Teaching Opera with a Little Help from a Friend

Before this school year began, I planned experiences for my students outside the classroom walls that would expand their knowledge of literature, history and the arts.

First on that list was to see a production of Puccini’s La Boheme by the Los Angeles Opera company at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For years, the education arm of L.A. Opera has funded programs for students to be introduced to the splendor of a live opera performance for free, quite a gift considering the best seats in the house go for over $300 a piece.

Back in the last 1990’s when I discovered this program, I would apply to it each year by submitting lesson plans and attending Saturday workshops in order to bring dozens of students to see a matinee performance.

Year after year, students and parents told me how much they enjoyed the experience, but year after year I became increasingly exhausted.

Without clerical support, I had to call the bus company myself to make all of the arrangements, collect enough money from students to pay not only for their transportation but to cover the cost of those who could not afford to pay, solicit parents to serve as chaperones, and fill out several school and district forms.

It also didn’t help that some teachers did not approve students going on the field trip.  One actually called me to ask if my students could miss my class the following day in order to make up for the lost hour due to the opera.

By the end of this century’s first decade, I decided I was done.

Until this year when I resurrected this event for my 10th graders.  After all, L.A. Opera was producing my favorite, La Boheme.

When I first taught opera, the L.A. Opera League would schedule guest speakers to visit each school participating in the program.

One of these speakers was Leslie Einstein.   She came armed with full-size posters of not just the opera but of history and literature.  Ms. Einstein wanted the students to be immersed in the time period, turning the classroom into a French café by passing out cups of apple juice and plates of home-baked madeleines.

She enjoyed interacting with my students so much that she proposed starting an after-school opera club.

Think about this.  A woman living in Pacific Palisades driving to a school in Glendale to fund an opera club where students learn about opera, then go see the actual performances.  In addition to the donated tickets, Ms. Einstein treated the students to a formal dinner beforehand.

So before I began my opera unit on La Boheme last month, as a shot in the dark, I contacted Ms. Einstein after 18 years.   Luckily, I found her phone number on a fax cover sheet dated from 2001 in a folder in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.

I didn’t know what to expect when I called, but after hearing her voicemail greeting, I knew she was doing well.

When we finally spoke over the phone a couple of days later, it was as if we had just recently talked to one another.  Amazing to think that the last time we spoke was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  How much in the world had changed since then, but not Ms. Einstein’s enthusiasm.

Not only did she agree to drive out to Hoover to be a guest speaker for my students, she was going to do two presentations as well as bring the apple juice and madeleines.

It was nice that so many of my students enjoyed studying opera and seeing La Boheme, and even more special that they had an opportunity to know Ms. Einstein.

Today’s world could use a few more kind souls like her whose charity brighten and enrich young people’s lives.

 

 

Defiant Students Rule

If you have ever thought of becoming a teacher, beware.

No one has your back.

Not administrators, district officials, or, more assuredly, the state of California.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom made sure of that by signing into law SB419 which further undermines the authority of teachers in managing defiant students.

After three failed attempts under former Gov. Jerry Brown, State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) succeeded in having the more liberal governor ban “willful defiance” suspensions in all public and charter schools grades K-8 ensuring that unruly students remain in the classroom except for only the most egregious infractions; defying the teacher is not one of them.

Teachers are no longer permitted to send out bad kids even if they continuously disrupt the learning of others, giving them carte blanche to continue interfering with the education of the good kids.

Often cited are statistics showing suspension rates among minority children are disproportionately higher than other groups and therefore a violation of their civil rights.

Special interest groups point out examples of children being suspended for such minor acts as chewing gum in class as proof that the predominately white teacher population is racist.  However, economic issues may play a larger role in determining child behavior.

Now the anti-suspension needle has moved all the way to the point where the message to teachers is quite clear:  keep all students inside your classroom no matter what.

The other message seems to be that teachers are not to be trusted in handling students in a classroom.   Politicians in Sacramento know what’s best.

In recent years, anti-suspension programs such as restorative justice and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) have infiltrated the agenda at faculty meetings statewide.

Since then, suspensions rate have declined, but how does one know if it because of  these programs or because teachers under intense pressure know that they don’t have the option of removing troublemakers?

Keep in mind that misbehaved students receive a disproportionate amount of attention from teachers who have to spend time reinforcing behavior matrices, scheduling restorative circle time, documenting everything, contacting parents, etc.

Teacher time is better spent on designing lesson plans and evaluating student work than serving as pseudo-therapists.

State Sen. Skinner said in a statement that “ending willful defiance suspensions will keep kids in school where they belong and where teachers and counselors can help them thrive.”

However, by keeping these kids in classrooms means that the other kids, those who always behave and obey authority figures, won’t thrive.

Just keeping a misbehaved child in class does not mean that student is listening or learning.

It is the good kids who get trapped in toxic environments with kids who come from unruly households where there is no discipline.  Where is the ACLU’s defense of their civil rights?

The system has to bend over backwards to accommodate the hooligans instead of the hooligans having to learn how to modify their behavior.

Gov. Newsom, would you want your children attend school with these disruptive students?  Of course not.  That is why the people who make the laws send their children to private schools which don’t have to abide by the laws they make; his children attend a private Montessori preschool.

The best support for a teacher is to remove the disobedient child so instruction can resume for those who are obedient.

All teachers know this including the former governor.

After vetoing a similar bill just last year, Brown said that “teachers and principals are on the front lines of educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classrooms.”

Those who do not work in classrooms should not impose their will on those who do.

To Drive or Not to Drive

No teen’s life is complete without a trip to the DMV office.   And that is where my son, Max, and I went recently for him to take the written driving test en route to his learner’s permit.

One of the requirements any potential California driver needs to meet is 25 hours of classroom instruction.  However, this instruction can be done at home on a computer.  Do you know how to spell f-r-a-u-d?  Anyone can illegally answer questions for the participant.  If there is any kind of education that should be taken in person it is driver’s education.  No wonder so many drivers drive poorly.

We waited three months for an appointment in Pasadena since Glendale’s office had none available due to overwhelming demand for the Real ID even though the law does not kick in until October of 2020.

The pressure was on Max to pass this test the first time since who knew when we would be able to schedule another appointment, adding to his anxiety despite taking several practice tests online.

Meanwhile, I had my own worries making sure that I was bringing all the requisite documentation for a learner’s permit, the poorly designed and written DMV website more a hindrance than an assistance.

While the appointment method is far superior to the walk-in option, it really only gets you past that first line, similar to a Disneyland Fastpass.  After the initial check-in, everyone, appointment or not, gets put into the same queue so I made sure that I brought along a book to pass the time.  A physical book.

As I sat there opening this heavy hardbound 600-page biography on Bing Crosby, I sensed I must have looked like a museum exhibit.  No one else in the crowded DMV office had a book.   And even if they had, I doubt anyone would have been reading one on Bing Crosby.  And how many in that room would even know who he was?

After being issued a letter and number (why simplify the ordeal?), you need to pay close attention to both a TV screen and a PA announcement.  God forbid you zone out and don’t see or hear your letter/number.  You quickly discover that logic has nothing to do with when you will be next because “H12” may be called before “F5”.  Since my concentration was frequently interrupted, I barely read a handful of pages.

Twenty minutes later his number was called.  He hesitated going up to the counter alone, but I encouraged him that he could handle it.  After a few minutes, he turned back and looked at me and I thought to myself, “Kid, you have to learn to do things on your own” until I realized why he was looking back at me:  for money.

Heads up—DMV does not accept debit or credit cards.  Luckily, I had enough cash for the $36 fee.

He then disappeared into the room in the back where his photo was taken and he sat at a computer station to take the test.

Thirty minutes later, Max appeared before me with a smile on his face telling me all I needed to know.

Now the real worry begins when he’s on the road among drivers who ignore everything he learned in his training, speeding and running red lights.

Maybe getting his driver’s license was not such a good idea.

 

“Good Boys,” Bad Filmmakers

Last year we had the #MeToo movement about respecting women and condemning sexual harassment of any kind.  Now it is time for a #KidsToo movement that calls for respecting children.

Adults, especially those whose products permeate our lives, need to be the guardians of the little ones.  Too much material is inappropriate for children to see and hear.

Recall the five-minute viral video last month where family members were shouting expletives and throwing punches in front of complete strangers at Disneyland?  That such barbaric behavior would occur in front of innocent youngsters at a place that is supposed to be a buffer to ugliness demonstrates something deeply troubling about people.

Just last weekend the film “Good Boys,” assigned an R rating “for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout—all involving tweens,” opened number one at the box office, proving once again that the bar for raunchiness keeps dropping lower.

Like e-cigarette companies who target young people with colors and scents to get them hooked into vaping, Universal marketed “Good Boys” at 12-year-olds who are the age of the characters.  One wonders how many tweens gained access to seeing it.

In his negative review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore said that “you may simply be no-laugh disgusted when a string of used anal beads are given to a 12-year-old girl to wear as a necklace.”

No thank you.  I don’t need to pay money to see that.

Knowing that the filmmakers’ resume includes “Superbad” and “Sausage Party” tells you all you need to know about the craft of these “artists.”

I wish writers would exercise more self-control.  Not every repulsive thought that enters one’s mind needs to be aired or shared.

Comedy doesn’t have to be filthy.  Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld are two comics who have had successful careers without resorting to a tsunami of scatological references.

Personally I have always been bothered whenever I hear young actors say obscenities.  It immediately takes me out of the movie, my mind thinking about the kind of parents who would allow their children to say foul language just for the money and glory of being in a film or TV show.

What’s shocking is when you see a movie which has little to no profanity such as “Yesterday,” one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  A fantasy film that depicts life without the music of the Beatles, this sweet-natured and well-acted tale retains its charm without the foul language.

The New York Times recently reported on lewd display ads on the New York Subway trains including one for the “At Home with Amy Sedaris” TV show picturing her holding two piping bags right where her breasts are, squeezing them with an expression of orgasmic delight.

Another ad depicts an erect cactus that promotes, you guessed it, an erectile dysfunction product.  Think of the young children riding the subways through the New York city boroughs and having no choice but to see this barrage of inappropriate material.

Parents and teachers have a tough enough time as it is modeling proper language and behavior.

Not all consumers have sophomoric mentalities.  If a person chooses to make money in the public marketplace, that individual has a civic responsibility for the material that is published.   People used to be cognizant whenever children were around, toning down their actions and words.  Create work that is sublime, not subhuman.

 

 

 

Moon landing unity is needed today

While the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 occurred a few weeks ago, I didn’t want that momentous time to pass without comment.

Around 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, July 20, 1969, my family watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, all five of us huddled around our 19” Emerson black and white TV set.  I vividly remember running outside, looking up at the moon, and feeling amazed that men were on that orb.

It remains the most significant historical event I have ever witnessed in my life.

Which is why the main TV networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—missed a golden opportunity to jointly re-air the video feed from the moon at the exact same time when it originally happened.

Only the NASA channel did so.

Imagine how special of an event that could have been, providing a glimpse of what it must have been like to have seen it live in 1969. at a time when Americans no longer watch TV shows at the same time.  Only sporting events and breaking news stories provide that bond today.

Nowadays we are sharing fewer and fewer common experiences that connect us.  Too many of us float away on our own individual islands where our cell phones provide whatever entertainment we want whenever we want.

A remarkable thing about the whole space program is how it galvanized the nation.  Oh sure, life in the late 1960’s was not ideal.   There was the generation gap, protests against the Vietnam War, fears that the USSR would start a nuclear conflict, political assassinations.

And yet, when Armstrong descended down the steps from the lunar module to place man’s first footprints on the moon, all troubles paused.

In his telephone call to the astronauts, President Nixon earnestly stated that “for one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

The recent theatrical documentary “Apollo 11” using only archival footage offers viewers a chance to relive a period of time when people were proud to be Americans.

Of course, you would have to be 55 years old or older to have witnessed this history first-hand and have that primal exuberance reawakened with the anniversary remembrances.

It is hard to believe a half of century has passed since that time.  If would be like commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War I in 1968.

The sad truth about the human condition is that we are all trapped in the era in which we are born:  life on earth begins the day of our birth.  Unless you actually lived through historical milestones, the best you can do to get a feel of what the experience was like is to watch documentaries and read biographies.

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, eloquently summarized the poetry of what he experienced.

“When you look at this Earth and all its beauty, and all its logic, and all its purpose . . . there’s too much purpose to have happened by accident. . . .

It doesn’t make any difference what your God is… somebody up there who put together the most beautiful spectacle a human being can ever conceive, much less have the opportunity to see in real life… that’s our home, that’s our Earth.”

At a time when it seems there are more differences than similarities, when we appear more like strangers than neighbors, let us hope we will soon find common ground in the pursuit of a noble goal that unites our collective identity, healing the ruptures in our culture’s DNA.  If it was done before, it can be done again.

 

Mishaps in Italy

Last time I wrote about how wonderful my family vacation to Italy was.  As with all trips, there are bound to be mishaps.  Ours occurred in a taxi and at a train station.

After visiting Vatican City, we planned to have dinner at a restaurant recommended by my in-laws.  Its location was about 10 miles away.  We had no trouble hailing a taxi driver who upon finding out our destination decided to charge us a flat rate instead of using the meter:  45 euros.  That was my first mistake.  But after a whole day of sightseeing at nearly 100-degree temperatures, we just wanted to eat.

With my oldest son in front, my wife, youngest son and I in the back, off we went in a real-life version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.   It didn’t help that the back of the backseat was so upright that it felt as if someone’s hands were pressed up against me to lean forward.

Suddenly, the man is talking and I thought, “What is he saying to my son?”  It turned out he was having a private conversation; speaking Italian, he probably thought we couldn’t understand a word (he was right).  Then, he starts smoking.  We found out later that drivers are forbidden to do that while transporting passengers.  But with this man, laws do not apply as he would change lanes into the opposing direction in order to get around traffic.   Forget eating dinner, my life was about to end in a head-on collision. I quickly thought about our dog back home and how he would feel if we never came back from Rome.

However, we did arrive in one piece, ate dinner, then had a different taxi take us back to our hotel.  Cab fare:  15 euros.  And the man obeyed traffic laws.

Two days later, we went to the main train station in Rome to travel to Florence.  My wife smartly purchased tickets months in advance, able to upgrade to business class due to the early bird discount.

Walking into the Roma Termini is quite disorienting.  A visual onslaught of giant TV screens blinds you, only showing ads.  Good luck finding the smaller screens displaying the needed information travelers seek such as trains departing and arriving.

Just then, my son spotted a young lady in an official-looking vest coming over to help us.  “What terrific public service” I thought to myself as she took us to a wall with a printed schedule and told us to go to Platform 3.  As soon as I thanked her and was turning away, she put out her arm, palm raised, expecting a gratuity.  And then it hit me—she wasn’t an employee but a scam artist.

Before we traveled, my wife sent me an article about the schemes to watch out for overseas such as pickpockets distracting you with jewelry or babies.  Not on that list was people masquerading as train officials.

After giving her the smallest coin I had (1/2 a euro), we hustled to Platform 3.  Strangely, no one else was in that area.  I tried asking for assistance from employees, but I received cold responses.  My son, using Google Translate, was able to find out from one helpful person that the platform number for arriving trains is not posted until minutes before arrival.

Quickly, we found that information just as we heard an announcement that the train we needed was about to depart.  With two bags in tow, I ran and found that train only to see it whoosh out of existence like a scene from a Chuck Jones cartoon.

So we had to purchase new train tickets costing us $225 in U.S. dollars.  Unlike the business class tickets we originally purchased, these were second class seats.  And arriving an hour later.

The one part of our entire 10-day adventure to Italy that concerned me the most was the getaway day which entailed two taxis, one bus, one train, two planes, and lots of perspiration.  To be continued.

Trip to Italy Provides Amazing Chance Meeting

When my wife and I first traveled to Europe in 1997 visiting London and Paris for our belated honeymoon, it was before dogs, children and hair loss.

Not a lover of traveling long distances (I prefer car trips), I promised my wife that one day we would go to Italy.  And so we did, just a couple of weeks ago, 10 days sightseeing in Rome, Florence and Venice, this time with our children.

Seeing manmade structures centuries old dating back to the B.C. era is incredible.  Here in L.A. “since 1959” is considered an achievement.

We walked around the awe-inspiring Colosseum and other ancient sites, climbed the final claustrophobic 320 steps inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica to a spectacular view of Rome, and marveled at Michelangelo’s genius in the “La Pieta,” the Sistine Chapel and the 14-foot high statue of David.

The food in Italy is as delicious as advertised.   Pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato unlike you have ever eaten.  If you ever go to Florence, the fourth-generation owned Vivoli is the gelato to get.  In Venice, run not walk to the Pasticceria Rosa Salva for the pistachio cream puff.

In addition to the major landmarks, there were two other places on my list of must-sees.

Since I teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had to see where he was assassinated and where his body was cremated.   I also wanted to visit the old Jewish ghetto since I just finished a Holocaust unit last month.

While the cremation site was clearly marked, locating the exact spot where Caesar was killed was another matter.

Most sources reference an archaeological area called Largo di Torre Argentina.  It is a place where every March 15 (ides of March) there is a reenactment of the murder.  However, one tour guide took us to the real site, an apartment building several yards away without any signage.

When we visited the former Jewish ghetto, we learned that once Mussolini welcomed Hitler’s troops into Italy in the fall of 1943, the Nazis demanded 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours not to deport Jews, yet after Romans assisted the Jews upon meeting that demand, the Nazis reneged on their promise, deporting over 1,000, several sent to Auschwitz; only 16 survived.

Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig is known for commemorating victims of the Holocaust by placing gold plaques in the ground at the last known residences of those taken from their homes and killed.   Several can be seen here.

However, the most serendipitous moment on the entire trip was meeting Eleonora Baldwin, our guide in a private food tour of Rome.  Born in the U.S. but raised in Italy, she has a popular website about the Italian lifestyle.

One of the tastings was in the ghetto area where we sampled Jewish pizza (like fruitcake) and the Jewish-style artichoke (like potato chips).   When I told her that I had just finished teaching about the Holocaust, she told me that her grandfather made a film about an aristocratic Jewish family who ignores what’s happening in Italy during World War II.  Called “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” she asked if I knew who Vittorio De Sica was.

It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.  Of course, I knew who De Sica was, arguably the most influential Italian filmmaker in history, the director of classics such as “Shoeshine,” “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.”

Eleonora said that her grandfather also helped hide Jewish people during the War.

Even more amazing was that she wasn’t even supposed to be our tour guide that day; the assigned guide became ill.  It was if it was fated for her and I to meet at the moment.  What are the chances?

So far I have focused on only positive aspects of my trip.  Next time, I will describe my version of  “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”