14 February 2006

Trouble right here in River City!

[Consider this as my Valentine's Day card to all my teacher friends, who give us all so much to cherish.]

OK, so it’s actually a story from Fulton, Missouri. It seems that the local Fulton High School drama teacher, Wendy DeVore, has gotten herself into some trouble recently. According to this NYT story, she put on a high school production of the musical Grease, which is apparently the second most frequently performed musical on school stages (behind Seussical, go figure). Ms. DeVore apparently went to some efforts to soften some of the sharper edges of Grease, excising some profanity and having the kids smoke cigarettes instead of weed.

Anyway, these efforts apparently weren’t good enough for the good people of River City, I mean Fulton, at least not good enough for three of them (who all happen to belong to one particular conservative church). They wrote letters to the school superintendent, Dr. Mark Enderle, complaining that the production featured scenes including kissing, drinking, smoking, and other “immoral behavior”. Dr. Enderle capitulated to the letter-writers and agreed that Grease was unsuitable for a high school in his district.

OK, so I can understand that the full version of Grease is pretty racy, although I have to admit that when I first saw the movie version in 1978, I completely missed the reference in the number Greased Lightning to the car’s being a…umm…vehicle for picking up chicks. But then again, I was a pretty conservative teenager; I also preferred Olivia Newton-John in her good-girl Sandy look, rather than her converted-greaser look at the end of the film, but that’s just me. Still, a PG-rated film that the school’s drama teacher edits further to make it less offensive seems like reasonable high school fare to me. And hey, if you don’t want your kid to take part in it, tell them not to audition – or maybe have your daughter accept the role of Sandy but not Rizzo. Oh, and if you don’t want to see it, don’t buy a ticket.

But the good Dr. Enderle didn’t stop there. Apparently concerned about future controversial subject matter, he went ahead and cancelled the school’s planned spring production, which just happens to be the second most frequently produced drama on school stages (number one is A Midsummer Night’s Dream). What’s the controversial play that the good people of Fulton needed to be protected from? Why, it’s none other than Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. According to an internal memo, Dr. Enderle cancelled this play after reading this description: "17th century Salem woman accuses an ex-lover's wife of witchery in an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play."

For those of you not familiar with Arthur Miller’s play, he wrote this in response to the “witch hunts” of his time, namely the Congressional hearings of the 1950s headed by Joe McCarthy seeking to weed out supposed Communist sympathizers. The play doesn’t focus on the affair, but rather on the hysteria and fear in the town of Salem during the witch trials.

Does the Fulton School District have no sense of irony? Their response to a handful of parents raising cries of outrage about a relatively benign musical is to cancel a play that’s critical of witch-hunt fear and hysteria? What’s next, banning Fahrenheit 451 (a classic book by Ray Bradbury about a future filled with book burnings) from the school libraries?

Where will these religious extremists strike next? Along with the efforts to ban the teaching of evolution, are we now in for a new plague of literary censorship? How can a school district that bans The Crucible possibly allow Romeo and Juliet, with its teenage romance and double suicide? What about the patricide and incest of Oedipus? And let’s not forget those who want to teach the Bible as literature in the schools – what about those polygamous patriarchs, or the supposedly virtuous King David who sends his lover’s husband into battle to be killed so he can have her to himself?

If you’re offended by this stuff as much as I am, get involved in your local school district. If you’re a parent, take part in those PTA meetings. If you’re politically inclined, check out some school board meetings. Oh, and if you want to give an earful to the Fulton, Missouri school district in support of Ms. DeVore, why not do what I did and email Dr. Enderle at Mark_Enderle@fulton.k12.mo.us. (Note: I have notified Dr. Enderle of this blog article and invited him to comment.)

There are real problems in our schools today – gang violence, teenage pregnancies, misguided federal programs that force teachers to “teach to the test” instead of teaching critical analytical skills (and burdening the local districts with unfunded federal mandates), and efforts to roll back decades of scientific educational advances. The arts and music and literature are already under enough pressure from budgetary and time constraints; let’s not let them fall victim to the axes wielded by the witch-hunters as well.


kitty cat said...

Can you imagine the reaction these silly people would have had to our high school production of "A Streetcar Named Desire?" (Yep, I played Stella.) We also did Equus (stabbing 6 horses' eyes out with a metal spike as a theme) and Paint Your Wagon (I never realized how racy our can-can dance was until I saw the video one parent did). After I graduated, they did J.B. and West Side Story. I feel very sorry for that drama teacher, having her productions cancelled. And what kind of world do we live in that a supposedly educated high school principal doesn't know what The Crucible is about?!?!? I never thought it possible to pass high school English without reading it! I guess standards must fall if one is to prevent the children from ever hearing of anything bad happening to anyone in America. (Heck, even Our Town has some misty moments...I presume that is the most-often performed drama?)
So I think the most upsetting part of this whole brouhaha, for me as a teacher type, is that one can become a high school principal in Missouri (the state from which half my family hails, BTW) without knowing one of the most important works of American literature. This reminds of what I heard on NPR this morning (in re the idiots who want standardized tests for college): that 50% of college graduates in the US cannot understand a newspaper article or do the basic math necessary to calculate a 15% tip. I suppose our Dr. Enderle is one of that 50%? (I presume this man also has a Ph.D. from an accredited institution? I sure hope it isn't any of mine!)

Anonymous said...

Good evening,

I just wanted to send a note to say thank you for your kind words of inspiration regarding the NYT's article. As you can imagine, it has been crazy here in Fulton, MO. Everyday brings new stories, letters and emails.

Last week was a rather frustrating as the Fulton Sun; our local paper who started this coverage, posted a letter from Dr. Enderle stating that the show was never "banned" as well as mentioning that he came to talk to the students the day the article came out. This was distressing to the students because they and I felt that he had "used them" to make himself look better. Another slap in the face for them.

Unfortunately, they will not be able to let people know this because the Fulton Sun made a statement that it agreed with Dr. Enderle and would no longer post letters about this topic. Underneath the printed article was a passage from the bible Proverbs 18.2 (this is only in the printed ed., not the on-line ed).

I am not a vengeful person by nature and had agreed to let this fade away and to focus on looking for options for new employment for next year (still no word on my contract at this point). However, this second injustice to the students as well as his denial of the facts, makes it hard.

I am not writing this letter to stir up more anger or provoke anything, but to thank you, make the truth known, keep you updated on a situation in which you expressed a great interest.

Thank you again for your kind words.

Wendy DeVore