Debbie came to work with her sweater tied around her waist. For that, she got a letter of reprimand from the principal. Debbie is beautiful, Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern, and extraordinarily competent after only two years on this job. So, of course, the principal hates her. But she doesn’t ask why.
I miss The Why Jar. Lenny Gates used to keep The Why Jar. But, sadly, it is a custom that has, like so many great customs, fallen into disuse.
When I first began at this school, everyone had to put a quarter into The Why Jar every time someone asked why-question, a how-question, or tried to use logic when confronted with absurdity. For example, one might ask, “Why am I making two copies of lesson plans nobody reads?” There’s a quarter for The Why Jar. Or, “How am I supposed to answer the vice-principal when she says, Don’t forget – What was it? – you’ll remember then remind me”? Cha-ching goes The Why Jar. Sometimes you can compound a Why Jar Violation, like “Why do they make announcements before school? How are the kids supposed to act on that announcement when some of them are not even off the bus yet? Here’s what they need to do …”. Such a compound cost Sullivan about sixteen bucks one lunch. Art The Art Teacher just drops-in a saw-buck every once in a while, this for violations he makes while ranting to himself. At the end of the year, we treat ourselves to lunch. I think the year we started state testing, we treated ourselves to The Ritz.
Speaking of the state test, rumor has it that The Great State is opting out of No Child Left Behind! Instead, there will be a leaving exam created by the state. This does give rise to consideration of Publius’ Third Law Of Educational Dynamics — A bad idea in motion tends to stay in motion until it is acted upon by another bad idea. Nonetheless, there is some cause for celebration.
I’m also a little worried about the loss of material. Some folks are inspired by beauty. I’m inspired by absurdity. That said, beauty comes and goes, but absurdity is forever. I’m actually somewhat comforted by my wife’s notion that “We live in a stupid state,” because there will always be fresh material. And we do live in a stupid state. I thank Jesus for Arkansas and Alabama, because that’s the only reason my state comes in 48th on most shit lists.
On a brighter note, the School Board and the City Council today are honoring our basketball team for being State Champions. I’m also touched by the comment of one sports reporter, who notes how polite our kids are. And it’s true — they clean-up real good. It’s nice to have something unequivocally good to celebrate.
Speaking of good news, I just heard that Valerie this year graduates from Howard, and is going to Georgetown law school next year. I almost cried when her mother emailed me the news. I taught Valerie in 7th grade. That middle school had all the sadness, indeed tragedy, of a Black ghetto school in America. Three of her classmates were killed in drive-bys. One got killed when her older sister was driving 90 down Lakeside Boulevard. But Valerie made it to law school. And her old teacher almost cried. Why? Because today I didn’t need to ask why I do this job.
reviewed by Dylan Jesse
Zanna, Don’t!. By Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Robert C.T. Steele. Musical Direction by Harry Jamison. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. February 14 through March 3, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Sunday Matinees at 2PM.
Pittsburgh in the last bitter throes of winter is not known for the kind of vivid color and unbridled exuberance that Zanna, Don’t!, the Off Broadway hit by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, brings to the stage in the current production by the Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. And I, for one, am grateful that it does. Zanna, Don’t! walks a fine (and fantastic) line between a whimsical drama of troubled high-school romances and the deeply heavy issue of intolerance in a culturally-inverted world where chess-team captains are school sex symbols and the most shocking thing imaginable is a heterosexual kiss scene in the school play. No, Zanna, Don’t! is not a subtle exploration of these themes but the points that it makes are not only timely but timeless. With a run time of an hour and forty minutes (done without intermission, no less), Zanna, Don’t! is a lively and blistering musical production that charges straight into the questions of what it means to fall in love in a time and place that rigidly proscribes what is and is not an acceptable expression of what the heart desires.
The world of Zanna, Don’t! is something of a photo-negative reflection of small-town American adolescence re-done in sequins and Technicolor. Set in the halls and hangouts of Heartsville High, the play follows the lives of students in a world where same-sex pairings are not only the norm, but the only thinkable option. The school DJ, Tank (played with incredible energy by Jay Garcia) reminds everyone, “Girls grab your girl, and guys grab your guy,” as the play begins with an upbeat number that introduces one of the most memorably over-the-top characters on the whole production: Zanna (played magnetically by Rocky Paterra). Zanna is part fairy godmother in lightning-patterned fuchsia pants, part magic wand wielding cupid in a gold-fringed jacket (complete with wings, of course). In this Gilbert and Sullivan-esque world where the marginalized have become the mainstream, Zanna is the incessantly optimistic magical match-maker. The score, it should be noted, is flawlessly delivered by a live group of musicians up center stage under the sharp leadership of conductor and pianist Harry Jamison. The music itself is a suitably vivacious mix of ’50s and ’70s pop-influenced numbers that keep the whole production clipping along through the uninterrupted run time.
Music aside, Zanna finds himself entangled in a slew of romantic shake-ups, not the least of which is his quest to light a fire in the hearts of the bashful school heart-throb (due to his standing as chess team captain, of course) Mike (played by Ethan Miller) and the new boy in school (and lowly football quarterback) Steve (played by Aric Berning). Among the moments to watch out for with these two are a scene at a Heartsville High football game wherein (through a novel use of strobe lighting) Steve in all of his pink-sequined uniformed glory wins the game with a touchdown by catching his own pass, and the locker room scene afterward where Zanna and Tank conspire (with several comically frustrated attempts) to make the two swoon with the power of a well-timed radio request. The comedic abilities of the cast as a whole are not to be under-rated: between the cheeky writing and the just-too-much nature of a musical about high-school romance, the cast delivers an energetic performance that keeps the audience laughing while challenging the authority of socially-informed notions of right and wrong regarding sexual orientation. And when else are you going to see a world in which a high school has a competitive mechanical bull-riding team (and I might be showing my ignorance here, but is that a thing?), and it is firmly seated at the apex of female social structure?
The social critique comes to a real head when Mike, our dreamy chess team captain, proposes a new play for the school musical—one that dares to ask the question of whether straights should be allowed in the military. In his words, “If musical theatre doesn’t address important issues, what will?” Just one in a slew of subverted expectations, the question itself provides the vehicle whereby this play gains its strongest and most culturally relevant grounds. It should be noted here that new boy Steve’s two dads are both generals in the army, and they are certain to be in attendance. Steve is faced with the most daunting and controversial aspect of the performance: an actual, real-life, on-stage heterosexual kiss. In the world of Zanna, Don’t!, the military is still a staunchly conservative (read: homo-normative) culture, and this is where we really start to see the fruits of the play’s often reductionist social inversions.
In our own world, it has only been since September 20th, 2011, that the federal law banning openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or DADT) was done away with. And still we read stories in the news about organizations like the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting openly homosexual men and boys from joining their ranks. As progressive as we may think our society to be, the threat of discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a thing of the past—it is terrifyingly real and often much more than just a threat. The power of this production is its ability (both through the writing and the abilities of the actors under the keen directorial eye of Robert C.T. Steele) to present its audience with a context that affords even the most comfortably heterosexual audience member with a much-needed “what-if” lesson in empathic understanding. In the world on stage, the opposite-sex kiss inevitably leads to an off-stage romance between Steve and his female counter-part (played by Liz Dooley), one which they try their best to in turn ignore, deny, hide, then embrace as they plan to escape to that great shining bastion of heterosexuality: San Francisco.
I would love to tell you how all of it ends, but that not only ruins the fun, it is beside the point. The point is the message: that love is love no matter who feels it; that the heart wants what it wants apropos of no one’s approval; that football uniforms could seriously use some more sparkle. The Pitt Repertory Theatre’s production of Zanna, Don’t! more than meets the challenge of a musical performance that is as demanding on its actors as it is rewarding to its audience. What’s more, the Pitt Repertory Theatre is partnering with area GLBT organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, and Persad to host after-show community discussions to address issues concerning not just the GLBT community, but everyone who knows that love is something we all share, even if we do not always share it with each other.
I couldn’t come up with any actual reason why I shouldn’t go to the faculty meeting. I’m healthy, of sound mind, and have no pressing engagements.
The only serious agenda, at least at my table, was why Mr. Gates has a bra hanging in a tree just outside his classroom’s window. It’s just out of reach, and, for that reason, will remain there for the life of the tree. We ask, and he just responds, “Don’t ask.” Thus are we forced to turn to the meeting’s actual agenda.
The meeting’s topic is “The High Quality Learning Environment.” We’re told that we must address the question, “What does learning look like?”
Each table is to discuss, and put on a chart, various aspects of “The High Quality Learning Environment”. Scintillating topics such as Teacher Interaction With Students, Expectations Of Learning, and Regulation Of Instruction. My gang drew Topic #4, The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions. We have twenty minutes until we are to share.
Mr. North suggests we begin by joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” My immediate response is, ‘Well, I’m senior teacher at this table, so my teaching environment from here on is pretty much summarized by simply saying, Fuck All. You folks are going to have to …’. My buddies give me that “Oh, hell no!” thing, and elect me group spokesman.
Our next response is some minutes of numbed silence. Then Sullivan asks, “What, in the name of Sweet Jesus, is a managed transition?”
‘I think it’s something like foreplay. I think we should discuss the planning, managing and measuring of foreplay.’ At which point everyone ignores me, their leader. We’re to outline our response to # 4 on a large sheet of paper, and present this, in ten minutes now, to our colleagues. So respond we do.
The paper is three feet long. Our actual responses look a little measly –
have an agenda
remind kids of the time
remember to remind kids to work
Since I’m to do the presenting in like seconds now, my first question is, ‘What is sequential symmetry?’
Gates says, “It means do the first thing first, the second thing second, the third thing, and make sure the second thing is harder than the first, the third harder than the second, and like that. Sequential symmetry is the latest in teacher jargon.”
‘We actually have a term for this? We don’t have a term for when some wanker leaves one square of toilet paper on the old roll, and thinks this relieves him of his duty to go get a whole new roll. But we get sequential symmetry?’ But mostly I’m worried that I’m expected to present a chart full of mostly nothing.
So I say to Sullivan, ‘We need like, you know, words or something. I don’t mean words that mean anything, just teacher words. Like sequential symmetry. People are expecting me to say, you know, words. I’m the spokesman for # 4. Wait. I got it — put this on the chart. Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation. That sounds transitional, right? Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation? Yea. Put it up on the chart.’
Sullivan refuses to have her name associated with any of this.
When finally I hear, “Number Four. The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions.”
‘That’s, ah, that’s us. Me. OK, planning, managing and measuring transitions. First, the teacher needs an agenda.’ Which garners me blank stares from the entire faculty. Then I say, ‘Second, an instructor needs sequential symmetry.’ More blank stares. At which point I forget how Gates just explained sequential symmetry. So I add, ‘Sequential symmetry is defined as an anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation.’ I quickly finish, without elaboration, the last two points.
I’d like to say everybody laughed. My buddies laughed. Sullivan almost peed. But folks just stared. Some of the young teachers took notes.
The meeting went on to # 5, The Performance And Assessment Of Non-Verbal Duties.
Reading The Illiad
The sons of the sons of the sons
go on fighting the sons of the sons of other sons
or even the same sons
and it is forever and it is now
in these lines with their long vowels we will only hear
in echoes in the names we learned as children
for cartoonish gods and tender parts of our own
anatomy—a rubbery tug in back of the ankle—
but still the language surviving
improbably down these thousands of years
to this early spring morning with some of its trees
slipping new leaves through light wind
and the bare locust still black and unmoving
as the Styx, as the river
of absence. And the killing surviving
within that unmoving river of language
we enter at any point
to find the filthy darkness cowling across
an almost anonymous pair of eyes, the bronze armor
leadening to earth as though death
entered us first as speech, as though it were given
to us at birth with these signs
we cluster out of the air or trace so carefully
over ruled lines. So that it lives in us
as a precision or practice, with the clouded
exactness of memory,
and we grow toward it
as if the river should flow to its source,
or as when a tree, some giant fir, falls
on a mountainside after a blizzard has fastened
over its branches—the wind grinds it
until the great roots start to shiver—and the snow
once weighting the branches resurrects in a cloud
that seconds the storm, that bodies the air.
The edges filling in
like a city that’s sinking,
a city that’s been lost
to its own element
and has found another,
less hospitable but not
out of the question. And when
the doctor shone the spectrum
directly into my eye
I could see
the capillaries forking lightning
about the retina,
shredding up the blood sky.
For days the images
reversing themselves back there
had been puckering away
from the center
like spacetime sinkholing
near a massive planet. Afterwards,
walking through Koreatown,
dodging in the shadows
because all light pained,
in a language of keyholes,
places for dumplings and
little bowls of sea-tasting cabbage—
you put it in your mouth
because any wave runs till it breaks.
Coal Hill Review Chapbook Contest Winners!
The co-winners of the 2012 Coal Hill Chapbook Prize are Prayers of an American Wife by Victoria Kelly of Virginia Beach, Virginia and Rooms of the Living by Paul Martin of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Both chapbooks are now available in attractive paper editions available from Autumn House. In addition, Paul’s collection is now available as Volume 12 of Coal Hill Review which you can read by clicking the link at the bottom of the left column of this page. Victoria’s collection will be published online as Volume 13 in September 2013.
Coal Hill Review accepts poetry submissions only through our chapbook competition. The winner receives $1,000 and publication in paper and online. For more information visit our submissions page, here.
The winner of the 2011 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize was Bath House Betty by Matthew Terhune of Chatsworth, California. The link to his chapbook appears at the bottom of the left column of this page as the Spring 2012 edition of Coal Hill Review, as well as in an attractive paper edition available from Autumn House. There were approximately 300 submissions to the 2011 contest and approximately 400 to the 2012.
More Featured Poets
Chana Bloch is the author of three books of poems, including the prize-winning Mrs. Dumpty; her new collection Blood Honey is available through Autumn House Press. She is co-translator of the biblical Song of Songs, now a Modern Library Classic; The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai and his Open Closed Open; and Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. She has received awards from the NEA, in poetry and translation, the NEH, the Rockefeller Foundation, PEN, and the Poetry Society of America.
Jo McDougall’s most recent books of poetry are Dirt and Satisfied With Havoc, Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh. Widely anthologized, she has won awards from the DeWitt Wallace/ Reader’s Digest foundation and the Academy of American Poets. Her work has been adapted for film, theater, an artist’s book, and contemporary classical compositions. Towns Facing Railroads, a compilation of her poetry, was recently produced by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
Andrew Zawacki is the author of three poetry books Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House), Anabranch (Wesleyan), and By Reason of Breakings (Georgia) and of the chapbooks Arrow’s shadow (Equipage); Georgia (Katalanche), co-winner of the 1913 Prize; Roche limit (tir aux pigeons); Bartleby’s Waste-book (Particle Series); and Masquerade (Vagabond). A former fellow of the Slovenian Writers’ Association, he edited Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 (White Pine) and edited and co-translated Aleš Debeljak’s new and selected poems, Without Anesthesia, due in fall from Persea. His translation, from the French, of Sebastien Smirou, My Lorenzo, is forthcoming from Burning Deck. He teaches at the University of Georgia.
Miranda Field’s first book, Swallow, won a Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Award. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, and has received a Discovery/The Nation Award and a Pushcart Prize. She was born and raised in London, UK, and currently teaches poetry at the New School and New York University. She lives in New York City with poet Tom Thompson and their two children.
Clyde Kessler lives in Radford, VA with his wife Kendall, an artist, and his son Alan. His home has Kendall’s art studio called Towhee Hill. He has published several poems in the past couple of years online in magazines such as Barnwood, Boxcar Poetry Review, Contemporary Haibun Online, Sugar Mule, Wazee, and Xelas Magazine.
Elizabeth Onusko received an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Fordham University. She is the Managing Editor of Guernica: a Magazine of Art and Politics (GuernicaMag.com). Her work has appeared in Poetry East and is forthcoming in The Briar Cliff Review.
Liz Rosenberg is the author of 5 books of poems, most recently The Lily Poems (Bright Hills), a chapbook of poems about adoption, and Demon Love, from Mammoth Press. She is also the author of the novel Home Repair, (Harper/Avon) about a middle aged woman whose husband walks out on her in the middle of a garage sale. Target selected Home Repair as its Break Out Book for June. It is also available in a Large Print Edition. Liz teaches English at the State U of NY at Binghamton.
Karen Steinmetz lives in the Hudson Valley and teaches at Manhattanville College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Poetry Review, Inkwell, Poet Lore, Illuminations, So To Speak, The Midwest Quarterly, and The Carquinez Poetry Review. Her young-adult novel The Mourning Wars is forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press.
Mark Sullivan’s first collection of poetry, Slag (Texas Tech University Press, 2005), won the Walt McDonald First Book Series competition. His other awards include a “Discovery”/The Nation Prize and a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cream City Review, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.
© 2010 Autumn House Press