Skydiving at 90

The Super Bowl is in less than 48 hours.

Her 90th birthday is in less than 5.

My grandma will be watching the bowl and watching us on her birthday....for signs that we’ll let her go sky diving.

When I was little and visited her condo in Florida, she’d yell at the football games on TV saying, “Hold another sec before you throw, Hicks! You gotta block better, Jarvis! Coach Lewis, you gotta run your defense harder!”

I don’t remember what teams we’d watch. She liked them all. Especially college.

I don’t remember the player’s names either, so for the sake of the blog I tried to come up with general football type last names by thinking back to high school. But when I finally gained access to the file in my brain labeled, “Football player names from High School,” it was clear to me from all the blanks, that I only attended the half time shows…usually as the fourth color guard girl on the left. Plus, how could I spend my time learning football names when there was a tenor sax player who made the most hilarious woodwind puns, won every jazz competition, and was revered by everyone in marching band for failing French and not caring.

My grandma plays softball and golf and was doing so in the 30’s and 40’s when women weren’t really doing that. She also learned to pay her bills online before most of the world and can wear a 30-year-old swishy neon tracksuit so well, the 80’s was spotted on route 66 attempting to hitch a ride back to the future. My grandma’s real name is Lucille but she didn’t like it and in school made it clear that she would be going by her last name – Becker – which got shortened to Becky. She’s a people person. Not a social butterfly, but a doer, which usually attracts other fun loving doers. She loves the theatre but not discussing it and was always more concerned about where we were going for ice cream after the fifteen plus shows she flew from Florida to see me in during Middle School, High School, College, and now the middle school shows I direct in South LA. She did not play with us as kids, but chose to give my sister and I experiences instead, taking us overseas, to the Rose Bowl, and on my first roller coaster. She was and still is the tomboy who declared, “I’m wearing pants to your wedding, hope you’re good with that.” Her only brother died in World War II and her youngest son would later die in a different kind of war. Against cells multiplying too fast in his brain. Her husband also lost a war with a spontaneous lump of blood cells that got stuck.

It’s true to say my grandma has shown resilience through serious tragedy. It would also be true to say she’s had a few things handed to her and she’s also never had to work a job outside of raising her four kids. I’ve never seen her as having money because she doesn’t store her wealth in material things, but in people. My grandfather, Don, was the business consultant for the guys who sold the first “make multiple hamburger’s at once” machine to McDonalds. This didn’t make my grandparents ga-zillionares, but it allowed for tons of trips all over the world and a second place to live in the summer. It also allowed for them to give to charity – particularly the migrant farm workers they’d visit in central Florida.

My mom, sister, and Uncles flew to see Grandma and Bob (her new husband of two years) for her birthday. Bob is legally blind and also pretty much the best.

Right now, my mom and sister and I are staying up late, in a quandary about how to deal with Grandma’s strong desire to sky dive tomorrow morning before her big party at 1:30pm downstairs at St. Mark’s Village lobby (a cool college dorm for old people without tests and study and with much better food). I weigh the pros and cons by playing out the following imaginary conversation in my head.

Grandma. Okay.

First of all? No. You’re 90. You can’t sky dive because the wind might break your bones, let alone the landing, let alone your heart, let alone, let alone, let alone. Also, you’ve gotten to do a lot of cool bucket list things in your life already. Road trip all over Europe with your kids, take your grandkids to Israel, go on a tons of trips with Grandpa to Africa and China and Australia and Japan and Spain and you name it – you’ve been there.

On the other hand, yeah. We get it. You’re 90 and you kinda get to do what you want. You’re 90 and maybe telling everyone at the dining area this morning that you were going to jump out of a plane, is your way of spicing up life and being the popular kid at St. Mark’s. Or, maybe you’re feeling 90 like a tap on the shoulder – a cold tap or just a hurried tap – and you want to stave it off by doing things people usually do for their 21st birthday. Maybe jumping out of a plane is your way of wanting to time travel back to 21. I mean crazier things have happened. Trump for example. And you’re starting to loose your short term memory and you’re at that stage where you KNOW that this is happening to you and it makes you frustrated. Loss of clarity happens to me since I’ve been teaching 7th graders – I can’t imagine what adding 60 more decades to my life would do to my brain. All this makes me feel bad and so want you to be able to go dive in the sky…

But Grandma, listen. Couldn’t we replace skydiving with something lower to the ground? Like walking fast? Or standing in front of a fan? I also have a mother (your daughter) to think about and she is super stressed by this want you have to fling yourself out of a plane. So are your two sons who traveled far to be with you on your birthday. Burying you on your 90th birthday was not part of the deal – only cake was.

 Where does dignity start and sanity end and vise versa? I want to give you the dignity of calling the sky dive place, but I also want the sanity of calling them before you call them to say, “Don’t tell a 90 year old named Becky who is newly married to an 88 year old named Bob, that she’s allowed to jump out of a moving plane.”

I know you’re tough.

I know you’re a tomboy.

I know you’ve done gutsy progressive activities since you were young. Repeat bowling champion is one of them – yes, yes, I’m sorry I didn’t mention that sooner. I know you’re a bit of a rebel and have a mix of having gotten what you wanted a lot in life, layered with deep sorrow.

 So…if it were just you and me…maybe I’d take you. But I gotta tell you grandma – heights freak me the fuck out and I’d rather choose sugary cake carbs for your special day. (sugary carbs beat out any food/non-food option in general except salty carbs).

*** 

The next morning, Grandma was all about the Falcons and the Patriots and the Super Bowl. You know. Jarvis and Hicks and all those helmet wearing names. I smiled to myself, remembering that my grandma liked going by her last name too; dropping Lucille like Jarvis would a tutu. Fortunately partying and football consumed her action-loving mind. Or was it that she accepted she can’t up and go on wild trips anymore and she let the sky diving slip away on purpose? As a group, we were left feeling relieved but I also felt a little sad that she dropped the idea. And also a little reverent towards this 90-year-old badass who was about to start yelling at the TV screen correcting the football players and coaches.  

 

Women's March

I looked at Jaden, trying to keep the frustration from my voice. He had a hangdog face with puppy dog eyes and whispered, “Are you going to give out more lines, cuz Jess got more last rehearsal…?” (Jess is his twin sister).

“No,” I told him firmly, “I’m excited you’re a part of the musical again this year playing one of the Wickersham Brothers. One thing we don’t do in KSA Theatre is count our lines and measure our worth on that. You’re part of the show and that’s awesome because I wasn’t able to cast everyone who wanted to be in it this year,” I said with a tiredness and a guilt at my lecturing tone.

“Okay…” he mumbled and tilted his head to the other shoulder, causing his dreads to swing across his back.

“And Jaden” I added, “You actually have two parts. Wickersham brother #1, and understudying JoJo. It’s up to you whether we choose to give a show or two to understudies. If you work hard and have a lot of energy around it, maybe you can do a show as that part.”

He sighed with heaviness, his 6th grade self seeking to reconcile his emotions and the logic of what I’d said.

“Okay, see ya next week Ms. Calhoun,” he said softly and grabbed his snack and script and plodded out of rehearsal.

Little did either of us know, that we’d see each other sooner than our next rehearsal on Monday…

As I drove home, I remembered being in 8th grade and my mom congratulating me on getting a small role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. I had been into theatrical music long before I had the courage to audition for a show. I would stare longingly at my reflection in the window of my folks’ car with my headphones on, and cry to Pete’s Dragon music. If you want to bring me to tears any time, anywhere, play “Candle on the Water” or “It’s Not Easy.” I could have just won free tickets to Paris, finally gotten one of my manuscripts published, or found a still pretty good Twizzler under my couch. Play Pete’s Dragon, and it’s a waterpark all over my face.  I was also the kid who had double versions of “Broadway Kids Sing Broadway” CDs just in case I lost one on our road trip and it didn’t make its way back to my room. In another blog I can go into more detail about my middle school theatre experience becoming the foundation for what I do with my life and how I recently ate apple pie at Christmas with Mr. Neal (my 7th and 8th grade drama teacher of 20 years ago).

In 8th grade I had gotten the role of Levi, one of Joseph’s brothers. Definitely not the lead. Not even a gender that matched mine (though my tomboy nature welcomed the chance to play a brother). I hung my head. And instead of trying to tell me to buck up, my mom told me a story. She said, “Annie once when I was in high school there was this girl – Stacy Krepp – and she had no lines in the play. She played this old woman who sat on the back of a train car most of the show. But when the show was over, she’d get a standing ovation every night because of how detailed and silly she made her part. She stood out even next to the lead soloist because she believed her part to be important even though it was small.”

Stories are powerful. And that one stuck. I put everything I had into playing Levi. I even gave him a special backstory. One in which he’d had an accident with a goat at a younger age, leaving him with a funny limp that made dancing difficult for him (in a fun way) and walking averagely difficult. This coincided nicely with the fact that my dancing skills looked like I’d played soccer my whole life. Which I had. Levi even had an emotional backstory; one in which the goat hadn’t survived said accident, making Levi a little shy and introverted but still able to project his lines to the back of the audience.

I got home from rehearsal, worried that I hadn’t handled the conversation with Jaden quite right. I had missed the opportunity to help him see that he was valued even if his part was small. I was too tired to join Rob for a postering party/play reading in preparation for the LA Women’s march the next day. I was exhausted but wanted to put something on the blank sash Rob brought home for me late that night. I wrote my favorite feminist, civil rights, and education quotes on one side, and then a list of current students on the other. I march for my students: for their civil rights, and for their right to an exceptional education and arts program regardless of what part of the city they come from and what color their skin is.

The morning of the march was unbelievable. Clear blue skies broke through after a day of torrential rain. Trains were packed with pink hats and men holding signs that read “Women’s rights are human rights.” It took two hours to get down to Pershing Square in LA and when Rob and I came up out of the subway, the roar of the crowd was emotional and breath taking. I cheered with Rob and couldn’t help feeling like this was one giant musical – the real life kind – the spontaneous kind – the best kind. Our voices rose up and random drummers kept time: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like! Show me what equality looks like! This is what equality looks like! Show me what a feminist looks like! This is what a feminist looks like!”

The crowd was said to be between 750,000 and 1 million. Incredible.

After a couple hours of marching, we came to a stop near city hall and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bouncing kid with swinging dreads.

Jaden?!

“Jaden! Hey! I’m over here!” I shouted.

He ran over with Jess and their mom, who smiled at us.

“This is wild!” she said laughing at the craziness of finding each other in the crowd.

“Hey Ms. Calhoun! Look at our posters! We used quotes from our essays,” Jaden said beaming up at me along side Jess who also held hers up

“Wow! Those are amazing you guys! Check out my sash. I put your names on it.”

“Really? Where?” they echoed each other.

They searched my sash for their names and grinned when they found them.

We all stared at each other for another moment, soaking in the magic of what had just happened: two kids found their teacher in a sea of voices and fists raised in support of women, LGBTQ friends, the earth, equality of religion, colors of skin, and the arts. Soon, the crowd whisked us off in different directions as we said goodbye.

This moment was magic.

And profound on a number of levels.

What were the odds that I’d find anyone I knew in a crowd of almost 1 million, let alone the kid that had been on my mind from our long rehearsal only fifteen hours before…

Stories connect and unite us. They are powerful. Lived stories are powerful like this one – where millions of men and women around the country created the biggest march in US history. A story of resistance and unity against a new president who has sought to divide. A story that Jaden and his sister and I were a part of together – our paths crossing miraculously amidst almost one million people. The story we’re about to share in the musical we’re doing is powerfully similar to the Women’s March. Seussical speaks to standing up for those who don’t have a voice, and the very small being needed because their voices carry the same weight as the very large.

Maybe Jaden needed a story from me. Not a lecture. The irony of needing my mom’s story when I was playing “Joseph’s brother” and Jaden needing it while he’s playing a “Wickersham brother” makes me laugh. Tomorrow I’ll remember to tell him my mom’s story. The one that led me to make the most out of something small and turn it into the movement that is my life in the arts. The Women’s March was an historic day. But one moment is not a movement. I won’t stop telling stories and being a part of the living ones that continue to create change.

“The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” – Gloria Steinem

**Names of kids have been changed to protect privacy

7th Graders On Halloween

“7th Graders on Halloween”

Today is Halloween. A Monday. A terrible day for Halloween. I walk into my doctor’s office with a cloud over my head about what his news might bring, and am jolted from my funk when I see Amber, the receptionist, in a Cat in the Hat costume.

“You look amazing!” I say, and she grins her thanks.

Our costume day for my 7th graders was last Friday before Halloween. That’s usually how it goes. Sorry kids. Schools have to do their non-routine things on Fridays so you don’t go crazy and waste a more productive school day like a Monday. Sorry principals. Mondays are never productive either.

Last year I taught 5th grade low readers. The move to 7th grade this year, also with below grade levels readers, has taught me a lot. Here’s a chart trying to explain what happens between the two years where childhood is swallowed by adolescence.

5th: Cheerful

7th: Sullen...Sleep clock changes (feeling awake doesn’t happen till at least 11am)

5th: Energetic

7th: Sleepy...Digestion is so energy sucking, classes after lunch are a wash

5th: Motivated

7th: Apathetic...Self consciousness cuts creativity and esteem

5th: Imaginative

7th: skeptical...Play becomes childish and uncool

5th: Kind

7th: sarcastic...Hormones cause a focus on self

5th: Articulate

7th: mumbly...Monsters attack their lips with a numbing agent at night

Let me tell you something.

It is sad, this “crossing.” 7th grade is not just one bridge to growing up, it’s a DOUBLE bridge. Bridge one is to a legit teenager which stretches till 8th grade, and bridge two is the long one towards young adulthood which spans from 7th grade to college. Not only is crossing safely an issue for 7th graders, but there is terrible rain along the way which they’ve never experienced – storms of hormones affect their mood and they’re not sure why. You watch innocence slip into sarcasm and a self-centeredness that leaves adults out of their line of vision. But who wouldn’t get kind of crazed on a double bridge they’ve never been on before? Who wouldn’t focus on their feet a lot more and want their friends close, because tripping together is better than tripping alone?

*Note: Not all 5th to 7th transitions are drastic. These types of kids make more subtle transitions than the chart above.

“Goof”

The goof in 5th stays a goof but becomes more forward more innuendos if they have a responsive audience.

“Quiet Introvert”

This kind of 5th grader goes inward even more in 7th grade and stops expressing emotions in front of the group. Because of this, they have a habit of hanging back after the bell rings and telling you random facts.

“Distracted”

The distracted 5th grader becomes less of an outward whole class disrupter in 7th but can zone out and doodle, take pens apart, make paper airplanes, and nod to please you but not know what the hell is going on because their now distracted by girls for the first time.

“People Pleasers”

These kids stay this way in 7th and the ways they can find to please get more mature and sincere. They need to be reminded that they are enough without your approval though.

When I saw the receptionist Amber in her Cat in the Hat outfit, she was followed by Jenny and Ariel, nurses who were dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2. Seeing them, I wished I had on what I wore Friday with the kids: a homemade Jillian Holtzman Ghostbusters get-up that I was pretty proud of. All my pics I took with my students (none of whom dressed up) show their blank faces next to my crazy expression. But that’s okay. I’m a theatre person and I’m used to being the only goof in the room.

I’m taken to waiting room number two. I sit for a few moments on the thin tissue paper that covers the patient bench and feels more like it should be in a delicate Christmas present containing a porcelain knick-knack than protecting my bum. Finally, my doctor walks in and greets me in a Spongbob Square pants shirt.

“Hi Annie!” he says with his usual friendliness and ease.

I stare at his shirt.

“I know. I’m supposed to be the Boy who talks to the Cat in the Hat – but I put this on.”

How do I explain the feeling of seeing my doctor fail at something like wearing the correct themed costume with his staff. There's something mystifying about having a doctor who has precise surgeon hands, but fails and wears Spongebob when he's supposed to match the office Seuss theme. There's also something hypothetically frustrating about it because if he were my colleague I'd be like, “Come on!” But as his patient, in this moment, he seems a bit bemused and defeated and I feel more like his teacher. Which gives me an inner teacher chuckle and, “Oh Dr. Kalan.” I’m laughing at my doctor. And I’m not as nervous about why I’m here.

It’s funny about 7th graders. I want to be the person that helps them make the bridge to adulthood so that they find it fun to dress up together in their adult jobs, even if someone is not within the theme. My mission in 5th grade was to communicate Language Arts content in a clear, creative way. My mission in 7th grade is to communicate being a goof. Because I want the 7ths to be the kind of adults who spread playfulness in a world where there’s a lot of pain. Thank you to my doctor and his staff for doing this. And thank you to 7th grader Michelle, who decided to dress up like a nerd the day after Halloween because my Ghostbuster costume made it okay.

 

 

 

 

Close Parkers and quotable kids

"My mom's having a baby and I don't care if it's a boy or a girl or something else or has to go to special Ed! I will love it and I'm so excited!" ... Says my most quotable kid of the year who happens to need a lot of help herself - but none in the love department.

Note I left on the car that parked WAY too close to my van. "Please don't park so close. I drive a van...because my grandma said 'if you fly to Florida you can drive away with it' and I didn't have other options. I love it dearly and its driven lots of kids to see lots of free shakespeare but it doesn't open all doors with a clicker so your close park job had me climbing through the back hatch. In a skirt. I looked a fool. People stared. I see you have a Bernie sticker. And you're rude. You can't do both or he looks bad. Remove the sticker or remove your jerkiness."

Beverly Cleary is 99!

This woman and her effortless way of finding the humor, 3 dimensional humanity, and dignity in children, is why I write for middle grade readers. Hers were the books I kept near my nightstand long past the age they were "for my age". Instead of a stuffed animal, I stuffed my Ramona Quimby books under my mattress when I went to college - just in case a bout of homesickness hit. She is on my author wall in my classroom and she is in my heart when I write. Thank you Ms. Cleary.

"Middle School the Musical"...Director's Notes from the program

"I was sitting in front of my computer last March, after our 2015 show “Once On This Island,” trying to figure out what musical to do for 2016. I start thinking about the next musical quickly because there’s always a void when a show ends, and I like to fill it with the imaginings of what the next year will bring! I realized with pride and sentimentality, that the 2016 school year would bring our first KSA 8th grade graduation as we are finally fully grown! I had the privilege to be one of the six founding teachers at KSA in 2012.  

With this in mind, no shows I read about on the Internet seemed to inspire me. I began imagining a show that was about daily life in middle school FOR middle school actors. There weren’t any shows I saw, that deal with that strange adolescent place where you’re not a child anymore, but you’re also not an adult. Adolescence is a time when you feel the weight of adult problems, like lack of parental support or tax payers not funding school arts, as well as the kid problems like not being allowed out of class when you REALLY HAVE TO PEE! So I began to write. I wrote and wrote until I had a story about five characters: a misunderstood bully, a new kid, a kid with a random brain, a sporty kid who secretly loves books, and a girl finding the confidence of her voice for the first time and wanting to create something in a school that doesn’t provide her the opportunity to do so. I wrote a play that supports, well, … plays and creating! KSA is unique in that we have a music program (thanks to Ms. Moore’s vision for the school!) AND theatre, whereas many of our surrounding schools in this neighborhood, like the fictional “George Washington Carver Middle School” in our play, sadly do not. We need to fix this for our nation’s kids. SOON.

Our hope is that you walk out of the show tonight with a new understanding of the abilities of middle school students. Do not underestimate the power of an empowered adolescent. I have watched them grow in this rehearsal process (the 8th graders for four years!) and observed the amazing ways theatre allows for providing confidence, social/emotional growth, creativity, interdependence, the empowerment of voice, and the realization that they are part of a whole and the whole is greater than themselves as an individual.

To my 8th graders. What a ride this has been! We founded a school and a theatre program together. Remember when we were just a school of 5th graders chanting the 50 States song I made up? We’ve seen Shakespeare plays, (over 6 times!), watched shows around the city, put on our own, spent summers reading at the beach and the park, talked about what it means to share art, share the stage, and tell your story. I hope you remember that your own story is of great value. And I hope you tell it. To my 8th graders I say, “Take greedily, give generously,” and always, always, always “allow yourself to take risks and play no matter who sees.” I wish you a lifetime of creating and imagining. You mean a lot to me and I will miss you very much." 

"Middle School the Musical" school performances...and why these kids inspire me to write for them

I wrote the book/lyrics/music to an 80 minute musical called "Middle School The Musical" for my students. Why not just order an existing musical? This is a special year. We are a fully grown school and graduating 8th graders for the first time. 8th graders who have sunk down and grabbed tightly to my heart. This show is for them. It's themes of resilience, lack of arts in schools, and silliness is for them. Here's an example of how arts empowers the adolescent...In our second of six shows last week I had a 13 year old stage manager solve two problems most adults would run from. She figured out how to dub the lead in the show by taking a mic backstage and saying her lines for her when her voice died completely mid show. At the SAME time, she fielded a 5th grader who had a meltdown backstage and wouldn't go on. I considered stepping in... But letting them solve their own problems (within reason and safety) creates some outstanding moments of middle school heroism. While I wrote this post another cast member just texted me about a relative who just got murdered. These kids ... Their strength ... As my fiancé beautifully reminded me - "excellence isn't marked by entrances and exits onstage" (which they have struggled with) "but by the entrance we make in each other's live." I always have a little sadness if they don't nail their show. But I choose to believe that process and emotional growth may not always appear in the form of a "great show" in traditional standards.

Directing a middle school musical.

Constant struggle between product and process when doing theatre with adolescents. I see a side of them a lot of adults wouldn't begin to believe - their immense capability for compassion for forgiveness for grit and determination. And so when they are falling short of what I know they're capable of i have to make decisions. Decisions that call for nuanced and tuned in discretion. Do I push them hard towards a higher product that they will derive tons of self confidence and group pride and autonomy and empowerment from? Or do I sacrifice some "limbs of learning" in the process by pushing hard...? Or do I instead realize that every third day they are children and every first and second day they are emerging adults...And therefore sometimes just hold them when they cry and have a meltdown? It's tough to be the "school parent" of 24 middle school adolescents trying to do something big and playful and artistic and larger then themselves - some for the very first time ... When is it laziness and when is it out of their control (home circumstances ect...). My days are filled with towing this line of questions and hoping I made the right choice in the right moment ...

Learning to say "I want"

Here's a list of things I'd rather do, than feel the painful feeling of self growth. For me, it's been learning to say "I like..." and "I want to..." instead of asking "Do you want to..." as an indirect way of "Suggesting" what I really want. I want to be more clear. More direct. But I'm fighting years of bad habits - habits formed as a young girl where I deferred to other people's happiness and well being - habits formed as a female in a society where men often held the upper hand and being more "submissively creative" in my question phrasing would get me what I want. It's also a simple fear of vulnerability and shyness. I've always been a shy kid deep down. So when you state what you directly want or like, there's a chance you'll be shot down more directly. I have no problem stating what I want and like in certain contexts, but with some work situations and with my partner, it's harder. I don't know where the middle ground is. Either I'm politely "questioning" in order to state my opinion, or I jump to anger when I feel I must state "I want." How can I be clear and direct without being passive or angry? I don't know that path yet. I want to. But it's not there - like a gap in a row of teeth - hopefully the missing one will come in before school picture day...but for now maybe I'll try to find the humor in this "I want" journey by drinking chocolate milk with a straw in the hole where I wish the "I want" tooth would grow. 

The Teacher Journey...

Quotable day for ten year olds.

1) morning reading groups: 
NC: "ms Curtis you're really pretty (new teacher with a sweet half shaved head hair do) ... Oh and ms calhoun, well, I mean all of the girls are pretty. Even you. Some people say that makes me a lesbian but my mom just says that's kindness."

2) musical rehearsal: 
Me: "so on this dance move, boys you don't have to get as dramatic"
JD: "oh I love it!"
AD: "me too! Dare to be uncool, right ms calhoun" (one of our theatre phrases)

... After quotable moment two I can pretty much say my job here on earth is done. Everything else is extra.

Also, so proud of the strong unity between the five fifth grade women teachers from five different ethnicities who had the universal "girl talk" with 60 11 year olds today. Of course I ended up answering the Q and A question "why do periods happen" - when I really wanted to answer the "who was the other rapper with Queen Latifah in the ladies first video you just showed us?" with: Jessica Li, Okah Patel, , Menya Cole