Larchmont Chronicle | September, 2021
By Louis Fantasia
For last year’s “Back to School” edition, I wrote that “the saddest casualty” was that “kids across the country… got the rugs pulled out from under them” when their spring plays and musicals were cancelled. “Arts teachers everywhere,” I wrote, were “being tossed back and forth by administrators and politicians with, to be polite, conflicting agendas” on how to handle the pandemic.
That was then, this is now: in Florida, four teachers died from Covid last month (CBS News, 8/13/21); in Tennessee,
“arguments broke out” between parents and school board members who had imposed a mask mandate in their district (People, 8/12/21); in Sutter Creek, CA, a parent “reportedly assaulted a teacher following a dispute over masks on the first day of school” (KNX, 8/13/21). Locally, “frustration is building” for thousands of parents and hundreds of teachers who still “have no word on online option(s)” at LAUSD (LAlist 8/13/21).
A year ago I wrote that it was “the students, of course, who suffer most when the intangibles of an arts education -
discipline, dedication, commitment, trust, diversity, enthusiasm, camaraderie, etc. are taken away from them.” But it
seems that it is the adults who have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, those life lessons. This year, it seems to be the
teachers who are bearing the brunt of the suffering.
For fifteen years I ran a summer Shakespeare teacher training institute at the Huntington Library. For 2018 and 2019,
the program moved to that hidden gem in the Adams-Morgan district, the UCLA Clark Memorial Library. In 2020, we punted and went on Zoom, doing an online workshop on King Lear, which some critics think Shakespeare wrote during the plague year.
This summer we opted for a hybrid approach. The twenty or so participating teachers, and teaching staff, had to be
vaccinated. Temperatures were taken. “Zones” were taped out on the stage floor, marking out social distances. Some instructors were Zoomed in from London, Wisconsin, Texas, and - why not! - the weekend the workshop was scheduled for, the indoor mask mandate was reinstated! In the few hopeful summer weeks when teachers had applied to the program, nearly everyone had written about wanting to be energized for school, with fresh ideas, as “things got back to normal.”
That weekend we all realized that this is the new normal: voice classes with masks on, staging socially-distanced acting scenes, discussing race in Shakespeare (more on that at another time) and, most important, trying to stay physically safe and mentally positive for students!
Teaching is hard enough under the best of circumstances. Teaching the arts is even harder, and is an endangered
enterprise in the best of times. Teachers do not need chestthumping politicians putting their lives at risk, while making
their jobs even more difficult. Teachers do not need parents threatening them for wanting to FOLLOW THE SCIENCE and keep their kids healthy and safe.
I talk a lot about Shakespeare in this column (perhaps too much) but it’s not a Shakespeare play I think everyone should be reading right now. It is “Inherit the Wind,” the 1955 courtroom drama (or see the 1960 film) by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial," in which a small-town teacher was tried for violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution. Despite having Clarence Darrow for the defense (William Jennings Bryan argued the Fundamentalist view for the state), Scopes was convicted. It took the jury nine minutes to render its verdict after an eight-day trial. Darrow, unlike Spencer Tracy in the film, didn’t make a closing argument. All his expert witnesses (scientists) had been ruled inadmissible. Scopes’ conviction was overturned on appeal, but the anti-science mandate remained in place.
Nearly a hundred years have passed since the “Monkey Trial.” Most people now accept Darwin, evolution, climate change, and the power of hand-washing, masks, and vaccinations to stop the spread of germs and viruses.
Most people, but not all. And not nearly enough.
Check out some of our favorite Bard books and articles:
Read Louis Fantasia's Introduction to Playing Shakespeare's Characters: Monarchs and Madmen
Released in 2019