For the last seven years the stage at Lane Tech High School has been lit by innovative productions of classic comedies and tragedies staged by an English teacher named Randall Bates.
Under Bates's direction, countless students have gained confidence, overcome public-speaking anxieties, and won college scholarships while tackling complex classics such as Arthur Miller's The Crucible, J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, and Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.
So what did Lane's principal David Schlichting do for Bates as a token of appreciation? He fired him as the drama teacher and drama club sponsor and prohibited him from staging any more plays at the school. (Bates stays on as an English teacher.)
No one can say for certain why Schlichting did what he did, since the principal isn't talking to reporters. "When we make changes in personnel we're not going to explain them to anyone," says assistant principal Keith Foley. "It's a personnel matter."
For their part, Bates and his students suspect he was fired as punishment for having exposed serious safety hazards in the school's auditorium. But whatever the reason, Bates's sacking has been a disaster for the school at Addison and Western, a classic example of a top-down ultimatum delivered without explanation or consultation or regard for anyone even remotely involved. In one fell swoop Schlichting managed to enrage students, decimate a fine theater program, turn off prospective freshmen, and tarnish Lane's reputation by making it look like some sort of backwater run by blockheads.
If all that's not bad enough, the firing has forced the cancellation of The Diary of Anne Frank, which Bates had planned to stage in the fall. The new drama teacher told students Anne Frank's story is too somber for her--she prefers light comedies and musicals. Apparently they don't deny the Holocaust at Lane Tech; they only ignore it.
"If she knew they were going to do this, my daughter never would have wanted to go here," says a parent of one incoming freshman. "The main reason she chose Lane is Mr. Bates and his drama program."
Many of Bates's students are devastated. "It makes me want to cry when I think of what they did to Mr. Bates," says Jasmin Cardenas, 17-year-old president of the drama club. "He gives his time, effort, heart, and soul for students and they treat him like dirt. We had black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students ready to do a play about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. It could be a great learning experience. They're blowing everything."
As the drama club sponsor, Bates staged two major productions a year, each involving as many as 35 students, with almost no assistance from the school. Schlichting almost never attended a play and the students and Bates raised all their own money, as Bates donated his time for virtually no pay. They built their own sets on weekends, rehearsed for hours each day after school, and put on a week of performances with shows for students in the day and parents at night. Afterward they initiated discussions about the plays in their English classes, as was the case with The Children's Hour, Hellman's drama about a schoolgirl who maliciously accuses two of her boarding school teachers of being lesbians. "The feedback from students and teachers was fabulous," says Cardenas. "They thought about it and talked about it. We learned a lot from it."
In this way, Bates tried to use drama as a way to interest students in reading and literature. "I ask a lot from the students, but they come through," says Bates. "The hardest thing for me is turning kids down at auditions. We double-cast as much as possible but there's always some disappointed kids. I tell them not to worry, stay at it and you'll get better. I encourage them to build the set and work on props and to try again. We have wonderful stories. We had one student, Kristen Petrillo, who had her stage debut as a dead body. Before it was over she had major roles in Our Town and Playboy of the Western World."
Bates's downfall may be related to an ongoing feud with members of the stage crew, a student club with its own sponsor, a drafting teacher. Over the last few years Bates has complained that the stage crew was sabotaging his productions and making a mess of the stage. "The stage crew kids are in charge of lights and sound," says Bates. "They were irresponsible and unsupervised. They had taken over the green room for their clubhouse. They ate lunch there and left food wrappers and cans behind. It was filthy. We'd clean it up but they kept making it messy."
In addition to the filth, the stage area was a minefield of safety hazards: electrical cables and cords were left on the floor, the lights had burned out on the stairwell leading to the dressing room, and a fire extinguisher was chained to the wall. "There were even mice running around the stage," says Omar Cardenas, a junior who's not related to Jasmin. "We would be rehearsing and they'd run across our feet. In one performance a girl cut her finger on a door and another girl tripped on the stairs and sprained her ankle."
Bates says he pleaded with the stage crew's faculty sponsor to clean up the stage, but to little avail. "I took Foley on a tour of the stage," says Bates. "I showed him the filth and garbage and the burned-out lights. I said, "We can't tolerate these conditions.' Foley was appalled but he was noncommittal."
That tour with Foley was in December. By February no repairs had been made, says Bates. So he showed pictures of the filthy conditions to Jim Parker, a member of Lane's local school council. Within a few days the administration had sprung into action, sending repair crews to fix the lights and unlock the fire extinguisher.
After that, Bates thought the problem was solved. The spring performance of The Children's Hour went well, and on May 16 Bates issued flyers announcing auditions for Anne Frank. The next day Schlichting called him into his office.
"I was ambushed," says Bates. "Schlichting said I was being relieved of my duties as teacher of drama class and sponsor of the drama club because they wanted to rotate another teacher into those positions. I asked for a reason but they wouldn't give me one. They couldn't get past the statement that they were making a routine rotation as is their prerogative."
Coincidentally, the new drama coach, also an English teacher, is the stage crew sponsor's wife. "I have no bad feeling toward her," says Bates. "If she wants to teach drama class, fine. But why can't both of us direct? Why not give the kids as many opportunities as we can?"
That was exactly the question drama club members put to Foley when they met with him. "Mr. Foley told us that the drama class teacher had to be the sponsor of the drama club," says Jasmin Cardenas. "He said that they had never split the positions and they would never split the positions and that was that. I said, "But if the students want Mr. Bates, why get rid of him?' And he said they were rotating positions to give the new teacher a chance."
But in a later meeting with students, the new drama coach said she never asked for the job. "She said she didn't even have the time to do any major productions," says Omar Cardenas. "We said, "What about Anne Frank?' I mean, this is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and it's a perfect time to teach kids about anti-Semitism and prejudice. She said she didn't want to do plays like Anne Frank. She said, "That's not my forte. I'm not into somber plays. I want to do happy comedies."'
Foley contends that students will benefit from the change. "From what I understand they will be doing things by going out in the community," says Foley. "They'll be doing skits and songs at old people's homes and orphanages."
Such outings, students say, while fun and useful, can't compare to full-fledged productions. As they see it, the situation is akin to replacing the football coach with a neophyte who substitutes intramural scrimmages for interschool games. "They would never let that happen to the football team," says Xochitl Gamez, a junior member of the drama club. "They're not taking theater seriously. Here you have kids wanting to do more work and the school says no. It doesn't make sense."
On May 24, about 70 students staged a protest rally, circling the school, carrying a sign, and chanting their cause while a light rain fell. One student, Jill Bernstein, taped the protest on a video camera. Another student, Cheryl Almonte, recipient of the prestigious Golden Apple Award college scholarship, grabbed a bullhorn and shinnied up a light pole so she could be seen by the crowd. "Mr. Bates stood up for us," Almonte called out. "We have to stand up for him."
Taking it all in from the steps outside the auditorium were several school security guards shielded from the rain by an awning. On May 25 Bernstein was charged with standing on school grounds while taping the protest and suspended for two days.
The students say they will not be intimidated, vowing to take their case to the LSC, which meets on June 14. "We'll go to the Board of Education if we have to," says Jasmin Cardenas. But other observers figure the controversy will blow over once the current crop of juniors and seniors graduates and is replaced by a new generation of students who have no inkling of the opportunities they're missing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.