Kansas

I have No Mouth and I Must Scream – A playwright’s response to #Ferguson

One of my favorite writers is the incomparable Harlan Ellison. Harlan once wrote a short story about a fickle “god” (in reality a computer) who manipulated and changed and warped a group of people for it’s own amusement. In the end there was one man who had no mouth and had to scream. Can you think of something so horrible? A need to scream, a warning to shout, anger to release, fear to vocalize and yet you have no mouth.

I am not that man. I have a voice. I am a writer, a wordsmith, an artist, a talespinner and a storyteller. I have a few publishing credits and a few people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I have a blog (obviously, you’re reading it now) and a few followers there who may read it (like you). I come form a place and background of some privilege (not as much as some, but more than others.) I have been blessed to travel to parts of the world that some of you never will go, I have stood on a volcano in Guatemala and on a beach in the Philippines. I have seen these countries natural beauty but also the dark side. Children in hospitals crying out and street urchins reaching, begging for a dollar. I’ve seen homes, shacks, that were barely liveable and offered no protection, let alone amenities. I have cried over the things I’ve seen. I can still feel the pull on my shirt of children going “Joe. Joe. Hey Joe, gotta dollar Joe?” 

But I haven’t just seen poverty in foreign countries. I’ve seen it here too. I spent formative summers in high school working on Mississippi Delta, working on homes that should have been demolished, or watching dozens of people living in a house made for a few. 

Some people will say I shouldn’t say anything even if I have a voice. To them I say, “If I don’t speak up who will” or as the famous saying goes “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So I will not stay silent, not about Ferguson, not about ISIS, not about arts in schools and arts education or any other subject I feel passionate about. 

There are people out there, in American towns like Ferguson, MO, who until two weeks ago, probably felt they didn’t have a voice. I KNOW that they felt they didn’t have a voice. I’ve heard their stories, people I know who are African-American and have experienced fear that what happened to Michael Brown, might happen to them. Fear, anger, and a lack of a voice lead to violence. When you answer violence WITH violence, the result is simply MORE violence.

When I was a kid, my folks had a gas grill, one day I was told to light the grill. I went outside, turned the gas on to high like I had done hundreds of times before, and went to light the match. Nothing. The wind was blowing and the matches wouldn’t take. I got more matches and finally got one to light the grill. However, I spent so much time messing around with the matches that when i touched the match to the grill, a flame leaped out and toward my face. I was lucky, I singed a few eyebrow hairs that’s all. What I didn’t know is that while I was trying to lit the grill to control the fire, the gas was building up until it “popped”.

That’s what happens when you have no voice. The gas just builds and builds and builds until it explodes.

I don’t have an answer, I wish I did. I pray I had an answer. I wish I could definitively say that if there was greater emphasis on arts in school, in painting, drama, writing, dance, etc, that the voiceless would find their voice. I think it helps. I know it has helped me, but that seems like such a simplistic answer in the face of such racial turmoil.  So maybe we need a little more arts education.

I want to say that if we just talked better, opened up communication and learned from one another these things wouldn’t happen. And that would help, I’m sure of it. I know my personal views on certain issues (not related to race) changed when I met people that believed different than I did. So maybe we need a little more communication.

I don’t know the politics of race that well, but I’m a student of history. I just finished a couple of plays that, at least to me, resonate, in these troubled times. One is about a young girl who moves to Lawrence, KS with her family at the dawn of the Civil War and why they moved there (to stop the tide of slavery). The other is about the most unlikely Civil Rights advocate you can imagine, a “bad guy” professional wrestler named Roscoe “Sputnik” Monroe, who was responsible for the intergration of Memphis, TN in the 50s. Sputnik Monroe’s story particularly struck me. Here was the most unlikely of heroes, an ordinary guy, who saw and injustice and fought for it. He was arrested six times, he was threatened and he threatened to give up his livelihood if there wasn’t intergration and it worked. I dont’ know if this is the full answer, but we could use a few more Sputniks, good men who aren’t afraid use their voice to speak for those that can’t.

You may feel you have no mouth and you must scream, but I assure you, you do, just try.

#Ferguson

Advertisements

Where Do We Go From Here?

2/28/14, 1pm UPDATE: In the past 50+ hours of my original blog post post going live, it has exploded like wildfire. This is my fault. I have encouraged people to share this blog on social media across Facebook, Twitter, etc. I originally thought I would get at best a 100 or so views. I wasn’t expecting the fast approaching 20,000 hits it has received so far. As the page view count grew so did my passion for this area and my desire to see it grow more.

As it has grown, I have received messages from all over the US expressing support and solidarity. I have also been told stories that break my heart about schools like this. These stories, coming out of Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, and others, continue to show that this is a subject which has touched off a lot of people. I have seen, in the very comments here, posts that I would consider bullying in nature, from fellow students and from parents. For that reason, I’m LOCKING THE COMMENTS SECTION DOWN and removing the sharing options. I’m sorry I have to be doing this, but I feel that it is for the students safety.

I have heard from fellow members of the senior class who played in the band that disagree with my statements and the facts as they were presented to me. I have invited them to share their thoughts.

I am also changing many aspects of this article, I’m removing the name of the town and the names of the students, from both the article and the comments section. I have also removed the original picture. This is for the students own safety and for their future.

I am also removing ALL contact links to the school in question.

I never imagined that this story would take off as it has, I never imagined it would become the juggernaut that it has become.

Thank you all for standing up for these two students. I am proud of what I wrote, I am proud of them. They are my heroes for taking an unpopular stand that they felt was right. #WeAreSeniorsToo

-Everett Robert
Emergency Room Productions
Feb. 28, 2014
1pm
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

So, if you haven’t heard, I wrote a blog a couple of days ago that has been getting a lot of attention. How much attention? Well, over 17,000 views since it went live early Wednesday morning. At the bottom of all my blogs there is a little “Share This” bar, the Facebook “Like” button has been hit 3.7K times. I’ve received comments, tweets, Facebook messages from across the state and the nation. I’ve heard stories that have made me cry because of how schools (schools across the nation!) have treated their children who choose to focus on their music, their art, their writing, their academics, their whatever instead of sports. How they’ve been ignored and mistreated. How funds they’ve raised have gone on to be used for the athletes, how teachers pay for things out of their own pockets and fight for their students. Stories about this being used to encourage other band students. Somehow #weareseniorstoo has started to bloom into something I never expected or anticipated.

In these messages, I’ve been asked “What can I do? What’s next?”

You maybe wondering that too, but didn’t know how to ask. Here’s my answer, short and sweet.

SUPPORT THE ARTS!

Don’t bully students that are involved in the arts, don’t pressure students into doing athletics if they don’t want to. Recognize student artists, student academics, student farmers, student volunteers. Don’t prioritize sports over everything else.

Sports is a fleeting moment in a person’s life, it lasts for a moment and then it’s gone. You may learn valuable lessons and hard lessons and that is good. But don’t prioritize it over everyone else and don’t romantize it. Support the arts. Go to concerts, plays, musicals, art shows, etc. If your school has a Twitter or Facebook page, encourage them to not just post the latest team scores but also the honor roll, when the FFA does well, the Scholars Bowl, the artists, etc.

#WeAreSeniorsToo

As always, you can Tweet @ me, you can Facebook me, or join me on Tumblr.

#WeAreSeniorsToo: A Follow up of sorts

2/28/14, 1pm UPDATE: In the past 50+ hours of my original blog post post going live, it has exploded like wildfire. This is my fault. I have encouraged people to share this blog on social media across Facebook, Twitter, etc. I originally thought I would get at best a 100 or so views. I wasn’t expecting the fast approaching 20,000 hits it has received so far. As the page view count grew so did my passion for this area and my desire to see it grow more.

As it has grown, I have received messages from all over the US expressing support and solidarity. I have also been told stories that break my heart about schools like this. These stories, coming out of Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, and others, continue to show that this is a subject which has touched off a lot of people. I have seen, in the very comments here, posts that I would consider bullying in nature, from fellow students and from parents. For that reason, I’m LOCKING THE COMMENTS SECTION DOWN and removing the sharing options. I’m sorry I have to be doing this, but I feel that it is for the students safety.

I have heard from fellow members of the senior class who played in the band that disagree with my statements and the facts as they were presented to me. I have invited them to share their thoughts.

I am also changing many aspects of this article, I’m removing the name of the town and the names of the students, from both the article and the comments section. I have also removed the original picture. This is for the students own safety and for their future.

I am also removing ALL contact links to the school in question.

I never imagined that this story would take off as it has, I never imagined it would become the juggernaut that it has become.

Thank you all for standing up for these two students. I am proud of what I wrote, I am proud of them. They are my heroes for taking an unpopular stand that they felt was right. #WeAreSeniorsToo

-Everett Robert
Emergency Room Productions
Feb. 28, 2014
1pm
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

As I am writing this, my last blog entry, We’re Seniors Too, has been viewed over 12,000 times. This was certainly not something I anticipated when I sat down to write it. My posts are usually seen in the 20-30 view range. I thought maybe I’d crack into the hundreds. But not this. I didn’t expect my comments to be filled up like they have been, I didn’t anticipate the thousands of shares of it on Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t expect this:

or this:

Lee Weber is the head football coach in Council Grove, KS (239 miles east of Hill City).  And I didn’t expect a retweet from Dr Chris Jocum of the University of Nebraska at Kearney (127 miles west of Hill City). But I got one:

I didn’t anticipate people from Colby, Dighton, Smith Center, Garden City, Hays, Phillipsburg, and other nearby towns to join in the discussion and stand up alongside these students. I didn’t expect it to be shared from people on the East Coast and people from the West Coast. I didn’t expect people in Texas and Michigan to share it. I didn’t expect page views from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Brazil and yet, they clicked and read. I shared my blog on a couple of writer’s groups on Facebook that I’m a part of. Locally, nationally, and internationally recognized writers from a variety of areas (playwrights, novelists, etc) “liked” the post, supporting student artists.

I don’t share this to “toot my own horn”, but rather to illustrate that this is obviously a touchy subject with a lot of passionate feelings on both sides.  I didn’t expect or anticipate this outpouring of support or vitriol. I wrote my original piece to shine a spotlight on two students who I felt were getting the short end of the stick. I wrote it in a moment of heat and passion, but that isn’t to say I regret what I wrote, because I don’t. I said it then, I’ll say it now, Smalltown High School SHOULD have recognized its senior pep band members properly alongside its basketball players, basketball managers, wrestling managers, and cheerleaders.

I didn’t write the piece to disrespect Smalltown High or to “whine” about these students’ treatment and they didn’t make their sign to whine about being left out, despite what some may say. This isn’t a “boo hoo me” situation as one commenter suggested. I wrote it because I felt that respect needs to be given to all students regardless of what their activity is.

In the past day, I’ve heard several stories about students, past and present who haven’t been recognized. I’ve heard about the Smalltown High Senior girl who has sung the national anthem at several home games and yet wasn’t recognized for her musical contributions on Senior Night. I’ve heard from former students of Smalltown High about how they never got recognized for their hard work in band and in the arts. I’ve heard from former students from other towns about how they didn’t get acknowledged either but how that has changed in their towns (some of them just a short distance away from Smalltown.)

I didn’t write We’re Seniors Too to shame any student athlete, they work hard and deserve their recognition, but as I mentioned in the original article and in my comments, the pep band works hard at creating an atmosphere of excitement. As one former Smalltown High alumni told me in person, “What kind of game do you have without the band there?”

In theater, we have what’s called a “curtain call”. If you’ve ever been to a live show or seen a movie or TV show that features a theater performance of some kind, you know what a curtain call is. It’s the bow the actors take at the end of the show. I used the curtain call as an analogy in one of my comments and I’ll share it here as well.

Imagine you are directing a production of say, Macbeth, and you need several young men to be soldiers in the final act. They would be in one scene and have no lines. Extras, if you will. You recruit players from your school’s sports team, football or basketball or whatever, to play these soldiers and they gladly volunteer their nights to come and march and grunt across the stage. They do sit around backstage and wait for their cue, then they march and go back backstage until the curtain call. They do this for the final rehearsals and for the performances. Would you recognize them at the end of the show? I would venture that most if not all schools would. They would have them do the curtain call, invite them to the cast party, maybe even give them flowers, their names would be included in the program. As well they should be!

Why shouldn’t our student artists, who work tirelessly on new song selections throughout the year for pep band in addition to the concert and contest pieces, who volunteer their nights month after month, be afforded the same opportunities?

As usual, weigh in on Twitter or on Facebook using the hashtag #WeAreSeniorsToo.

Contact me, I’m on Twitter @eerobert or on Facebook @ Emergency Room Productions. If you’re on Tumblr, I’m there as well.

Share this on and more importantly continue to share the original article on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you, on behalf of myself and these students, for your support.

We’re Seniors Too

2/28/14, 1pm UPDATE: In the past 50+ hours of this blog post going live, it has exploded like wildfire. This is my fault. I have encouraged people to share this blog on social media across Facebook, Twitter, etc. I originally thought I would get at best a 100 or so views. I wasn’t expecting the fast approaching 20,000 hits it has received so far. As the page view count grew so did my passion for this area and my desire to see it grow more.

As it has grown, I have received messages from all over the US expressing support and solidarity. I have also been told stories that break my heart about schools like this. These stories, coming out of Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, and others, continue to show that this is a subject which has touched off a lot of people. I have seen, in the very comments here, posts that I would consider bullying in nature, from fellow students and from parents. For that reason, I’m LOCKING THE COMMENTS SECTION DOWN and removing the sharing options. I’m sorry I have to be doing this, but I feel that it is for the students safety.

I have heard from fellow members of the senior class who played in the band that disagree with my statements and the facts as they were presented to me. I have invited them to share their thoughts.

I am also changing many aspects of this article, I’m removing the name of the town and the names of the students, from both the article and the comments section. I have also removed the original picture. This is for the students own safety and for their future.

I am also removing ALL contact links to the school in question.

I never imagined that this story would take off as it has, I never imagined it would become the juggernaut that it has become.

Thank you all for standing up for these two students. I am proud of what I wrote, I am proud of them. They are my heroes for taking an unpopular stand that they felt was right. #WeAreSeniorsToo

-Everett Robert
Emergency Room Productions
Feb. 28, 2014
1pm

Edited Post in

3…

2…

1…

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

I want to take you to Smalltown, KS located on the wild plains of western Kansas. The population is less than 1,500 people. It may be hard to believe that towns this size exist, but I assure you, they do.

I know about this town because my first two plays were performed there. In fact, I completed the script to that show less than a block away from the high school. I’ve eaten lunch there, performed there, lived there for three months. It’s a town I dearly love, but at the moment, I’m saddened by.

In a town that small, I’m sure you can imagine how small the school is. According to http://www.high-schools.com, total enrollment at Smalltown High is 166. Of those 166 students, 36 are seniors. Tonight, Feb 25, 2014, was their last home basketball game of the season.

In many schools across the state and the nation, the last home game is often recognized as “Senior Night.” I’ve seen it at high school football games, basketball games, etc. It’s a chance for the coaches, faculty, parents and fans to cheer and recognize the hard-working athletes, cheerleaders, sports managers in their last home game. There are two young people I know who are Smalltown High School seniors. But they are not part of “the team”, they are members of the band. And tonight, at their last home game as pep band members they did not get recognized alongside their classmates.

And here’s the kicker, they were promised they would be recognized and then that offer was rescinded. They were told they COULD be recognized at their spring concert. Which, according to one of the students, has “minimum to no attendance” and which she has “never seen” happen. So what did these brave students do? They stood up and made themselves recognized.

Let me put this out here right now, I have no problems with sports. I think sports have their place in high schools as much as music, theater, and the arts. As I’m typing this, I’m wearing a tee-shirt recognizing a Big 12 collegiate team, a hoodie from an area high school, and a Major League baseball cap. I got to sporting events. I even played sports for a little while in middle school and in high school.

But what I do have a problem with is athletes getting greater recognition then others. Whether they be players, managers or cheerleaders, they are NOT more important than their classmates who work just as hard, put in as many hours, with none of the glory and recognition. I fear and feel that this brings forth a culture of entitlement that carries on into later adulthood.

Do you want to know what this band and their members have done for Smalltown High School? From One of the band members,

 We have played pep band since sixth grade, long before the seniors who were recognized tonight played on that court, before the cheerleaders wore those uniforms, before the managers worked with the coaches. I have never ridden on a class float during the homecoming parade, because I have always marched. I have played in half times at college football games. I have taken music to contests and played in honor bands. I have played with Dallas Brass. I’ve played jazz band on top of a mountain in Aspen at a ski resort.

These band members were ambassadors for their school, but more than that, they were torchbearers and played as important a role in athletics as the athletes on the field or the court. In Biblical times, musicians often preceded the armies into battle and in beginning in the 16th century in Europe, armies would often have a drum and fife player who would play uplifting music to encourage the troops, as well as be used to convey orders. What is the purpose of a high school pep band but to uplift and encourage the crowd of spectators and the athletes. They work in conjunction with cheerleaders often times.

I’m writing about this, not because these students are friends of mine (although they are-they were part of my original show in Smalltown), not because I’m disappointed in a school or a town (although I am), but because this is symptomatic of our culture. We like to separate the “jocks” from the “geeks”. We like to pigeonhole and ghettoize groups of people. We place a disproportionate amount of praise on our student athletes while marginalizing and ignoring our student artists. I graduated high school almost 20 years ago, from a much larger high school, and felt the same thing. Student artists get the shaft while student athletes get the praise. I had hoped that our society had progressed beyond that.

I’ve blogged about this before, but it bears repeating; arts in education is vital to making our country better. Studies have “found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that children inevitably use in other areas. “A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning,” says Mary Luehrisen, executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation, a not-for-profit association that promotes the benefits of making music.” (PBS, 2013). And according to Fran Smith in a 2009 article on Edutopia, the website of The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), “Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork.”

Smith goes on to cite a 2005 Rand Corporation study which states, “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” meaning, basically, the arts can make a person’s life BETTER because they [the arts] are sweetening that person’s life, causing them to create closer social connections and bonds.

Music education can help with verbal skills, increase IQ, develop Spatial-Temporal skills. The brain works harder, causing increased test scores. Theater education can help with social anxiety and confidence, art education helps with motor skills and decision-making. The studies are out there for those who want to look.

Art Education plays a vital role and instead of ignoring those students, instead of promising something and then revoking it, the Smalltown School District (and by default ALL schools) should be CELEBRATING our student artists.

I can’t do much, but I can applaud these Senior students and I can write about this.

If you wish to join the discussion use the hashtag it #Weareseniorstoo so I can track it.

If you know of other stories like this, contact me via Twitter or my Facebook page and I’ll continue to bring this life. It’s time we took a cue from these Smalltown students and take a stand.

NEA Funding Cut

The following is a letter to the editor I sent out to two area newspapers here in Kansas provided by Americans for the Arts. While I understand that our government is looking for ways to make budget cuts and balance the budget, I feel that cutting the NEA is a poor place to start.

The U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has approved a bill that would cut the National Endowment for the Arts by 49%. I think this is a terrible idea and call on our congressional delegation to reject this cut.

According to Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts industry (museums, theater and dance companies, performing arts centers, orchestras, arts councils and others) generates $22.3 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues annually-a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations.

Because the National Endowment for the Arts supports artistic excellence and improves access to the arts by granting funds to nonprofit arts organizations I call on our federal officials to support an increase in funding for the NEA beyond its 1993 funding level of $174 million. That funding figure equals $277 million in today’s dollars.

Our schools need more arts education. Despite including the arts as being one of the 10 core academic subjects, the No Child Left Behind law has pushed arts classes to the side. Schools, especially those struggling, can retain their best teachers by becoming incubators for creativity and innovation; places where students want to learn and teachers want to teach. Students with an education rich in the arts have better grade point averages, score better on standardized tests in reading and math, and have lower dropout rates-findings that cut across all socio-economic categories. Congress should support an expansion of the federal arts education program to provide the best models for schools to include the arts in their curriculum.

Our rural communities contain some of the greatest cultural assets of our country. Rural economic development should be strengthened to help these communities promote the richness of their heritage and assist local artists with their entrepreneurship.

Across the country, the role of the arts as an economic engine is growing in acceptance and strength. I call on all lawmakers to support funding and policies at the federal level that would recognize the growth potential and direct benefits of encouraging cities and states to strategically invest in the arts in order to drive economic development.

I urge you to contact your Congressmen, write letters to the editor, etc and express your support for the National Endowment for the Arts. We have close to one month before this bill is debated again (on September 9) to make our voices heard. You can learn more by going to the AAmericans for the Arts blog.