Yeah. He don’t care about what we think- he just wants to shove this testing bullshit down our throats. Yo, I’m sick of sitting all day and doing nothing. They take away our programs and don’t ask us how we feel. This school used to be fun- why did he even bring you here if you’re gonna be like the rest of the teachers? What’s the point?
Karen Sklaire is an idealistic teacher who decides to change from an acting career to teach drama in the South Bronx. She recounts her experiences in New York City schools in her one-woman show, Ripple of Hope: One Teacher’s Journey to Make an Impact. A sold-out hit at the fringe theatre festivals in Washington D.C. and New York this year, she is doing an encore performance on Thursday, October 29th at 6pm in Long Island City for the Flying Solo Festival. If you loved Nilaja Sun’s 2006 play No Child as much as I did, you will find that Sklaire’s show has an equally heartbreaking, funny, sometimes cynical take on trying to teacher young people drama even in this theatre mecca city. In the decade since Sun was a teacher, budget cuts, high stakes testing, and mayoral control of the schools have made the conditions Sklaire must face more daunting: disillusioned and defiant students; burned out colleagues; a freaky, faceless bureaucracy; and like her show, it’s a solo affair.
Starting out, Sklaire recounts briefly what brought her to teaching, including the events of 9/11, a speech by Robert F. Kennedy from 1966, and Hilary Swank’s performance in Freedom Writers. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. Her first day is a nightmare, and the disconnect from her childhood experiences in Connecticut and those of her students is painfully obvious, but there is no help or support, and even the principal tells her if she has a problem she has to solve it herself. In desperation when a particularly out-of-control boy is about to start a fight, she grabs her iPod and picks Michael Jackson (“who doesn’t love him?”). This provides the first breakthrough moment, a glimpse of the joy that is possible, as Le Jean gets everyone dancing and smiling while he shows off his MJ moves.
Along the way, Sklaire learns that life isn’t like the movies, where heroic teachers overcome the odds. Trapped in a job that is increasingly stressful, and an abusive relationship with her principal, Sklaire hits a wall, broken. Although she doesn’t reveal it in the play, it’s likely that Sklaire found her way back by writing, and seeing the potential for redemption and meeting her original goals by turning her stories into theatre. At its heart, Ripple of Hope is more about the possibilities afforded us through creative expression than it is about teaching per se. Sklaire, like any good teacher, wants to pass on her passion for performance to her students, see them proudly on stage in the spotlight, instead of bent over a test or worksheet, trapped in a chair and desk.
Get tickets for Ripple of Hope here.