I teach English at the Bronx Academy of Letters. It’s a small school and I’ve been there for eight years.
When I arrived the school was just two years old, a colt still getting its legs. But what a colt it was! Unlike the aging, sclerotic East New York middle schools where I began my career, Bronx Letters had inspiring leadership and young, bright teachers. It offered a sense of hope and was a place where dedicated teachers could see a splendid return on their investment of blood, sweat and tears.
Back then the theater program was palsied. The directors were working artists brought in from the outside. Rehearsals were poorly attended, the plays limply executed. Half the cast was still memorizing their parts on opening night and once the curtain went up, they mumbled their lines.
Vanessa Wingerath, a fellow teacher, and I wanted more for our kids. We wanted them to have a theater experience like we’d had in high school, so we set out to build the kind of program that, from time immemorial, has transformed outcasts and disaffected teens into life-long theater lovers.
We insisted kids come to rehearsal — and if they didn’t, we tracked them down, sometimes to their apartments, and dragged them to the auditorium. We put on shows befitting an “Academy of Letters.” Euripides! Albee! Shakespeare! And the kids loved it! Over four years, our program grew. Today we even attract that rarest of theatrical birds — boys. This season, for example, we’re doing Fences. One lead is the starting center for the boys’ basketball team. Another is a troubled kid who struggles with school. Both drop by my room every day to discuss the play. The first rehearsal is two months away.
Despite that success, this year there are moments when I’m lost and miserable and struggling with what it means to be an inner-city teacher. The pressures on schools have been relentless. After four years of budget cuts, resources are stripped to the bone. Class size is way up, we have more students with severe learning and emotional needs, and we lack the necessary support to help them. We’re told to more with less, but finding paper for the copiers is like trying to find bread in the Soviet Union. And always looming over our heads is the Damocletian sword of Standardized Tests.
For the first time I’d started to wonder if I can handle it, if I can go on teaching in the school I love but which is struggling against immense forces it can’t control. Had I lost my calling?
It was at this low point that I attended a Master Class offered by The Academy for Teachers, a new organization that brings inspiring experts together with teachers for Master Classes. The Academy is all about rejuvenating a teacher’s passion for the subject they teach and I’d joined its board because passion is a word we need to hear more these days. But I never dreamed how much I’d need of rejuvenating myself one day. I’d always had passion for my work.
Leading the class was Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of The Public Theater, New York’s legendary off-Broadway theater, the place that brings us Shakespeare in the Park each summer. The day’s topic was Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. Eustis knows the play well. Not only had he commissioned it, he’d seen Kushner through many rewrites.
Eustis described how hard it was for Kushner to come to terms with the character of Louis, who abandons his lover Prior after Prior becomes ill with AIDS. Louis is tormented by his monstrous betrayal of the man he loves. In scene after scene over many drafts, Kushner had Louis either seeking punishment or forgiveness (or both) but always only at the “threshold of revelation.” How to get Louis across that threshold took Kushner years to figure out.
As I listened to Eustis, I saw my own situation. Wasn’t I like Louis? Wasn’t my school like Prior, a good man who’d become sick? What kind of teacher considers abandoning his students and the school he loves? Wasn’t I a phony, a coward?
Eustis grew animated as he recited the lines Kushner finally found for Louis: “Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving. It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean… you’re free to not love.” The words hung in the air as Eustis leaned back in his chair and ran his thick fingers through his hair. Then he said, so quietly we had to strain to hear him, “We have to forgive ourselves. Not because we’re supposed to feel good about ourselves, but because that’s how we dust ourselves off and get back in the game.”
And there it was, the revelation I desperately needed: Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving. I’d been wavering in my commitment to my job, but now the artistic director of the Public Theater was telling me that was okay, that my anguished doubt doesn’t mean I no longer loved my calling. Because I did. I do. But neither am I “free to not love.” Eustis and Kushner had led me across a threshold: I could forgive myself, dust myself off, and get back in the game.