Sunday, July 19, 2009

Doing It For The Children

Change is a difficult process to manage. As a catalyst, the idea of creating change can inspire millions. The reality of effecting change, however, can create more enemies than one ever imagined. In 1937, when Harold Rome wrote songs for a new musical revue called Pins and Needles, the refrain to one of his songs contained the following lyric:
"You can't stand still on freedom's track.
If you don't go forward, you go back.
You can't giddyup by saying Whoa,
And sitting on your status quo."
An astonishing number of people are resistant to change.
  • Some fear that allowing others to learn will threaten their assumed authority.
  • Some think that, if they can deny the existence of a specific type of change that is happening all around them, their lives will remain untouched by this new phenomenon.
  • Some believe that new technology or scientific theory is just plain silly.
  • Some believe that change will cost them more money or be a cause of lost income.
  • Some people (Pat Buchanan quickly comes to mind) resent the idea that anyone who is unlike them could or should succeed.
  • Some people would prefer it if everyone else around them changed to suit their standards.
The way to combat such ignorance is with a good education that starts as soon as one learns how to read. I was extremely fortunate to have a father who was a teacher. My parents both read to me -- and with me -- when I was a child. At 62, I still have fond memories of holding Margaret Wise Brown's classic of children's literature, The Golden Egg Book in my hands.

The importance of learning was underscored in three major presentations this week. Each focused on getting to the minds of impressionable children while they are in their prime stages of learning. Each examined the power of an education to provide a way out of an oppressive lifestyle and offer readers a life-long key to worlds beyond their limited scope of comprehension.

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People often forget that at the core of Margaret Landon's semi-biographical novel, Anna and the King of Siam (based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens), lies a clash between Eastern and Western cultures brought on by a progressive king with a thirst for learning. Siam's King Mongkut's original purpose in bringing Mrs. Leonowens to his royal court was to teach his 82 children and 39 wives and concubines how to speak English, educate them about British customs, and bring a sense of the scientific mind (rather than missionary dogma) into their lives.

Over the years, the work of Anna Leonowens has inspired numerous dramatic treatments:
My own experiences seeing The King and I onstage are united by a curious thread that involves three theaters now owned by the Shorenstein-Nederlander Organization. In 1974, the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera staged a revival of The King and I starring Sally Ann Howes as Anna and Ricardo Montalban as the King which toured to San Francisco's Curran Theatre. In early 1990, Rudolf Nureyev ended his national tour opposite Liz Robertson in The King and I at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. In 1998, Marie Osmond starred as Anna opposite Victor Talmadge's King at the Golden Gate Theatre.

Broadway By The Bay is currently performing The King and I down at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center with a cast headed by Susan-Himes Powers as Anna, Jared Lee as the King, Jacqueline du Muro as Lady Thiang, Romar de Claro as Lun Tha, and Meryll Locquiao as Tuptim. There is much to admire about this production, most notably the quality of its sound design (which keeps to a much more humane decibel level than the ear-shattering approach employed by many touring musical productions).

Susan Himes-Powers and Jared Lee

Live performances of The King and I give theatergoers a rare chance to enjoy the elegance of Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics in some of the show's lesser-known songs. I have always loved the following rhyme from Anna's solo, "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?"
"I do not like polygamy
Or even moderate bigamy
I realize that in your eyes
That fairly makes a prig o' me."
However, it is the lyrics for the King's solo, A Puzzlement, that bear particular relevance to the role of education in helping children strive for a greater future than their parents could ever have imagined.
"When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!"
* * * * * * * *
That lyric took on surprising relevance as I watched a new documentary entitled Heart of Stone (So Hard To Be An Indian), which will be screened as part of the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Prior to the racial tensions of the 1960s, Newark, New Jersey's Weequahic High School was considered to be one of the nation's educational gems. Located in a heavily Jewish community, the school produced plenty of doctors, lawyers, and other successful Jews, including author Philip Roth. Although the school's population had once been fairly evenly divided between Jews, Blacks, and Italians, the flight of urban Jews to suburbia (especially after Newark's race riots destroyed some of their businesses), left a gaping hole in a long-established patchwork of community relations. As an elderly Jewish alumnus notes "Where we wore tattoos in shame, they now wear them in pride."

Beth Toni Kruvant's powerful documentary relates how a group of Weequahic's alumni banded together to work with its principal, Ron Stone. Together with the alumni, Stone helped develop a series of scholarship programs that could take some of his underprivileged students on ski trips, to Paris, and to college in an effort to help turn their lives around.

Student Rayvon Lisbon

Much like Christopher Wong's Whatever It Takes (which focused on Edward Tom's efforts as the principal of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics), this new documentary gives a bare-bones view of what it is like to manage a tough urban high school in today's world. What sets Weequahic apart from some other schools is (a) its long history as an outstanding school, and (b) a determined group of alumni for whom race is not a dividing issue.

Principal Ron Stone

The issue at hand is making sure that Weequahic's students can at least be given the kinds of opportunities that the elderly Jewish alumni had showered upon them in a different era. As the elderly Jews play cards, reminisce about being shaken down by Italian students for "protection money" or boast about having been "one tough, motherfuckin' Jew," we see a community of people who care deeply about the promise of change that an education can bring to a young person's life. Writing about her film in Moving Pictures Magazine, Kruvant explains that:
“I was inspired the very first time I met Ron Stone, principal of Weequahic High School (WHS) in Newark, NJ. Ron Stone has a story to tell. It is a story of a little boy who saw his beloved grandfather slapped in the face by a white man for no reason. And he wondered why his grandfather did not fight back. His is a story of a son who saw his mother take on Washington to lead the way for equal education for all African-Americans. His is a story of a teenager fighting his way through the mostly Italian North Ward of Newark in the Sixties and enduring death threats solely because of the color of his skin. And finally, Ron's is a story of a father and grown man who sees promise in the inner-city kids where everyone else sees only hopelessness.

Principal Stone walked me around the halls of Weequahic High School and shared his world with me -- his troubles, his concerns, his victories, his students and his staff. He shared his vision and struggle to turn the school around through conflict resolution meetings with the gangs and embracing the largely older Jewish alumni association. My father went to Weequahic, and this alone drew me in to rediscover my past, my own roots. The challenge of the film became to tie the past to the present, to show how street life of the 1950s is not that different from life in the 'hood today.

I knew Ron as a man with an inexhaustible drive to realize his dream of returning Weequahic to its former greatness -- when it was the best high school in the country and overachievers like Philip Roth walked the hallways. He turned WHS around from a place where parents were afraid to send their children to a place where they were knocking down the door to get in.

Ron was a visionary with a passion. I did my best to channel that inspiration into my film, Heart of Stone, which I hope will give voice to his legacy. He had an unyielding commitment and faith that he could make this world a better place one student at a time. In the WHS story, I see a strategy that can be implemented to resurrect inner-city schools across America. My hope is that the film moves its audience to take action and help carry on Ron Stone's legacy.”

* * * * * * * *
Scattered throughout the film are shots of Newark's popular Mayor Cory Anthony Booker, a rising star among Democrats who has been bringing long-needed change to the city. Booker offers a stunning role model for African-American students. What some may not know is that, while studying at the University of Oxford on a scholarship, he became close friends with Rachel Maddow and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, eventually becoming President of Oxford's L'Chaim Society that was founded by Boteach in an effort to end tensions between Jews and African Americans.

President Barack Obama has spoken frequently about working with Jews in Chicago and how much he learned from Jewish culture. If you did not have a chance to watch it in its entirety, I would urge you to set aside 37 minutes to watch the speech about the importance of education to a young person's formative years that Obama recently delivered as his keynote address at the 2009 convention of the NAACP.

The organization's stated purpose is "to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination." This speech is vintage Obama and well worth your time.

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