Jamaica should be closed. I mean, if you can’t get your act together.
Antigone: Look, we lost 30% of our teachers and we don’t have enough resources to handle all the students we have. It’s not our fault.
Student 2: Whatever.
Student 1 leaves. Antigone is flustered.
Student 1: Here give me some of those. I’ll help you.
They continue hanging the posters together.
Student 1: Hey, do you remember when we used to eat lunch together?
Antigone: Freshman year. That was the year.
Student 1: Yeah, why did they change that?
Antigone: I don’t know. “Education reform” or something.
Student 1: Things are so divided now. I liked it a lot better when we where together.
Antigone: Yeah me too.
Student 1: Hey I gotta run to class. Will I see you later at QCC?
Antigone: Yeah I think so. If I can get all these posters up.
Student 1 leaves. Antigone continues hanging posters until the whole wall is covered.
In the office of the School Chancellor.
Office Assistant: Uh, Chancellor. Tireseus is here to see you.
Chancellor: Send him in.
Chancellor: Tireseus, what are you doing here?
Tireseus: I had some time off from teaching and thought I’d check in on my old friend. You don’t look so good brother.
Chancellor: It’s all these letters I’m getting. Listen to this….
“Dear Chancellor Klein. We the undersigned students, parents, staff members and friends of the Jamaica High School Community urge you not to phase out or turnaround this 118 year old historical institution. Jamaica High School has been treated very unfairly by the Department of Education and deserves support rather than phase out.”
Holding up the letter.
Chancellor: Do you really think I’ve been unfair?
Tireseus: Sounds like your conscience is what’s doing the disturbing.
Chancellor: Don’t talk in codes.
Tireseus: You took away 30% of the school’s teaching staff which increased class sizes, and you gave half the space in the building away to new smaller schools. Would you call that fair treatment?
Chancellor: We can’t continue to invest in failing schools.
Tireseus: Do you really think closing schools is the answer?
Chancellor: The school is failing.
Tireseus: Or maybe you are failing the school. Why not give them what they need to succeed?
Chancellor: But schools must be held accountable.
Tireseus: And what about you, Chancellor? Who’s holding you accountable? The gods have given us the use of reason, but do we use it right? Do I? Do you?
Chancellor: Why am I standing out here like a target? Why is every arrow aimed at me.
Tireseus: Isn’t it your policy that is upsetting so many students and teachers?
Chancellor: Who’s got you in their pocket? Are you working for the teachers union now?
Tireseus: Honest advice is not a thing you buy.
Chancellor: All of you so-called seers: you have your price.
Tireseus: Rulers too have a name for being corrupt.
Chancellor: The decisions I take are not up for sale.
Tireseus: Are you so sure about that?
Chancellor: Get out of my office.
Tireseus: Fine, but know this: where you are standing now is a cliff edge, and there’s a cold wind blowing.
Office Assistant: He’s gone, but his words won’t go away. Never in all my days was that man wrong. When he warned the city, the city new to listen.
Chancellor: Don’t you have some work to do.
Office Assistant: I’m just saying.
The Chancellor broods.
Antigone is at home looking sad. Ismene enters. There’s a tense silence between the two.
Ismene: I heard you got suspended.
Antigone: Yeah. For hanging posters in your school’s hallway. Anyway, why are you home so early?
Ismene: I told my principal that I helped you do it.
Antigone: You did what?!
Ismene: Yeah, so I guess I got suspended too.
Antigone: I don’t allow this. Justice won’t allow this. You wouldn’t help!
Ismene: But I’m with you now.
Antigone: Too late sister. You can’t just pluck your honor off a bush you didn’t plant.
Ismene: But even at this stage, can I not do something?
Antigone: Well, there is one thing I was thinking of.
Antigone whispers to Ismene as the scene shifts. .
Two janitors are taking down Antigone’s posters.
Janitor 1: What do you think about all this?
Janitor 2: What do you mean?
Janitor 1: You know, this business of closing Jamaica High School.
Janitor 2: Well, I don’t know. It definitely don’t make sense to me. I mean why close a school. They got money for jails don’t they. Why not schools?
Janitor 1: I hear that. So why we taking all these posters down anyway?
Janitor 2: Just doing our job.
Janitor 1: Well, I just as assume leave ‘em up. And if the powers that be have a problem with that, well, they can take them down on their own time
The two janitors continue discussing their views on the school closing and the state of the world generally. Lights fade….
Mom is sitting at the table. She is tired from work. Antigone comes home.
Antigone: I can’t believe this. Ismene and I had this whole protest planned. It was gonna be big. But now this! (Holds up a letter)
Mom: Antigone, Slow down! What’s this all about?
Antigone: Ok, So the city decides it wants to close down Jamaica High School, right?! And I’m like no you don’t! We’re gonna fight this! So I start to talk to people, make posters. Some teachers, you know, they’re in the fight, getting petitions signed and all that. Then just as it’s heating up I get suspended.
Mom: Wait a minute. How come I didn’t know about this?
Antigone: Please mom, just let me finish. Anyway, we get suspended for hanging posters where I’m not supposed to.
Mom: We got suspended?
Antigone: Yeah, well Ismene too. But that’s a long story. She didn’t really do it.
Mom: Ismene got suspended!?
Antigone: Mom! Will you please just listen!?
Mom: Fine. Go ahead.
Antigone: So while I’m suspended, I got some time on my hands, right? So I start thinking, what if we get all the students together, included the students from the new schools that are supposed to be like our competition–cause like it shouldn’t be that way–and all of us together march from the school to the chancellors office to say no to closing Jamaica High School.
Mom: Now Antigone, what did I say about getting into more trouble — you’re headstrong and self willed and you suffer for it.
Antigone: Don’t worry mom, before I could stir up any trouble, this letter came. So I guess it’s all over….
She hands Mom the letter, who reads it aloud.
Mom: Dear Parents and Students,
This letter is to inform you that the New York City Department of Education has decided
to “phase out” Jamaica High School. Beginning in Fall of 2011, no incoming students
will be admitted and the school will close by 2014…
Antigone: Word has come down from Creon. There’s to be no rest, No mourning, and the corpse is to be publicly dishonored.
Mom: Antigone, don’t take it so hard. I mean, is the decision final?
Antigone: It sounds pretty final to me. I guess we can still push back or something, but it just seems like we’re fighting against the odds, just to survive, just for existence.
Mom: Listen to me Antigone, those are the fights worth fighting, the ones against the odds. I’m proud of you. You may be young, but it’s the rightness that matters, not the age. I say keep fighting.
Antigone: Really? And you’re not upset that I got suspended?
Mom: Come here.
Mom gives Antigone a hug.
Mom: And give me one of those petitions to sign.
Antigone gets a petition out of her bag and hands it to her Mom who signs it.
Mom: Now speaking of fighting to survive, why don’t you help me with dinner tonight? I’ve been working so damn hard these past few days.
Antigone: Sure mom. Hey since we’re doing this whole fighting against the odds thing, how about I get to stay out past curfew tonight?
Mom: Don’t push it.
Lights fade. Projections of past Jamaica High School protests. Lights up and full cast enters the stage and joins in singing. After a short time lights fade again…
The end, for now