Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spirited Shakespeare ‘Dream’ performance has a sad ending

OK, I'll come right out and admit it. I'm not a big fan of Shakespeare. I'm fine with a sonnet here or a snippet of "all the world's a stage" there, but to sit through two hours of grandiloquent oration? Thanks, but no thanks.

I was a little underwhelmed when my daughter brought home the news that her North Hall High School drama class was presenting "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I figured it was one of those productions that I'd just have to endure because that's what moms do. It's in the job description.

My interest was piqued when I found out Gail Jones would be directing the play. Gail and the Glazers go way back. When our Molly, now 23, was a preschooler in White County, Gail directed her in "Charlotte's Web" at the Sautee-Nacoochee Community Center. Molly's first lines, spoken as a baby duckling, were, "Honk, honk. Waddle,waddle. Beep, beep."

Molly went on to be cast in any number of other plays directed by Gail. There was "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," "Oliver" and "Narnia."

Molly brought her love for theater with her when we moved to Hall County. She continued to study acting and theater in high school; her name is etched onto a star in front of Gainesville High's performing arts center. Now she's in graduate school with hopes of teaching language arts and theater in a high school somewhere, someday.

Throughout the years, Gail taught special education and ran the theater program at White County High School. Her daughter, Blake, and Molly acted together at the Holly Theatre in Dahlonega. As high schoolers, they performed in "Annie Get Your Gun" along with another of Gail's students, Blake Daniel. If the name's familiar, it's because he went on to star in Broadway's "Spring Awakening."

At the beginning of this school year, Gail moved to North Hall High School. The plan was for her to teach special education and co-teach theater with Jan Ewing. She and Jan are both talented teachers and gifted directors. When the two of them combine their talents, the results are simply magical.

Take for example "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Instead of using the traditional Athenian forest setting, Gail placed it in 1968 San Francisco. The fairies wore India-cloth skirts, gauzy tops and flowers galore.

Lysander and Demetrius, the knights, sported uniforms right out of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. There were tie-dye shirts, love beads and go-go boots. The band, which provided Greek chorus style introductions to the scenes, played 60's hits by the Turtles, Simon and Garfunkel, even the Cowsills' "The Rain, The Park and Other Things."

Our Rachel was the pianist and a vocalist in the band. I was thrilled and amazed when I heard my 14-year-old daughter unerringly channel Grace Slick in "Somebody to Love."

I went to the play the first night because I had to. I went back the next night because nothing could have kept me away. For the first time ever, I really enjoyed Shakespeare. I laughed until my sides ached as Cody Ballard's Puck wove his magic and turned a pompous actor into, literally, a jackass.

Gail, Jan and their students worked a miracle. They made a 400-year-old classic accessible to the Facebook generation, and to me.

I noticed there were lots of tears that last night as the cast and crew called Gail up to the stage and presented her with flowers.
It was only later that I learned the story behind the tears. Gail is one of the Hall County 100, teachers whose contracts will not be renewed next year.

That's a fine fare-thee-well. This woman has given so much, has still much more to offer our kids and she's being swept out the door like chalk dust.

I realize it's not a personal thing, just a matter of last hired, first fired. It doesn't make me any less disappointed at the thought that my Rachel won't get to benefit from working with this amazing educator.

Gail will, I'm sure, land on her feet. It would take a pretty shortsighted administrator to not recognize all she brings to the table. Oh, wait ... that already happened, didn't it?

Godspeed, Gail.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times on march 20, 2009

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Hats off to a Georgia city that turned it around

More than three decades ago, I graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in social work and counseling. I came back home to Georgia and proceeded to job hunt.

I made several treks to Atlanta to take state merit exams for positions like caseworker, counselor, behavioral specialist and the like. On a whim I also took the parole officer test. Wouldn't you know it, that's the one I aced.

I was supremely unqualified for the position: I'd never taken any criminal justice classes. I don't think I'd ever even met anyone who had been in prison. I can't believe I even got an interview, much less a job.

But this was a time when there was a big movement toward community-based corrections. Dozens of parole officers were being added to the ranks. I was offered a position in Columbus. I took the job without ever seeing the city. Good Lord, what was I thinking?

In 1977, Columbus was a city in decline. The downtown area was struggling. There were scores of shuttered businesses and, after dark, drug dealers and prostitutes took over the streets. If you were to drive through at midnight, you'd see a scene resembling a "Mad Max" movie.

It's not just that there was a lot of crime. It was gruesome crime, the sort that gets written up in tabloids.

Shortly after I moved to Columbus, the Wynnton Road Stocking Strangler began his rampage. In less than eight months, seven elderly women were sexually assaulted and strangled in their homes. I had rented a house two blocks off of Wynnton Road. It was an area under siege. Gun sales skyrocketed.

After 18 months, I was transferred to Gainesville. I left Columbus and never looked back. If I gave it a thought at all, it was one of relief that I no longer lived there.

When I was told that this year's Georgia Thespian Conference was going to be held in Columbus, my first reaction was, "What? Why?" Three thousand theatre kids all gathered in the armpit of the state. Great.

I had volunteered to help chaperone a busload of drama students from North Hall High School. Director Jan Ewing made it clear that she was counting on me so there was no backing out. I packed my pepper spray and boarded the bus. I wasn't looking forward to the trip. I figured it was something that would simply have to be endured.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. The Columbus of today bears no resemblance to the Columbus of 1977.

Now, it's a gem. There's the Riverwalk Convention and Trade Center in a restored Civil War iron foundry. There's the Springer Opera House, the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and beautiful wide downtown boulevards sprinkled with sculpture and fountains.

Columbus State University is a presence downtown (actually, they refer to it as "uptown") with an impressive campus at RiverPark. Around it has sprung up coffee houses and boutiques, art galleries and rental lofts. If I were looking at colleges, I'd look long and hard at CSU.

I'm happy to report that the North Hall kids represented you handsomely with two amazing performances of "The Miracle Worker." Helen Keller was portrayed by Catherine Foote. During the standing ovation following the first performance, I heard the man in front of me say, "I think she's really blind."

I couldn't contain myself. I tapped him on the shoulder and proudly announced, "No, she's not blind. She's just that good."

Everywhere I went, I met Columbus residents who where proud of their city and what has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. The catalyst occurred, they say, when their city was given the softball venue in the 1996 Olympics. Civic improvements that had been dragging along for years were suddenly put into overdrive. The results were astounding. Sound familiar?

I didn't have a car so I only saw a small portion of the Fountain City. I don't know what the rest of the town is like but I fully intend to go back and see at the first available opportunity. Road trip, anyone?

Originally published in the Gainesville Times March 6, 2009