By Ben Joravsky
It wasn't their plan, but the Pegasus Players have thrown a bright light on one of the dumbest moves recently made by local school officials.
Last month the north-side theater company announced that Imran Shahbaz, a student of Lane Tech High School creative writing and drama teacher Randall Bates, was one of four finalists in its annual young playwrights festival--giving Shahbaz the opportunity to have his play performed by professional actors on the Pegasus stage.
It was the eighth time in the last nine years that Bates has taught a finalist in the playwriting contest, a record unmatched by any other teacher. "Randy's one of the most dedicated teachers I've ever met," says Arlene Crewdson, Pegasus's artistic director. "Last year we gave him our Ovation Award [for outstanding teaching]; he lives to do theater and creative writing with those kids."
Unfortunately, Bates no longer teaches creative writing and drama (though he remains at Lane as an English teacher). In the spring principal David Schlichting relieved Bates of his position as the drama teacher (Neighborhood News, June 2); this fall he gave Bates's creative writing class to another teacher. "The man wins awards and gets fired--it's outrageous and it breaks my heart," says Crewdson. "The real losers are the students."
Lane officials won't comment, other than to say it's a personnel matter. But Bates says he's being punished for daring to speak out--or, more specifically, for publicizing the school's backstage safety hazards. Two weeks ago he filed charges against Schlichting, under a state law that prohibits whistle-blowers from being harassed.
All in all, the case adds a little extra drama to this year's Pegasus festival, which opened for previews on January 3. "I hope the whole theater community rallies around this issue," says Crewdson. "I don't think we can be silent."
The festival, one of the most prestigious in the country, draws upward of 400 entries from public and private school students throughout the city. The purpose, says Crewdson, isn't only to locate new writing talent, but to use theater and playwriting as tools to get kids interested in education.
"Learning has become so teacher oriented: the teacher talks and the class does nothing," says Crewdson. "But playwriting is so active--the kids are doing something. And it's very collaborative. The students comment on what each other writes. In some cases whole classes have contributed plays."
The entries, submitted in June, are read by actors, directors, writers, and stagehands; the best of the bunch are selected for a public reading over the summer. The four finalists have their one-act plays staged this month.
Aside from Shahbaz, this year's finalists are Patricia Colleen Nugent and Jeanne Sullivan of Saint Ignatius College Prep (taught by Richard Westley); and Katherinne Bardales of Saint Scholastica Academy (taught by Eugene Baldwin).
Nugent's play, Wisdom Teeth, tells the story of a teenage girl who's been sexually harassed and physically assaulted. "I wrote the play because I felt it's a testy subject that we shouldn't avoid talking about," says Nugent. "You shouldn't feel embarrassed if someone assaults you; and we shouldn't run away from tough issues."
Unjust persecution is a common theme in many of the entries. In The Interrogation, Shahbaz writes about a high school student falsely accused of armed robbery. "It opens with the kid, Ned, in the police cell," says Shahbaz. "The cops are coming in and asking him questions. There's a scuffle, and in the end the real robber is found.
"I wrote it because something like that happened to me and I know what it's like to be accused of something you didn't do. I revised my original draft after Mr. Bates told me it was too one-sided against the cops. He said that theatrically you have to give your characters more dimension. So I tried to make the cops more understandable."
Shahbaz says he sees some parallels between the fate of Bates and that of his play's protagonist. "It's not right what they're doing to Mr. Bates; he's a good guy who gives it all to the students," says Shahbaz. "He's the guy in society who's too radical for everyone else, so that's the guy you do it to. That's the guy you put the blame on."
For the last ten years, Bates has taught English, creative writing, and drama at Lane while annually directing two major student productions. School administrators rarely attended the productions or showed much interest in his work, says Bates. But last February he attracted their interest when he went to a local school council member to complain about filthy and potentially dangerous backstage conditions, including burned-out lights, a fire extinguisher chained to the wall, and electrical cords left on the floor.
Some repairs were made after the LSC member complained. But a few weeks later Bates was called into Schlichting's office and told he would no longer teach drama or be allowed to stage plays. The new drama teacher said she wouldn't stage any more major productions.
When students pleaded with administrators for the chance to complete their plans to perform The Diary of Anne Frank, the new teacher said that that work was too somber and that she preferred happy plays and light comedies.
The students staged a protest, walking around the school with picket signs, calling for the LSC and Schlichting to let Bates direct Anne Frank. But the LSC supported Schlichting's decision.
In September Schlichting again called Bates to his office, this time to tell him creative writing would be taught by another teacher. "He read a statement telling me about the reassignment," says Bates. "When I asked why he was doing this, he read the statement again."
Schlichting also gave Bates's old classroom to a new teacher. "It's just petty harassment in an attempt to embarrass and humiliate me," says Bates. "My entire professional library's in that room--roughly 300 books. They had me teaching out of four different classrooms. I was recovering from knee surgery and it must have looked pathetic to have me limping all over the building; so they assigned me to one room. My books are still back in the old room, though; my new room's so small, there's no place to put them."
In addition, Schlichting accused Bates of inciting students and parents to protest and asked the board to suspend him for 30 days. "The lawyers for the board offered me a plea bargain: admit to the charges and get away with a three-day suspension," says Bates. "I said, 'No way.' These charges are ridiculous. The word 'incite' has a real meaning to it. I didn't do anything like that. The students planned the protests on their own."
At his own expense Bates hired a lawyer and went to the central office for a hearing. "It was a one-day hearing involving eight witnesses, including five employees--so you can imagine how much money was wasted," he says. "Schlichting testified that I went around screaming at people. I had a student and a parent testify that I had nothing to do with those protests." And, in what Bates calls a "gutsy move," the department chair testified that Bates had worked well with others.
Two weeks ago the board hearing officer ruled in Bates's favor and rejected Schlichting's request for suspension.
But Bates is still not teaching creative writing, and the students still can't stage Anne Frank.
"It will take a generation to replace this loss," says Crewdson. "It will take that long before another teacher comes along willing to commit the time and energy Randy committed to those kids. He certainly didn't do it for the money--he did it for love of writing and theater. Now you know why so many teachers pull back and don't do anything. They see what happens to Randy and they think, 'I'm not getting involved.' We're making it harder to keep good teachers, and that's what the system needs most."
Bates says he hopes Schlichting will reconsider and allow him to stage Anne Frank, as many students continue to request. "Most of the kids who want to be involved in that play are Hispanic," says Bates. "I find it so moving that we have Hispanic kids in Chicago yearning to put on a play about a Jewish girl in Europe. This is exactly the kind of cross-cultural appeal we should be sending out."
Bates says he's also working with students who ask for help writing their plays for the next Pegasus contest.
"I don't always agree with the finalists Pegasus chooses, but I'm eternally grateful that they give kids a stage and an opportunity," says Bates. "I'll help any kid who wants to enter that contest, no matter what."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.