Summer 1986: Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude
The summer of 1986 marked the beginning of several new directions. A DUI arrest and night in a local lockup jolted me into sobriety and the NEH Summer Seminar in New York City allowed me to quit the bartending job. The Modern Drama course at Columbia was scheduled for six weeks starting in late June and running through early August. I sublet an apartment on West 111th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, from a Manhattan School of Music teacher for two months, bookending my seminar with two “free” (extra) week in Manhattan. Being raised as a suburban kid on Long Island, my parents’ take on NYC was shrill and foreboding. My experience, as a boy, entailed visits to family in Brooklyn and a rare foray into Manhattan on school “field trips” (the Circle Line, the Museum of Natural History). In 1964 the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow was serviced by the Long Island railroad. I had finished my freshman year in high school and my parents thought it was okay for me to catch the train to the Fair on weekends (they had fond memories of the 1939 Fair in Flushing) --- and so I took advantage of their “permissiveness” and visited the Fair numerous times. As I look back on my life, I realize that I didn’t consider living in New Haven “city life” as the only City any New Yorker acknowledges is the Big Apple. I can see now, though, that the move to Boston was a stab at a “practice” city and the summer of 1986’s residency sealed the deal for me --- I had to move to New York by September 1987.
The summer of ’86 was glorious. Once again, I was surrounded by interesting people/teachers from all over the country and Howard Stein, our professor/guide/coach, knew everyone in New York theater. We saw 16 productions during our 6 weeks in session, we traveled up to New London to tour Eugene O’Neill’s home, we met with Jerry Zaks, who had just become the resident director at Lincoln Center. In our off-hours there was even more to see and do --- hell, it was New York City!
Living in the shadow of St. John the Divine on West 11th Street placed me five local One Train stops away from one of my best friends from Yale, Jay Fasold, which added to the fun of the summer. Excursions to Yankee Stadium, walks around the city, just hanging out in the comfortable environs of the Upper West Side, sold me on my “next stop.” One of my Seminar colleagues, Marilyn Elkins, a teacher from New Orleans, took us downtown to hear the music of Ellis Marsalis (pater familias of the prolific musical clan) where we were invited to stay “after hours” to listen to Ellis not only play but discuss teaching music to generations of New Orleans musicians. (Marilyn has since gone on to become an award-winning professor and author of literary criticism). It was a spectacular summer and I returned to Boston with a “three-pronged” plan. First, I needed to get a job in Westchester County (so I could afford to live in New York City); second, I wanted to find a place to live on the Upper West Side; and, third, I had to figure out a way to wrangle money from somewhere so I could, essentially , take the summer “off.” With that in mind I returned to Winchester High School, intent on making 1986-1987 my last year in Boston.
Basking in my “Golden Apple” glow, the school year got off to a good start and was, once again, asked to produce/direct the Fall play. There was definitely a “desire” (on the part of the school administration) for me to find a play that would employ a far larger cast than Buried Child. I thought that might be fun, so I decided we’d do Thornton Wilder’s 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Skin of Our Teeth. The play requires anywhere from 40 to 60 people as cast members so my challenge was simply to find the students who could best fill the roles of the lead characters and assign the rest parts as “conveners” or “drum majorettes” or “chair pushers.” No one had to be cut.
The Skin of Our Teeth opens, in the original script, with a radio broadcast. Since we were producing the play in 1986, we updated those scenes to a t.v. anchor man sitting in front of a huge screen with televised images to illustrate his dialogue. Between acts we ran footage from the film Koyaanisqatsi, to emphasize the themes of war and the hardships man inflicts upon himself and the natural world. (Koyaansqatsi was released in 1983, directed by Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass music. It created quite a stir at the time.) Wikipedia describes Koyaansqatsi thusly:
Drawing its title from the Hopi word meaning "life out of balance,"
this renowned documentary reveals how humanity has grown
apart from nature. Featuring extensive footage of natural landscapes
and elemental forces, the film gives way to many scenes
of modern civilization and technology. Given its lack of narration
and dialogue, the production makes its points solely through imagery
and music, with many scenes either slowed down or sped
up for dramatic effect.
The video was powerful, and the production was a big success. Once again, Dave Miller and John Fusco (the I.A. teachers) put together an incredible stage crew that built fabulous sets and our huge cast had a great time performing for two nights of packed houses.
My first and foremost concern in the Spring of 1987 was to set my “three-pronged” plan into action. I applied to the NEH for an Independent Study Fellowship (submitting a proposal entitled “Wellspring and Crucible: The Family in Modern American Drama”) and scoured the Sunday New York Times “Jobs in Education” offerings looking for “perfect” match in Westchester County. In the meantime, I continued to teach my classes and, as Spring rolled in, got to coach tennis yet again. We didn’t have quite as strong a lineup as the previous year, but I knew we’d be competitive and, given a break here or there, could win another League title.
By early April I was getting concerned about my “Master Plan,” when there it was! An ad in the Sunday Times for a Social Studies teaching position in Bronxville, New York. I was familiar with Bronxville from my teaching/coaching days at Blind Brook. What made this ad seem fortuitous, though, was that it said to apply to the school Principal, Judy Codding. I knew Judy since my summer at Harvard in 1981 so, before even sending in a resume. I called her at home that night. She told me someone was in line for the job (it was a one year “leave replacement” position) but if I could get to Bronxville by tomorrow (Monday!) for an interview, she could run me by the Superintendent, several Board Members, and the head of the Department --- and I’d have the job.!
It went like clockwork. I got to Bronxville by Monday morning, ran through my paces and, as I left, Judy assured me I’d be replacing a woman I had actually student-taught with in Greenwich 15 years earlier --- and that there would be a new position to fill by the time I was ready for a second year. Phase One of my three-pronged plan was now a reality. As soon as I got back to Boston, I called Jay Fasold and told him to alert everyone he knew to help find an apartment on the Upper West Side asap. By the second week in April I got confirmation in writing about the Bronxville job, I received a letter from the NEH accepting my Independent Study proposal and Jay’s friend, rock’n’roll lawyer Judy Tint called, informing me her friend on West 75th Street was leaving for L.A. at the end of June and needed someone to sublet his studio apartment. Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom! The three-prong plan was complete, and I informed the folks at Winchester that I’d be leaving for New York as soon as the school year ended.
People in Winchester were disappointed I wouldn’t be back (I had just been given tenure!) but understood the allure of New York City and wished me well. The tennis team exceeded all expectations, finishing 18-0 again with another League title. We lost, once again, in the State Championship Semifinals to Weston (whose coach cheated and rigged his line-up to win). Despite that loss, I was named “Spring Coach of the Year” in the local press, leaving on a high note. At the end of June, I packed up my apartment and drove to New York City, ready to start a new chapter.
One of the bonuses of joining the Bronxville teaching staff was the school’s participation in Ted Sizer’s fledgling Coalition of Essential Schools reform initiative. The school was one of the “charter members” of the group and, as I saw it, on the cutting edge of erasing Horace’s Dilemma in exchange for the New World of Education. I spent the summer in the New York Public Library and out in Riverside Park, reading and researching the works of Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard, putting together my ideas about the “Family in Modern American Drama” for the NEH.
At some point in late August I got a call from Bronxville’s local newspaper asking for an interview, explaining they wanted to “introduce” me to the community since they had heard “great things” about me from Principal Codding. During the interview I waxed poetic about Ted Sizer and how exciting it was going to be to work with Judy, how much I was looking forward to implementing “real” school reform in the coming year. Little did I know that the Bronxville staff was seriously divided over school reform issues and the older, male members of the faculty, in particular (many of whom I knew from my coaching days at Blind Brook), were not at all pleased with their female Principal and what they felt was her “top-down” strategy for change. By the time I set foot in the building, I was already “Judy’s Boy” and had alienated a number of faculty.
So, I finished my NEH Independent Study, submitting a one-act play (in which the “characters” were Wilder, O’Neill, Miller, Shepard, and a “Man(me),” who come and go around a kitchen table discussing their dramaturgical views of “family” embedded in “drama.”) It was pretty clever by half and I was proud of my work. No one at the NEH ever commented about it, but they did send me the second half of my stipend money by September 1st, as promised. At that point I walked into the Snake Pit that was the Bronxville Faculty, naively thinking I was entering School Reform Nirvana and quickly discovering I had passed through the School Reform Hell portal.
Boots on the Ground