With a Capital “C”

by Ellenor Riley-Condit

“And if someone wants to tell me what I have done to deserve this disrespect, go ahead, I’m listening.”

Silence.

“Anyone have anything to say?”

Silence.

“No? Alright then. When you get back from gym something better be different.”

Twenty-one 5th graders file guiltily out of their classroom and down the hall to the gym. I wave to their gym teacher.

“They need a little help today, Coach.”

“Is that true? Okay, don’t worry Ms. Riley, I’ve got ‘em.”

Coach gives each of them a piercing once over as they enter the gym. They are so silent and contrite I hardly recognize them. Not ten minutes earlier there were scraps of paper flying, two of them were wrestling in the reading nook, and a trio had made some sort of tissue bombs covered in hand sanitizer with which they were threatening each other. They were supposed to be in math rotations. I was supposed to be teaching a lesson to a small group about multiplying decimals with zeros in different place values while the other small groups were supposed to be playing math games or writing in their math journals. But alas, the room so closely resembled a parody of “5th grade classroom with a substitute teacher” that any film or theater director trying to create a similar scene may have looked around and said, “Too cliché, too staged, what can we change here?”

A few days a week I substitute teach at an elementary school on Chicago’s northwest side. I got into substitute teaching a couple years ago, when babysitting started to give me existential crises. As new parents and other caretakers know all too well, there’s nothing quite like the loneliness of being with a baby or toddler all day, sometimes going hours at a time without talking to another adult or dealing with anything besides diapers, crumbs, and tears. Of course, there are also infinite rewards for taking care of small children, but I needed a change of pace. So, I traded in the burp cloth for the sensible shoes of a substitute teacher, partially because the school environment is so fast paced that you don’t have time for existential crises. Plus, you can talk with the other teachers at lunch about what jerks the kids are.

On this particular day I was working with a 5th grade class I’ve gotten to know pretty well. Their teacher is on maternity leave and the school isn’t able to pay a full time teacher’s salary to someone during her absence, so these kids have gotten stuck with a series of substitutes. I want to mention here that I am a trained theater teacher, and that is all. In Illinois all you need to be hired as a sub is a clean background check, a bachelor’s degree, and a pulse. The school district gives no training and yet every time I enter this classroom I am expected to figure out how to teach math, reading, science, or whichever part of the curriculum is the focus that day. I have become a weekly part of these 5th graders’ lives- and therefore a part of whether or not they are prepared for middle school- all while being paid below a liveable hourly wage. I point this out not to sound like a martyr, but as an example of how completely bonkers public school is for most kids in America.

But it’s not like this was forced upon me. I chose to be a substitute teacher because it’s in my skill set, I feel like I’m doing something useful, and I love being in loud rooms full of people. I chose to do this for the same reasons I choose to make theater. I love the way that walking into a school building feels the same to me as walking into a theater. As you walk through the doors of a school when the bell is about to ring to start the day, it’s like walking through the doors of a theater at the beginning of a tech rehearsal. There is a sense of organized chaos, an electricity made up of every positive and negative feeling you can imagine. I think it’s the feeling of a bunch of people being thrown together to attempt something- either the project of making a play, or the project of getting an education.

The 55 minutes of gym passes very quickly. I brace myself for the return of these magical, infuriating creatures. Coach leads them in a chorus of “Sorry Ms. Riley” and then we head back to the classroom. I gear up for another big speech, lengthening my spine, planting my feet, making sure I have breath enough to project- they are the most difficult audience I will ever face and I need to summon all my training. As I open my mouth to speak a tall, cheeky boy who is the ringleader of most rowdiness pipes up:

“Ms. Riley do we still get to Create today?”

Right of course, I think, that’s the privilege they’re worried about losing. For them, time to “Create” can mean many different things. Some of them draw or color or make comic books, some of them free write, some of them build strange contraptions out of their school supplies and create stories with them- they can do anything as long as they’re making something. I use a capital “C” for Create here because when they ask for time to do this I get the sense that the question carries capital letter meaning for them. They love it.

Today’s Create time was supposed to be a little more structured. It was supposed to be spent finishing their scripts and making costumes for their scenes from Arabian Nights, to be performed in just a few days at an all school assembly where many classes would be presenting something performative to supplement their in-class reading. This was a very high pressure situation and they were worried that their earlier behavior meant I wouldn’t let them rehearse. I mean…I would never deny anyone rehearsal time, but they didn’t know that.

“If we can get through the math lesson we were supposed to have done already then you will have time to Create,” I say firmly.

The math lesson proceeds without a hitch. All of a sudden everyone is a model pupil. Even those who struggle with the material attempt to stay focused. The emotional warfare I attempted to wage earlier to get them to pay attention is no match for the idea of losing time to Create.

One short hour later I announce “Alright let’s put our math away and get into our groups for Arabian Nights.

The room positively erupts. Cardboard and fabric and notebook paper come out of various desks and corners of the room. Though no group leaders have been appointed, I can tell which students have taken on leadership roles as they shout instructions, wrangling their teams. One group is doing their story as sort of a meta-theatrical puppet show and they’re arguing about how to make a puppet theater out of a box. Another group is trying to decide how they can make masks to be bandits in the desert, and if they should mime riding horses. One of the kids who speaks primarily Spanish and only recently enrolled at the school talks excitedly in a mixture of English and Spanish with his group members. Two students who arrived as refugees only a month ago speak Arabic to each other while they make props. No longer is the room hierarchical, no longer is it about some lady standing at the front going over decimals in a language not everyone in the room can even understand. All of a sudden, everyone has a role that they chose, everyone is deciding how they can contribute.

I watch everyone’s real personality and skills and interests come out. I watch quiet kids become bossy and kids who can’t sit still channel their fidgets into choreography. I watch a girl who is often looking to her best friend for approval abandon all pretense and roll around on the floor, saying her lines in a ridiculous voice. I’m reminded just then that the process of problem solving with a group in the pursuit of making something together is at the root of why I fell in love with theater when I was their age. In 5th grade, before anyone had asked me if I wanted to be an actor, before I had any concept of what “success in the industry” could look like, I loved rehearsing school plays because I loved trying to make something with other people, because it created rooms that looked like this.

As many of us in The Syndicate have written and talked about nearly to exhaustion, theater doesn’t seem to have a point these days unless we are making rooms like this one possible, for all people, of all ages. I like that just when I feel like I can’t think about the question “Why theater?” any more, the universe shows me a perfect example of why. Watching my students reaffirms that for art to be an integral part of society, and not just a luxury, it has to be available for each of us to meet on our own terms. It has to be about ensemble, even if no one is using that word. It has to be about opening the door for people to capital “C” Create together, not for institutions to produce capital “A” Art.

A girl I was struggling with during math just moments before comes up to me. She is a few grade levels behind and often tries to cover that up with an attitude, an approach to coping with insecurity that I battle with myself.

“Ms. Riley, do you think the crown should go like this, or like this?” She asks, demonstrating two different ways she could use white lacy material to enhance a paper crown.

“I like the first way you had it,” I say. She considers my answer.

“Nah, I think it’s better the other way,” she says, watching me.  

We discuss what she wants the crown to suggest, who is going to wear it, and how. She’s more animated and appears to despise me less than she did when I was trying to convince her to finish problems 2 through 6 in the “Try Now” section of her math lesson. I am grateful for a moment where we can be on equal ground, where each of our ideas matter, where we can solve a problem together. She has agency in this conversation and it makes her a better listener. For these few moments, I feel like I can really see her. She decides on a third way of making the crown, completely different from what either of us first thought.

“Thank you!” she says brightly, and rushes back to her group.
Photo: Elle channels her not-so-inner teacher whenever possible. Seen above lecturing on Gertrude Stein in Bluets. Photo by Al Foote III. To learn more about Bluets and other Syndicate shows visit http://www.wearethesyndicate.com. 

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