Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Henry's Adventure

March, 2009

"Here is what I wish for you, long after The Shakespeare Club is over and long after you've left this school."

On the whiteboard I've written:


"I want you to have a life of peace, and by that I mean that you will always be able to pay your rent and put food on your table. To do that, I suggest you stick with school, go to college and find a job you love to do."

The room resonates in quiet excitement. Not.

"Second, I want you to have a life of purpose, and I think the best way to find that is to help people even, and especially, when they don't ask you to help.

Mmmm-hmmm, I have them in my grip. Not.

"Finally, I want you to have a life of adventure. Travel is adventure but even if we can't afford a ticket on a plane, bus, train or boat, we can travel other ways. Any ideas?"

"Hey, walk!" cries Luis.

"You can always take a walk and there's a lot to see on a walk, believe me. But one of the best ways to travel is to read. Books can take us all kinds of places. Look where we are just from reading 'Twelfth Night' —"

"Illyria!" Nathan calls out.

"Exactly, we're in a magical place called Illyria. In our journals today I would like you to pick one of these — peace, purpose or adventure — and write about how you see that happening for you. Go!"

After journal writing I always ask if anyone would like to share something they've written. On this day, Henry was busting to share. He hadn't actually written anything, but wanted to wing it with a story. He stood next to me and faced the group.

"My dad."

He stopped and looked up at me and I gave a nod that it was good so far and he could continue.

"Well, dad, he goes far away and he has adventures, like you know what?...Like one time he...he was in where there's so much snow and guess what?...Well, even in all the snow where there's only snow he found a plant!" Henry nodded up and down and up and down at me.

"Really, it's so true...he found a plant growing where there was only snow and I would like to have adventures like my dad and that could be my life."

"Do you mean, Henry, that your dad is a kind of scientist?"

"Yeah, yeah...he's a kind of scientist guy and he goes everywhere!"

"Thank you, Henry for sharing that. I think you will definitely have a life of adventure."

He goes everywhere. He goes everywhere. The phrase haunted me because the one place that dad does not go is home. Henry's dad is not in Henry's life. He's bigger than life in Henry's little head but he's not in Henry's house tucking him into bed at night. He's not reading a story to a little plant called: The Henry.

I would built my house out by the beach. My house is going to be the biggest & the prettiest. I'll raise my family there. I'll pay all the bills as long as I stay with my house & family. I'll bring food to my table every day.

Peace is always going to be in my life!
—Meara, 5th grade

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Recess: Getting Around

March, 2009

"Stand up, please, and face me. Let's pretend I'm the audience."

"Only one person? Must be a bad show!"

"Thanks, Luis, very funny. Okay, everyone lift up their right hand."

This is not as obviously simple as it might seem. For some the right arms go up fast. Others study both hands to decide which is which and still others look around to see what choices their friends have made.

"Right hand down. Left hand up."

This goes a little more quickly because there is only one hand not yet used.

"Right foot. Good. Left foot. Better. Have a seat."

On the board I've drawn the stage directions. As I rise to point out the diagram and start this little game, the voices ring out behind me:

"What's the snack today, Ms. Ryane?"

"Are we doing of those run-through things?"

"I don't have my script!'"

The trick, I've discovered, is to whip back fast and face them. When I turn my back they actually think I've left the room and chaos descends.

"These are called 'stage directions' and when a director needs you to be in a certain place it's your job, as the actor, to move there on your own. As you face the audience, your right hand is stage right; your left, stage left. When I ask you to move toward the audience, that's called downstage. When I ask you to move away, that's upstage. Got it?"




Not a chance.

"Calvin, run to center stage."

Little skinny Calvin stares at me. Calvin of third-grade. Hungry Calvin whose teacher has to sneak him breakfast because someone at home forgets. Calvin who wrote about his little dog, Spongey, that "raned away."

"Where do you think center stage might be, Calvin....Give it a thought. It's okay, we can wait."

Meanwhile the smarty-pants in the group bounce out of their chairs like popinjays.

Calvin points a worried finger in front of him.

"Can you walk to where you're pointing, Calvin?"

This is slightly problematic for Calvin because he wants to take a chance but his body is pulling him back in the chair for fear of making a mistake and suffering the guffaws sure to pour over him.

"You can do it, Calvin....I think you know exactly where center stage is....One, two, three — RUN!"

Calvin lands in the middle of the room and widens his eyes, expectant.

"Right, you got it. Pay attention, we go: Geoffrey, stage right. Belinda, downstage right...." They wobble and circle but find the spots.

"Kate, upstage left....Nope, not next to Calvin...upstage left."

They watch me and take baby steps as if playing "hot/cold" but eventually every spot is filled. Then the area is cleared and I start over with a new list of names. The game will prove helpful when we get into the auditorium for our technical rehearsal because I will not go up there, if I can help it, to move them around.

I don't need to. They're pros.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Belinda: Driving Away

April, 2009

"Belinda, tell me about the best day you ever had."

She shrugs and looks out the window at other cars stuck in the afternoon traffic alongside us.

"Can't remember a best day?'


"Okay, what about the best meal you ever ate?"

I find myself pitching my voice a little higher with each query as if my enthusiasm will brighten the child's life.

She shakes her head, exhausted with the interview.

Best birthday? Best friend? Best holiday?

I'm bested.

We drive in silence and then she speaks.

"Ms. Ryane?"


"You know that first one? The one you asked about the best day....Well, it didn't happen yet but it's going to."

"Really? What's it going to be?"

"Well, you know how like I told you my dad and mom are divorced?"

"Right, I remember."

"And he lives in Las Vegas, remember that?"

"I sure do."

Belinda used to tell me about a happy time when she lived in Las Vegas with a grandmother, her dad, her mom and her sister. The good old days for Belinda existed when she was four years old. Everything started to fall apart when the grandmother kicked them out. Now they live with the other granny in South Los Angeles with an additional two children. Dad stayed in Vegas.

"Well, you know what?" Belinda's voice perks up. "He's coming back! He's coming back here and he's going to marry my mom again."

"Wow, no kidding. Did your dad tell you that?"

"No, my sister did. Yup. He's coming back...." Her voice trails off and I watch her reflection in the rear-view mirror as she slides away into a nap.



I would like a life of peace. Because my mom always says that she wants peace. When she gets her peace she feels better. I also want peace because I want a good job, a good family, food to put on the table and I want to be able to pay my rent. Most of all I love Peace. I like me too! Me me me me me Peace peace peace peace me me me me peace peace peace peace me me me me

I learned things while being the narrator. One thing I learned was that when I am on stage try not to laugh at the people who are acting funny parts. Another thing I learned that don’t be jumpy be centered. Ms.Ryane says that is cheesy. Before we did our last performance Ms.Ryane had us say "I am centered I am focused."
—Belinda, 4th grade

Las Vegas photo from Done With Mirrors

Friday, September 25, 2009

Polly: Making a Willow Cabin

April, 2009

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out "Olivia!" O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.

Ten-year-old Polly wanted to act so much. I could see a Viola deeply buried in her heart and I knew she could feel the stirrings of the character, but oh, how to get her out?

Polly and I curled up on bean-bag chairs in the school library for some private unearthing of young Viola: the girl dressed as a boy, in love with her boss but sent to woo a lady who's frankly just not that into Duke Orsino.

Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for another complicated comedy.

"Give it a go, Polly."

And it came out so fast that I was certain the words hung above us in a cloudy blur.

"Whoaaaa there, Nellie."

"Who's Nellie, Ms. Ryane?"

"Just an expression. Not important. Tell me about Viola. Like, what is her problem anyway?"

"Ummm. Well. Viola loves Orsino but he loves Olivia."

"Righty, right. Kind of a bummer situation. Polly, you have the longest speeches in our production and the audience really has to follow your story and they won't be able to if you go that fast."

"Yeah," she whispers, and brushes a tendril behind her ear.

I don't really think Polly has an idea of how quickly she's going. It's a tricky business when the actor wants so badly to be center stage and at the same time cannot trust it and wants to run home.

"Polly, you know when we do the play and the special colored lights shine down on you guys? Remember last year when the actors were all complaining because the lights felt too hot?"


"I want you to imagine that you are standing in a warm spot of sunshine and let it soak into your skin...stay with it. Also, picture the willow cabin in your mind when you describe to Olivia what you would when you tell me, say, about a dream you know how you see the images...try that."

And off she goes like the Road Runner.

"Polly...whisper it. Kneel on the bean bag, don't even look at me...just whisper the words clearly and just loud enough for me to hear."

She takes the direction and whispers so low that I'm not sure she's even speaking.

" I can hear."




The whispering forces her to slow down, but I'm not sure we'll get to the place...the place she needs to be...that center-stage place.

On Wednesday, in a run-through, Olivia asks Viola: "Why what would you?"

And I wonder, what will she?

And Polly stops to think, takes a breath and the whole speech pours out clearly, slowly...beautifully...and I blow the rehearsal by leaping up and clapping.

The entire class joins in.

"Did you guys see that? Polly jumped. She jumped off a really high building and she flew. We saw it right?"

"Right!" agrees Lyndon, who loves Polly and writes, "Great speech, Polly!" in his notes for that day.

"No goin' back now, Polly. No goin' back. Good girl."

When I'm in Orsino's court I'm ually in my room on the balcony looking at the sky. I spend time outside doing groceries, going to places with Orsino, going to places with my brother, and go overseas to see my parents. I also go to Olivia's house and the funny thing about that is Toby Belch and he is a man with no manners. Overall my life is Boring.

My life in Iliia sucks. All I eat fish, fish and fish. I know so much I should be a fish. I think I'll move on to crab.
—Polly, 5th grade

photo from Flickr user littleTaylor

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hard News: Smokin' Actresses

My mentor and teacher was the iconic American theatre actress, Uta Hagen.

Ms. Hagen, as she preferred her students to address her, was particularly well known for her performance as Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

When she wasn't acting brilliantly on Broadway, she was teaching brilliantly at the famous HB Studio on Bank Street in New York City's Greenwich Village. The legendary acting studio was a lifelong project opened by her husband, Herbert Berghof, in 1945, and flourishes today despite both their passings.

Acting class with Uta Hagen involved practical, useful, direct instruction and an enormous amount of cigarette smoke.

When she played Martha, she smoked. Pretty much when she played anything, Uta Hagen found a reason to smoke. She was good at it. She blew great puffs that followed her in a wake of powerful emotion. She used cigarettes as props both on stage and off.

The other night I watched another American star onstage here in Los Angeles. In eight performances a week, the Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons rages across the boards as Violet in Tracy Letts' play, "August: Osage County." In a powerful performance over the course of three and a half hours, Ms. Parsons attacks language as only the truest of acting animals are able. And she's smokin'.

The actress has to clamber up and down a steep set of multi-level staircases. She must dredge, from the pit of her stomach, an emotional hurricane not unlike Hagen as Martha. And her character smokes...a lot.

Here's the difference: Whereas Uta Hagen actually smoked and smoked real cigarettes; Estelle Parsons, with good prop cigarettes, makes us believe she's smoking for real. It's all in how she uses the prop.

She holds the baby in her mouth and speaks...but doesn't inhale. She sweeps the air with the thing, letting curls of smoke billow around her body...but doesn't inhale. She lights up gratefully as a real addict would and, when she stubs it out, she means it.

Estelle Parsons is eighty-two years old. She says she swims or runs everyday and does yoga. I wanna be her when I grow up.

Bravo, Ms.'re smokin'!

Theater review: 'August: Osage County' at the Ahmanson Theatre (Culture Monster/LA Times)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Revenge: 'Tis Sweet

In my second year of directing The Shakespeare Club, a special-education teacher approached me to pitch one of her students for the club.

"Jack is special kid and I just have a feeling that he would do so well with you and the club. His mom agrees and we hope you will seriously consider him."

Oh boy. This was Year Two and I was barely out of rehab after Year One and the trauma of what classroom chaos was all about.

"I have to be honest here, I really know nothing about autism beyond what I've seen in a couple of documentaries. I'm over my head as it is...I don't know...."

"Meet him. Let him audition. Please."

"Okay, here's what I'll do. Jack can certainly audition and if after that I think it might work...I'll give it a go on a trial basis. Both you and his mom have to understand that if I don't have what it takes to help Jack...well, you know."

"That's all we ask."

Jack, a skinny boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, threw me for a loop over and over in ways that I did not predict.

In "Hamlet," I cast him as the ghost of Hamlet's father. Jack picked up his script and channeled some old English actor like Alastair Sim, famous for his portrayal of Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."

"Haaammmlet...." Jack's voice boomed in an English accent.

I dropped my script to my lap and my jaw next to it. Where the heck was this coming from?

Mark me! My hour is almost come.
I am thy father's spirit doomed to walk the night.
At dawn I render up myself and disappear from sight.
If thou didst ever thy dear father love,
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!

Jack walked straight-legged as if wearing a suit of armor. He reached his arms forward as a ghost might. His voice rang out forceful, loud and clear. He took months to remember my name but he learned his lines.

The trial period was over...I was keeping Jack.

Jack suffered as many slings and arrows from his fellow club members as poor Hamlet did in the play. He was made fun of and he was excluded. One boy was dropped from the club for bullying Jack and making a false accusation.

Tears streamed down Jack's cheeks. "I didn't do that, Ms...Ms...Ms...I didn't."

Jack, in his private world, accepted most things with aplomb and just kept acting harder.

Like many children with autism Jack wasn't big on touching, but after his performance he accepted handshakes from his relatives and his teachers. He thrust his hand forward for a formal greeting.

From me, he actually allowed a hug and said my name.

"Ms. Ryane, that was great."

"You were great, Jack. You were great."

His mother sent me a note saying that when Jack was diagnosed at three years of age, they never thought they'd see a day like the day he played the ghost in Hamlet.

The next year, Jack played Juliet's suitor, Paris, in "Romeo and Juliet." He wept over his beloved's body. He laid flowers next to her. He fought in a swordfight.

By Year Four, he'd graduated and left the school, but one day as I was working privately with Luis, this came up:

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Luis."

"Remember that kid, Jack...he was that ghost guy in 'Hamlet'? He was great, wasn't he?"

"Yes, Luis he certainly was. We all learned a lot from Jack."

Peter don't know how read but Peter can invited romeo to the party.

Tybailed get's mad at romeo because he is invited.

I'm playing count Paris and I want to mery Juleit but she doesn't wants to mery me she want's to mery romeo and that's make me grumpy and want to kill romeo but he kill me insted.

I like to be count paris because I have a sowrd my mom and dad is SO proud of me they did lights and sound I like the capulets best then the mantegus also I like the pizza party my favoret monetagu is romeo and my favoret capulet is count paris and my favoret part of romeo and Juliet is the fighting romeo vs count paris that’s all.
—Jack, 5th grade

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recess: My Dad

In 1596, William Shakespeare's eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, died. No one knows for sure how it happened. There is speculation that he drowned and some think he may have been a victim of the plague.

Shakespeare returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon from London to attend his child's funeral and, presumably, to grieve. It was after this tragedy that he wrote his masterpiece, "Hamlet."

I recently read an illuminating memoir, "Life's That Way," written by the actor/writer Jim Beaver. When Jim's wife, Cecily, was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, he sent an e-mail out to friends and family. As her illness progressed, Jim continued to send e-mails describing the experience. The audience for these letters grew to 4,000 as they were forwarded from one computer to another. When Cecily died after a five-month battle, Jim was left both mourning and caring for their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. And he continued to write their story into a book.

Four weeks ago, my eighty-one-year-old father was discovered naked on the floor of his apartment bathroom, where he had been lying for two days. My brother found him and we knew it had been two days because of the newspapers that had accumulated outside the front door.

My dad has the stubbornness of King Lear without the flair for language. He insisted on living in his own apartment — on the fifteenth floor of his building — despite a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. He marched out of the assisted-living facility the family had arranged because he didn't like "being around old people."

And now. The doctors don't know what happened to my dad. He arrived at the hospital with a blood infection and was given antibiotics.

Medical researchers have recently announced that even a tiny infection, a mere cold, in an Alzheimer's patient can quickly escalate into irretrievable memory loss.

My dad now sits in a wheelchair, in front of a city hospital window, awed by how his boyhood town in the prairies has changed so very much. He's traveled far away. He sees what he sees. He knows what he knows.

My dad is a kind man. A blue-collar worker. A practitioner of yoga and vegetarianism. And yet, admittedly, a weak man. Indecisive, afraid to make a mistake, and so sure that "shysters" were out to rip him off that he missed opportunities....But a kind man nonetheless.

My dad lived to travel, played a mean game of chess, and laughed. When in the company of his older brother, Dad could often be found doubled over in laughter. He would swipe at the tears squirting horizontally out of his eyes and he couldn't speak for the laughter busting his ribcage. This was his talent. Finding the funny.

So now. In a hospital in British Columbia, my dad stares out a window, lost in a faraway place. In weeks to come he'll be transferred to a "care home." He won't see his apartment on the fifteenth floor again.

My dad is no Hamlet and I'm no Shakespeare but, when life's events show up and powerlessness takes over, there is sometimes naught to do but write it down.

photo 4 by Kim Hunter

Monday, September 21, 2009

All We Need Is

March, 2009

"Most of you saw 'Romeo and Juliet' last year, right? Do you remember that?"

"Belinda was Juliet," Lizzie calls out.

"That's right, Belinda was Juliet and Geoffrey was Romeo."

"And they got married and then they died," offers Kate.

"Yup, that's what happened, which makes that play a tragedy. But can anyone tell me what the theme of 'Romeo and Juliet' is?"

They twist and slide their bottoms on the chair seats and I know I'm in one of those moments where, without exception, all minds are on What will be the snack today, Ms. Ryane?

"What are those again, Ms. Ryane?" Geneva asks, breaking the silence.

"Okay...the themes of Shakespeare's plays are either: love, revenge or power. Later when you look in your journals, you should have those written down...and if you don't, they're on the board, so please write them down."

"I know, I know!" Belinda waves her hand in the air.

" answer and it comes from someone who certainly should know because she played Juliet....Please, Belinda, tell us the theme."


"Yes, all the characters in the play want love, fight for love, kill for love or die for love. Please pick up your journals and write about when you wanted love or had or lost something you loved."

"I love my lizard," says Luis.

"I know you do but don't tell us...write it and once you've written you can use the colored pens and draw a picture to go with your story."

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
Dear Diary,

I love my dog Spongey but he raned away, I got a new dog and it is a chiwawa.

—Calvin, 3rd grade

I always wanted love because I ashaly don't know why but I just want it. Me and my sisters too, I made a story and I said theres this boy named Joe and he is cute. We all said we want to kiss him.

—Celia, 3rd grade

Dear Diary,

I fell lonely and sad right now I want to be loved by someone. I want a puppy and love & he love me. Together we'll have a lot of love and be happy. These days I've been feeling lonely I really want to find a friend dog to play with.

—Meara, 5th Grade

I had a dog he loved me so much he jumps on me and danced with me and he slept with me but then he ran away

Then he never ever came back even on his birthday and I was crieing so hard that I that that I could see Jack again but he did not come back.

—Lizzie, 3rd grade

Dear Diary,

I wanted to love a puppy that I saw a little while ago. It was suuuuuuppppeeeerrr cute! I wanted it sooooooobadly, but my mom and dad don't like dogs or cats that much. I'm going to buy one or possibly two puppys when I grow up and treat it as great as a little baby!

Alice, 5th grade

Friday, September 18, 2009

Off the Bus

Mel's office

April 2009

"Hey, Belinda, let's take a little visit to my office."


We sat across from one another in the sunlight and I pondered how to start. Belinda missed the last club meeting because she got on the bus. Belinda stopped bringing her script to rehearsals. Belinda's teacher was frustrated with this very bright girl not turning in homework and copping some pretty tough attitude.

This was Juliet last year. This was promise in full bloom. This was a snappy, happy talent.

Was is the operative word because something had changed in this child. I thought she might be trying to give a signal.

"Belinda, why did you take the bus on Wednesday?"


"Why did you miss Shakespeare Club? You know it's always on Wednesdays."


"That's not a good enough answer, Belinda."

The tears welled up, rolled, dripped and fell into her lap.

"We don't have any money," she whispered and the crying escalated.

Belinda's mom has four children. A girl two years older than Belinda, a boy three years younger and a toddler girl. Belinda's parents are divorced, with dad living in Las Vegas. The family had to move in with their granny in South L.A.

Belinda takes the bus to and from school. An hour and a half journey each way, every day.

"My mom says I can't do Shakespeare Club anymore because we don't have the money to pay my uncle."

It seemed that in order for Belinda to stay for club meetings on Wednesdays, her mom was paying her uncle to pick her up...and the money ran out.

"Belinda, look at me," I said this and with a tissue wiped the tears from her cheeks. "We're going to figure this out. Somehow, we're going to figure this out because you're the Narrator and we need you. Blow."

"Yeah," she whispers.

"Look, you have to take care of your script, you have to hand in your homework and you have to believe me....I'll figure this out."

"Okay, Ms. Ryane."

"Lickety-split off you go, back to class....We can't spend the whole afternoon chatting here in my lovely office."


I called her mother and left a message, but never heard back. I offered to do anything I could to help Belinda stay in the club. No response.

I wrote a letter with a permission slip allowing me to drive Belinda home from meetings.

It came back the next day, signed.

So began the sojourns. After club meetings, it took an hour to get her home and another hour to get me back. I settled Belinda into the back seat with a pillow and she'd promptly fall asleep. I drove through freeway traffic as if transporting sixty cartons of eggs. Gently, was the only way.

Dear Journal,

I loved my dog when I was little. My dog was my favorite pet. It was a dalmation. One time he was in the backyard and she was having babies. We heard boom and we ran outside and she was dead. Now I have always been afraid of dogs.
—Belinda, 4th grade

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hard News: Going the Distance

I started a file for Belinda. A yellow folder with stickers, her name and this title:


She drew her fingers across the lettering and asked, "What does it mean, Ms. Ryane?"

"Belinda, in downtown Los Angeles a brand new high school for the performing arts is about to open and it's not for rich kids. It's for poor kids that have a lot of talent, like you and me."


"Belinda, I think you could get into this school when you get to ninth grade, I really do. This school could be your ticket to the life you want."


"In this folder we'll keep any articles, pictures and information we can find and after four years maybe you can audition...what do you think?"

"I think that's cool, Ms. Ryane."

And it is cool.

2 new L.A. arts high schools are a study in contrasts (LA Times)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dylan: Scouted

March, 2009

I met six-year-old Dylan in the school office. He was sitting, with feet dangling, on the plastic-covered cot reserved for children feeling "not so good."

Sydney was with Dylan and introduced us.

"Ms. Ryane, this is Dylan. He's in first grade."

Dylan picked at the food arranged on his small orange lunch tray. He sipped from a straw stuck in a half pint of chocolate milk. He lined up chicken nuggets nestled in a cardboard container.

"Hi, Dylan," I said, and he looked up at me with a pair of startling indigo eyes.
"How come you're eating your lunch here on the cot?"

"I did something bad," he answered, and chewed a nugget.

I looked at Sydney for clarification.

"Dylan pulled the fire alarm and now he has to have lunch alone for two weeks."

Two weeks?! What're we running here...Papillion? And that's when it hit me. The boy had the baby blue peepers of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. I was in the presence of a miniature "Cool Hand Luke."

"Wow, Dylan...that's heavy. Why did you pull the fire alarm anyway?"

"Well...really...I just wanted to I just it sounded."

Right. Like "The Great Escape." Got it.

" mom's gonna be really, really mad...."

This is the kind of kid I look for. Curious. The kind of kid who wants to know stuff. The kind of kid that takes action, however risky it might be. I'd have to wait two years for Dylan but I intended to keep an eye on this freckled-faced outsider.

Sydney tells me Dylan's mom is overrun with children and struggling to keep a lot of plates in the air. Dylan "in trouble" is the last thing the woman needs.

But two weeks of eating in exile? Sydney and I shared the dismay of this sentence and he ended up getting parole a week early.

At the end of a performance of "Twelfth Night," I noticed Dylan hanging on the apron of the stage. He was stretching his little arms to touch Geoffrey's foot. Like rockstars, Geoffrey and Luis were slapping palms with a crowd of kids and Dylan's face registered absolute awe.

The next day I ran into Dylan and asked what he thought of the play.

"It was sooo good...I love that play."

"What was your favorite part, Dylan?"

And stuck his foot out, pointed and said, "Yellow toes...look...look at my yellow toes."

Recruited. He doesn't even know it yet, but he's in like Flint. Yeah, yeah...James Coburn...another bad boy with blue eyes.

Dear Diary,

When I was poor and my mom Died and my dad was a drunky so I was alone but I saw The prince of kingdoms but if I dool him for his spot but it was 20 Klames. a month later I got 20 Klames.

So I duled him he was tuf but one thing I dident now that we fight until one of us died but he cut me so many times I felt like I was going to give up but I stabbed him though his chest and wone but somebody stabbed me it was his friend then I died.
—Ethan, 5th grade

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Recess: The Bait

I am brave
I am filled with light
Everything is fine

On performance day, this was how we began our meditation. Calming, I thought. Reassuring. Purposeful.

I am brave
I am filled with light
Everything is fine

I gave a pep talk about power, story and readiness.

If it be now, ’t is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
Hamlet Act V, Scene II

This is how that lovely moment ended:

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Nathan?"

"Then will we have pizza?"

"Yes, Nathan, then we will have pizza."

As much as I fantasize that I have these kids on a steady diet of rhyming couplets, let's be honest: Nothing beats a cupful of Goldfish crackers.

I didn't know about the kids-and-food thing my first year. I only started to figure it out by the second year and now half my work in the club is tracking down and shopping for:

"Ms. Ryane! What's the snack today?"

"Ms. Ryane! Isn't it time for the snack?"

"Ms. Ryane! When you think about snacks, do you ever think Burger King?"

"Oh sure, when I'm not ruminating on a guy named Lear or Henry or Richard...I'm all over that Burger King."

For a couple of years, the club had one tenacious mother bringing snacks to every meeting. She brought vegetables and dip, crepes stuffed with jam, fruit salads....We called her our "Snack Angel" and gave her a Trader Joe's gift certificate because she knew all about kids and food.

By Year Four, I sent a letter to the parents asking them to sign up for at least one meeting to bring little oranges or apples or crackers or anything. Four parents did this, but mostly I ran around before each meeting loading up on foodstuffs and then hiding them in the classroom because "The Snack" is the main event and entirely distracting if one kid discovers the stash.

One warm day as a special treat I brought a small cooler stuffed with ice cream bars.

"Ms. Ryane, you rock!"

That's all it takes. Morsels of food. A few Ritz Bits. A packet of raisins.

Forget The Shakespeare Club. We should call it a day and have The Food Club.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Belinda: M.I.A.

March, 2009

It started with her script.

"Where's your script, Belinda?"

Shoulder shrug.

"You need it. You're the Narrator and plus you have to cue the actors when they call for a 'line'."

Shoulder shrug.

On the day the actors are handed their scripts they are given a stern warning:
"These are as precious as gold...or five dollars...or your favorite action figure. If you misplace or forget to bring your script, over and over, you'll earn an x. So be careful with your script. Take it home to work on your part, but remember your 'Twelfth Night' script sleeps in your backpack...that's its home."

Belinda had now earned an x. She had come to three meetings without her script. Every week I'd arrive at her classroom to check and her teacher would sadly shake her head: Nope, not today. Finally, after the third week of no script, I stood in the doorway of her classroom and a smile spread across Belinda's cheeks, accompanied by a vigorous nod.

"Phew...are you kidding me? You actually have it?"

"Yes, Ms.'s right here!"

"Where was it all this time?"

"I'm not sure...maybe under the bed."


The following week I saw Belinda on the campus playing at lunch break but when it came time for the club meeting: M.I.A.

"Where's Belinda?" I asked, looking over the schoolyard as the other members of the club lined up to start.

"She took the bus!" Darby called out.

"The bus? Why would she take the bus...she knows today's Shakespeare Club."

"I dunno but she took the bus," Darby confirmed and Beth joined in, nodding.

Let me dispel any notion that running The Shakespeare Club is non-stop hilarity and darling children working together toward a bravura performance. Other than the very first meeting and the day we have a party to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, I never have a full quorum.

Now, Belinda was missing in action with no explanation.

We started our Sun Salutation and I spotted a wide-eyed child to my left: Belinda's understudy. I gave Celia a smile and a nod: Yup, baby, you're on.

Beth helped set up the music stand for Celia.

I held my breath.

I have a story from a long time ago;
I'll tell it to you now blow by blow.
It's a beautiful day as our story begins,
But look who comes here. Could they be twins?
Yes, indeed, they look the same.
She is Viola; Sebastian is his name.

Celia's voice rose strong and clear. She spoke at a level I'd never heard. I dared not even glance toward her; I didn't want to risk distracting an actor at work.

We managed to get through half of the play, which is not terrible for March. I had taught them to call out "Line!" when they needed help. Like professional actors they stumbled, hesitated, sighed and then shouted, "Line!"

At the end of rehearsal, as Lyndon, Rachel and I handed out apples and string cheese, I addressed the group.

"Some of you have earned very nice s and I want to tell you how that can happen for those of you struggling. As actors, we all have to face doing scary stuff. That's what makes actors different than regular people...they have to have courage to be truthful and speak up in front of an audience to share a story. Do you get that?"

They didn't answer because they were busy eating like starving people. I got a couple of munching nods.

"Today someone in The Shakespeare Club faced a fear and with great courage stepped up to the plate. Did anyone notice who that might have been?"

"Me?" shouted Luis, always the joker.

"No, Luis, not today, but I liked your dancing."

"I remembered my lines," offered Geneva.

"That was commendable but I'm talking about someone who did something they hadn't done before."

"Well, Ms. Ryane, I noticed something," piped up Henry, licking apple juice off his fingers. "I could hear Celia when she was doing Narrator."

"Bingo," and I looked over at Celia.

She modestly tried to chew back her grin.

"Celia showed us all how to be brave. She climbed a mountain today and now, Celia, there's no going back....You used your big voice, we all heard it and now no more little voice for you. Congratulations."

The group set aside their string cheese to give Celia a round of applause. She earned a big that day while I secretly wondered what was going on with Belinda.

She had some explaining to do in her big voice.

Dear Journal,

I wanted power when I was a small girl.
I would get hit by the wrong people.
They still have never apologize today.
I would have power to make them do so.
All I had to do is stand by then and they would.
They would say they were sorry for everything.

—Belinda, 4th grade