- Emily Schwartz
- Cassy Sanders and McKenzie Chinn in Joe Zarrow’s Principal Principle
Kaufman—who died last week—wrote Up the Down Staircase, one of the great satires about teaching high school in a big city public school system, back in 1965.
I read that book a bunch of times when I was a kid. Also saw the movie starring starring Sandy Dennis, on whom I may have had a crush—or two.
Anyway, Zarrow is sort of like Kaufman’s spiritual descendent. That is, his play is an current-day account of the state of high school teaching in urban America.
Sad to say, not much has improved.
His setting is Chinua Achebe Academy High School, a “95 percent African-American public high school in a middle-of-the-road neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side,” as the playbill explains.
Hmm, sounds a lot like Kenwood Academy High School.
Instead of getting barraged with idiotic memos—like the teachers at Calvin Coolidge High School in Kaufman’s novel—Zarrow’s teacher are bombarded by Ruby, the clerk who controls the school’s public address system.
Ruby’s constantly interrupting class time with bossy announcements like “Any student found wandering through the halls after school without an approved after-school activity will be assigned Saturday detention.”
Then she repeats the message, because either the students are too stupid to get it in the first time or it’s her passive-aggressive way of tormenting everyone.
Zarrow’s play has got high-stakes testing, central-office ultimatums (which change from day to day), data-obsessed bureaucrats, and rookie teachers who’ve just finished a crash course on teaching at some Teach for America-like academy.
All he needs is a megalomaniacal mayor eager to make a national name for himself by busting the teachers’ union and he’d have Chicago to a T.
Can’t ask for it all.
He’s even got a great debate over the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn to black kids.
Young white teacher: So you guys don’t like Huck Finn?
Older black teacher: Jim is a complete dunce. It’s a nightmare to go through all the Missourah dialect with kids who never did phonics. And the ending sucks. Who was the last person to teach Huck Finn?
Denise: Mr. Strunk. Late 90s.
Ah, good old Mr. Strunk—old-school as hell.
A word about the character Denise (played by Barbara Roeder Harris)—I love that lady! A 33-year-veteran of the system with one year—and counting—before she can get the hell out, she proudly waves the union flag.
Mostly ’cause she knows teachers would be as replaceable as fast-food workers without one.
Well, I’m no theater critic—that’s for sure. But when the play was over I stood and cheered and said to the guy behind me: Great play, man!
Turns out that guy was Zarrow, the playwright—in the flesh.
We chatted for awhile. He’s a 35-year-old former high school English teacher who grew up in Virginia, graduated from NYU, and came to Chicago in 2004. He taught for four years at Kenwood high.
“I left teaching in 2010,” he said. “I wanted to write. But truth is I wasn’t really a very good teacher. It’s hard—it’s really hard.”
Amen to that.
I urge everyone to see it—especially you teachers. If nothing else, it’s good to know you’re not alone.
Principal Principle Through 8/17: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $20-$32