Posted by Jessica Cuthbertson on Saturday, 12/27/2014
Note: I wrote this letter after taking a group of 8th graders on a field trip to see a live performance of “A Christmas Carol.” While the experience was memorable and enjoyable, an interaction between a docent and one of my students has been bothering me ever since. Have your students been treated unfairly in public because of their age, appearance, skin color, or because they were associated with a particular school? If you’ve witnessed bias, prejudice, or racial profiling firsthand I hope you will join this conversation, so that we might collectively problem solve how to create a more equitable education system for all students.
December 26, 2014
Dear Denver Center for the Performing Arts Staff:
A few weeks ago I received an early Christmas present. I was notified by a Student Matinee Associate at the DCPA that a school group had just cancelled their scheduled field trip to see “A Christmas Carol.” This cancellation created 60 available seats for students at my school. Coincidentally, my 8th graders had been hoping for a December class field trip. You can imagine the excitement and joy it brought me to tell them that not only could all 25 students in our literacy class attend the performance free of cost, but that 35 additional 8th graders from our school would be able to join us for the experience.
With great anticipation we booked buses, collected permission slips, and organized sack lunches. The day before our field trip one of my students asked, “So, where is this movie we’re going to see, anyway?” It was then that I realized many of my students had never been to the DCPA or any type of live performance outside of school events before. I took time during that class period to explain to students what to expect and we brainstormed and charted what respectful audience behavior entails. We talked about the difference between going to the movies and attending a live performance. I asked my students to raise their hands if they had ever experienced a live performance outside of school. A small handful of white students from the surrounding middle class neighborhood hesitantly raised their hands. The rest of the class did not. I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked or surprised, but in the moment I was. This discussion reminded me of the socioeconomic gap that is a daily reality for many of my students. My heart swelled knowing that this experience could be life changing for some students. Perhaps it might even open up artistic avenues and possibilities they hadn’t yet considered pursuing in high school and beyond.
Attending live theater performances was an integral part of my own childhood. I was raised in rural Colorado and my parents did an amazing job of exposing me to the performing arts at a young age. I fondly remember attending musicals, plays, ballets, and other special events at the DCPA. My love for the theater continues today, and I am a current season ticket holder for the Denver Center Theater Company. I wondered in the days before the scheduled student matinee performance who was more excited -- my students who would experience live theater for the first time -- or me, the teacher who would get to watch them have this experience?
The bus ride to the theater on Thursday, December 11th was filled with contagious energy. Students giggled, sang along to the pop radio station blaring on the radio, and spoke excitedly about the upcoming performance. As students spilled out of the bus I began to get nervous. I had reviewed theater etiquette and expectations but I had never taken this large of a group to the theater before. I felt responsible, not only for each individual student, but also for ensuring that our school publicly received a positive reputation as a result of this group. I whispered last-minute reminders and realized when I looked at the sea of smiling faces that I needn’t worry.
The students were prepared and appreciative. They too, wanted to make the school, their peers, and their teachers proud.
When we entered the lobby filled with other school groups, my fears subsided. Knowing the audience would be filled with adolescents from across the metro area reassured me. The staff did a wonderful job of checking us in and seating us together. Prior to curtain, an actor greeted the audience and reiterated expectations for the performance via last minute announcements. He encouraged students to laugh, cry, clap and otherwise respond and engage in the performance, noting that the “actors will feed off of the energy.” It was curtain time at last.
At the intermission break students immediately began whispering and soliciting feedback from their peers and from me. “Did it scare you when the trap door opened?” “Marley is terrifying!” “I’ve seen a Disney version of this story before!” “I didn’t know there would be music and children in the show, did you?” among other murmurings rippled across the aisles. Many students hopped up to stretch, use the restrooms, and grab a drink of water, knowing it would be their last chance and that the second act would start in fifteen minutes. And, of course, adults and students alike, pulled out and powered up cell phones to check the time, post their whereabouts on social media, or text a short review to their friends sitting a couple rows away.
It was during intermission that the magic of the theater morphed into something else entirely. I was mildly irritated when an elderly, white docent singled out a student sitting in front of me and told him sternly, “You’re going to need to turn that off and put it away.” My brows furrowed and I was about to interject on behalf of the student, but *Eli smiled good naturedly and assured the usher that he would turn his phone off before the second act started. The exchange gave me pause and it was then that I looked at the audience as a whole. A theater filled with laughing, smiling adolescents, the majority with cell phones out multi-tasking. A very white audience for the most part, with the exception of my group of students. I then spent a few minutes studying the docent who had reprimanded my student.
Eli, a boisterous Hispanic boy wearing baggy jeans and a hoodie, didn’t seem to mind. But the interaction bothered me. Throughout the rest of the intermission I did not see the docent redirect or reprimand one other audience member, although he walked by dozens of teenagers distracted by their cell phones. Why had he singled out Eli?
You’re being overly sensitive I thought. After all, I understand that ushers are largely volunteer senior citizens who generously donate their time to support performances. I’m sure he was just doing his job I told myself.
A couple minutes before the lights dimmed signaling the start of the second act, the same usher spoke to the same student in the same manner. “I thought I told you to put that away?!” he chided. Again, Eli nodded, powered off, and pocketed his device. Meanwhile, I seethed. “Sir?” I choked, blood rushing to my face and tears springing into my eyes. I couldn’t utter a word in the heat of the moment, but I managed to point to the row of students sitting right in front of Eli. A row with over a half a dozen white teenage boys -- all with their cell phones out, eyes fixated on their screens. The docent returned my gesture with a look of confusion. “Yeah, so?” his body language seemed to say. The lights dimmed. The second act began. And I stewed for the remainder of the performance -- a growing, nagging feeling flooding my mind and heart.
Eli had been targeted. Profiled. Called out because the assumption was he wouldn’t know to put his cell phone away during the performance. Eli had been judged -- because of his appearance, his skin color, his proximity to the aisle and the usher. He didn’t seem to notice that he had been targeted. But I did.
I thought about this exchange on the bus ride back to our school. I shared the story with my colleague who served as a chaperone that day. I thought about it at home later that night and shared the story again with my husband. I felt helpless and discouraged. And it is the memory of this exchange that is the driving force behind why I decided to write this letter. Don’t get me wrong -- I am forever grateful to the DCPA staff for your commitment to bringing live theater to students, especially to students of poverty who may not otherwise have access to this cultural jewel in the metro area. But it seems unfair to invite students with any strings attached. Regardless of what my students wear, the color of their skin, the school or district they represent, or the number of performances they’ve attended, I believe each and every audience member deserves to be treated like a season ticket holder.
In all my years of attending performances I have never been reprimanded by an usher. I’ve never been told to put my cell phone away during intermission. I’ve never been singled out. I’ve always been treated like a season ticket holder -- even when I was attending an event as part of a student group. In the future, I hope all ushers and docents are trained to extend this same courtesy to all theater patrons, especially students attending special field trip matinee performances. I would hate for the magic of the theater and the thrill of the performing arts -- an experience that prides itself on being progressive, inclusive and equitable -- to dissipate into a glaring example of social injustice for other adolescents. We have far too much of that beyond the lobby of the DCPA on the streets of downtown Denver and throughout our country.
Jessica J. Cuthbertson
8th grade literacy teacher, season ticket holder
*The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.