Purgatorio: Part Two
Returning to New York in August I was looking forward to the 1990-1991 school year. As a newly-minted “Citibank Teacher,” I was primed to start consulting with Coalition and “Coalition-curious” schools in the New York Metropolitan area. Regarding Bronxville itself, I would continue working on the 9th grade Interdisciplinary team (implementing our “Western Civilization/Humanities” curriculum) and would now add two 11th grade “American Studies” classes --- team-teaching with Anthony Angotta, an English teacher who I loved working with! Added to that, my new Advisory system was starting (I was the “Coordinator”) in close conjunction with the Student-Faculty Legislature (which I was now the Faculty Advisor for). The Fall Forum was going to be held in St. Louis in November (I would be presenting a workshop there) and the drama teacher was on maternity leave --- would I like to direct the Fall Play? (Sure!) On top of all that, I was coaching the boys Varsity Basketball team (not very successfully) and the boys Junior Varsity tennis squad (very successfully). Quite a full plate.
Early in the school year our Superintendent announced that he would be retiring in June --- allowing a substantial amount of time for the School Board to find his replacement. My first consulting job in Westchester County was at John Jay High School (in Katonah-Cross River-Lewisboro) where John Chambers was the Principal. John was a deep-thinker and an excellent administrator --- that was clear from Day One. The more I worked there, the more I envisioned John serving as Bronxville’s next Superintendent, an appointment that would bring back serious support of Coalition reforms. When the Fall Forum rolled around in St. Louis in early November, I spent quite a few hours buttonholing and badgering John to apply for the Superintendency in Bronxville. He was reluctant, particularly because he did not hold a Doctorate (he had a Harvard Master’s Degree, as I recall) but I insisted he was “perfect” for the job: “You’re a soft-spoken, highly intelligent W.A.S.P. --- what could be more perfect for Bronxville?” Plus, I said, “What have you got to lose? Send in an application and, I’m betting, if you get an interview, you’ll get the job.” John was not as confident as I, but he did, in fact, apply and, yes, he got the job. Knowing John would be taking the School District helm starting in July 1991 was energizing. The resignation of our Milquetoast principal that Spring allowed John to hire his former Assistant Principal to take over as our High School Principal, so I was more than optimistic about the coming year.
Two highlights of the 1990-1991 school year involved some “authentic” work with students --- directing the Fall Play and advising the Harvard Model Congress contingent in Boston/Cambridge. In both cases, the students (in keeping with my growing commitment to performance assessment) were out in public, “showing what they know” in a setting where they were presenting their work to an audience of adults and peers. In both cases, I was incredibly proud of what the students did.
When I lived in Boston, I had gone to the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge to see the first dramatic production of Don DeLillo’s The Day Room. I was a huge DeLillo fan, having read all of his novels, and was eager to see how his writing transferred to the stage. As noted in Wikipedia:
The play concerns characters in a psychiatric hospital in which the distinctions between patients and staff gradually blur. The play is written in an absurdist style reminiscent of Beckett and Ionesco, and eschews linear plot in favor of a non-traditional exploration of such themes as empathy, personal identity, fear of death, and the seeming impossibility of meaningful communication. In line with the transformation of identities, the eponymous room of the first act becomes a vaguely defined motel room in the second. As a single memorable example of the absurdist tone of the piece, one of the asylum patients of the first act appears in the second act as Figure in Straitjacket, performing as a television set for the bulk of the remaining action.
I was blown away by the A.R.T. production and, when asked to direct the Bronxville High School Fall Play, I decided we would produce it! As luck would have it, shortly after I announced what play we were doing, my “Assistant Director” (a junior who did not want to act but did want to be part of the show) informed me that her mother was a local Real Estate Agent and had just sold a house to Don DeLillo in Bronxville. Really?!? I told Katie to mention to her mother, if she happened to talk to Mr. DeLillo any time in the near future, that we’d appreciate it if he knew we were producing his play --- and I would love to talk to him about it. We got back to work and started to mount the production.
A week or two later (I don’t clearly recall) I was in my New York City apartment when the phone rang. Me: “Hello.” Voice: “Bil Johnson?” Me: “Yes.” Voice: “This is Don DeLillo.” Me: (stammering, like Ralph Kramden) Hum-n-ah, Hum-n-ah . . . Oh, hi, Don….” (gasping) DeLillo: “I hear you’re producing The Day Room over at the high school.” Me: “Yes, yes we are.” DeLillo: “Would you like to meet and talk about it?”
Me: (shocked!) “Sure! Yes!” DeLillo: “You know Pete’s in the middle of the village?” Me: “Yes.” DeLillo: “How about lunch there on Thursday at one?” Me: “Yeah, great.” DeLillo: “Okay. I’ll see you then.” Me: “Yes, yes, of course, Thanks.” DeLillo: “Okay. Bye.” Me: (flabbergasted) “Bye.” I hung up the phone and, once again, couldn’t believe me luck. Talk about right time, right place! Once again, I had “stepped in it" and come out smelling like a rose.
I got “class coverage” in case the lunch with Don ran long (which it did). The meeting lasted almost two hours! During that time, we discussed the A.R.T. and Manhattan Theater Club productions of the play. “Don” was curious as to how I was thinking about staging certain scenes and offered his own perspective on what he liked and disliked about the professional productions. As we wrapped up, I pulled out my hardcover copy of the play (I belonged to the Drama Book Club) and sheepishly asked if he would sign it for me. Graciously, he agreed to. I didn’t read the inscription until I got back to school. Remembering the “play is written in an absurdist style reminiscent of Beckett and Ionesco” --- and I would add Pirandello ---DeLillo had written: “To the man behind the man behind The Day Room. Don DeLillo.”
The Day Room was a big hit at Bronxville. Despite being high school actors, the cast delivered a high-level performance, led by Joanna Lara, Jessica Rodwick, and Cathy Becket (who played the television set in the second act!). My old high school classmate (and rock’n’roll bandmate!) Bob Dancik, an outstanding Art Teacher at White Plains High School, provided a brilliant lighting design and we were told that Don DeLillo had sneaked in during a performance (he’s very reclusive) and let Katie’s Mom know that he thoroughly enjoyed our show. Who could ask for more?
I’m not sure where I stumbled upon the notice for Harvard Model Congress, but I do know that I was fascinated by the prospect. Run by Harvard undergraduates:
Harvard Model Congress (HMC) is the largest congressional simulation conference in the world, providing high school students from across the United States and abroad with an opportunity to experience American government firsthand. Although HMC is run entirely by Harvard undergraduates, it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is operated independently of the university.
Talk about an opportunity for “authentic” assessment! I shared the notice with my Department and got the go-ahead --- if I was willing to organize, supervise, chaperone (and recruit other chaperones) --- it sounded like wonderful opportunity for our students. I ran with it.
The basic design of Harvard Model Congress is that high school students (primarily Juniors because they are overwhelming the group taking a course in United States History) are individually given an identity as an actual member of the Senate or House of Representatives. They are informed as to what issues (usually one domestic or one foreign policy) will be on the three-day agenda as well as what Committees they will serve on. It is a very well-planned, authentic recreation of the United States Congress. The students then have three days --- in committees and full sessions --- to craft bills to vote on. It is an incredible experience for the students, and they come away with a genuine understanding of the workings of the U.S. government. I had no problem recruiting a Bronxville delegation and, typical of our community, the PTA and “general fund” provided enough money for us to fly to Boston and stay at the hotel where the conference was taking place. I recruited Mandy Gersten, a fabulous math teacher/Coalition advocate/musician, to chaperone the girls on the trip --- and we were off!
Harvard Model Congress was a great learning experience for our students. It was also fun to do some Boston-history sightseeing during the rare (and short) breaks we had. In all, it solidified my belief in performance-based assessment and got me thinking about writing a piece focused on that topic. As we wrapped up the 1990-1991 school year, I was looking forward to returning to Providence for the summer, where Paula Evans and Gene (now)Thompson-Grove had invited me to work as a Facilitator for summer workshops with the new Citibank Group and visiting schools who were “exploring” joining the Coalition. As I prepared to head off for the summer, I reviewed the year with some satisfaction while looking forward to coming back with a new Administration steering the District into the mid-1990’s.
Next: The Last Terrace