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A Holiday Wish: Treat Students Like Season Ticket Holders

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.

 

Sincerely,

Jessica J. Cuthbertson
8th grade literacy teacher, season ticket holder

*The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

8 Comments

Anonymous commented on December 27, 2014 at 2:38pm:

great conversation starter.

great conversation starter. Thank you DCPA for supporting students and our community and thank you Ms. Cuthberson and teachers everywhere for seing the promise of young people and students!

 

Michele

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on December 31, 2014 at 12:35pm:

Thank YOU Michelle!

Thank YOU Michelle for all you do to support the work of our public schools. 

Renee Moore commented on December 27, 2014 at 4:03pm:

The Double-Edged Cuts of Racism

Thank you for asking the question and inviting discussion. I have seen too, too many such examples and have been the recipient of profiling--even by professional colleagues.

The even sadder part of your story is that the docent probably does not see what he did as racist or profiling, but as perfectly logical and reasonable. On an individual level, racism often blinds people to the harm and injustice they are causing others--partially because they don't see the "others" as people, but as inferiors with whom they and their children are being forced to co-exist.

Believing that such acts, worse, are permissible when directed at a targeted group, however, has emotional, moral, and often socio-political consequences on the perpetrators or their social groups. If you tolerate or engage in immoral acts towards another or a group because you have convinced yourself that they "deserved it," you are opening the door for that behavior to be extended to others---including you. Malcolm X called it "chickens coming home to roost;" the Bible calls it reaping what you sow.

I'm glad you spoke up and were bothered enough to do so. We all need to be more attentive and instructive.

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on December 31, 2014 at 12:51pm:

Next Steps?

Thank you, Renee, for reading and commenting. Your own efforts to create a more just and equitable education system are a great inspiration to other teachers and helped embolden me to speak up. It is incredibly discouraging to hear you have experienced this firsthand from your professional colleagues especially, and all the more reason why I think we need to have more conversations and awareness of white privilege in particular, and what equity in education actually means --- we're still a long, long way from the goal.

I'm struck by this line in your comment: The even sadder part of your story is that the docent probably does not see what he did as racist or profiling, but as perfectly logical and reasonable. I've had some time to reflect on this incident from multiple angles and I think this assessment is absolutely accurate. In the same way that I was unprepared for the incident and didn't know what to do in the moment, I believe the volunteer did not think he was doing anything wrong or was not even fully aware he was targeting and singling out one particular student while ignoring an auditorium filled with students (and adults) using intermission time in the same way.

So...my current questions are -- how do I "prepare" for these types of situations moving forward? It didn't feel good to be caught by surprise, have an emotional reaction and not know how to proceed. (Hence why I continued to think about and eventually write the letter which was far more reactive than proactive). I can facilitate discussions and problem solving around this and other incidents in our society with students -- but how do we collectively hold other adults (especially those outside the education system) accountable for their actions? How do we surface social injustice for those who might not see their actions as such? 

I've been thinking about this a lot because while this particular incident is fresh (and personal) it is just that -- one isolated incident. Yet I know (and national current events have surfaced) things like this happen all the time. I'm wondering how I proactively approach these situations in the future, tackle white privilege head-on, and model for students how they might do the same. 

Brianna Crowley commented on January 2, 2015 at 3:34pm:

Nodding...

Jessica,

Like many others, I'm so glad you took the time to not only write this letter but to publish it here. I've been thinking so many of the same thoughts--how do I have these conversations with my students and with the adults with whom I work? I, like you, feel like I MUST right about it...but am trying to be so thoughtful. 

I hope Renee answers your questions here about being proactive rather than reactive. I want to create a positive conversation, but I also don't want to shy away from a confrontational conversation if it is the right way to go. For now, we'll support each other in exploring our role in this debate? I'm so glad we have educational leaders here who can help all of us understand the many dimensions of this. 

Marsha Ratzel commented on December 29, 2014 at 8:59am:

Can you give feedback to their Governing Board?

How do we change the docent system?

It's a question that I asked for a different reason.  In my locality, the area's art museum had an antiquated docent education system that concentrated on lecturing and demanded absolute quiet for student tours.  Somehow they had missed the transition to interactive learning.

I found out that the docent program had been "hijacked" by a very experienced (translated to very older adult) who felt it was her time to teach students how to behave.  

It literally took years of serving on the Teacher's Advisory Board to raise awareness.  Like Renee's idea, they had no idea that what they were doing was wrong and discouraging to students.  Programs had been developed to reflect what they loved and what they thought should happen without input from the community.  

I think your experience points out why it's important that all institutions that encourage and want participation by students have feedback loops so that we can help educate them.  Does this organization have such a process?  Or can you contact some of the governing board for the Center?  I'm betting there are members of that board who would be glad to get this kind of input as most performing arts organizations are trying to broaden their audience.  Can you identify who those people are and then work with them?  Wouldn't it be amazing to hear the "voices" of how your students experienced this kind of interaction....I'm betting their Governing Boards rarely hear from students.  It could be a real eye-opening experience!

Jessica Cuthbertson Jessica Cuthbertson commented on December 31, 2014 at 1:01pm:

Great angle & Follow-Up ideas

Thanks, Marsha for looking at this from another systems level angle and for prompting me to think about possible next steps. This year my school is the recipient of an "Alliance Grant" through the SCFD which has allowed us to partner with a variety of science and cultural organizations for field experiences and guest speakers/workshops within and outside our school. What's great about this grant and program is that teachers work directly and meet regularly with the grant coordinator who is very knowledgeable about the contacts and possibilities (and strengths and challenges) of each organization. Through the grant the feedback loop is built in - as experiences are co-designed with educators and representatives from the orgs., and feedback from students and staff is collected after every experience and used to enhance that particular experience for the next school. The result is that programming is very student-centered, interactive, aligned to content standards, and FUN!

In hindsight, that's what this experience was missing. There was no opportunity to provide feedback after the event and little prep and communication with the staff prior to the field trip. It was truly a last minute opportunity and while I worked to prepare the students for the experience on the front end (and I had my own background knowledge and understanding of the DCPA) I was caught off guard because I had never experienced a student matinee or seen docent/student interaction from the lens of an educator before...

I love the idea of students informing the governing board and working with cultural orgs. like the DCPA directly to raise awareness and improve the quality of the experience for future students. 

Marsha Ratzel commented on January 4, 2015 at 5:15pm:

Go for it!!!

I think you've got a great plan.

It can be a tough sell.  Where I live many docents have volunteered for years doing the same thing.  They very much develop an ownership of what should and shouldn't be done.  I think if you can sort of "case the place out" and see how the volunteers are structured you'll have a much better chance of succeeding.

The bottom line is.....these folks give up their time to an organization they love.  Maybe they love it because they feel important when they volunteer.  Maybe they love it because they do it with their friends.  Maybe they love it because they want to spread their passion for the organization.  I'm imagining my mom in this situation (she volunteered at a local college's theatre and at the Hallmark Card Kaleioscope Discovery Center---one day a week at each place) for almost 40 years and well into her late 80s.  While I would hope racism wouldn't be the motivation behind an intereaction like you encountered, I could definitely imagine her zeroing in on someone, getting fixed on them and making their experience either very amazing OR very unpleasant.

You can move mountains but it may take a while.

 

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