A playwright finds a subject worth a play
WHEN my CBS teleplay ``Open Admissions,'' aired in September, it marked the climax of my 20-year involvement with what I've come to call ``Education versus the urban poor in America.'' ``Open Admissions'' tells the story of Ginny, a disenchanted speech instructor at an urban college, perfunctorily giving out ``B's'' to all her students. One of them, Calvin, is a bright black youth, desperate to pull himself and his family out of the ghetto by means of his college education. A product of foster care and the streets, however, Calvin has come through an inner-city school system that has enabled him to enter college with the skills of a fourth-grader. Aware he is really failing her class, Calvin confronts Ginny. She is not a teacher, he asserts, but a ``saleswoman selling him out.'' As they both struggle with the implications of this accusation, the drama takes root.Skip to next paragraph
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``Open Admissions'' is an autobiographical story. Way back in 1967, I took a first teaching job as a speech instructor at a city college in New York. I was told: ``You'll be teaching at `the poor kids' Harvard.' Brilliant, motivated youth from blue-collar families will be your students. It will be exciting teaching here.'' The prediction was true - for one year. The following fall open admissions came to New York City colleges, allowing all with high school diplomas to enter the gates of academe.
Suddenly I was confronted with a schizoid situation. Half my classes were still filled with ``the poor kids' Harvard'' students, while the other half could barely read. I remember asking the senior professor in charge of freshman classes how on earth to deal with this. ``Don't judge the open-admissions kids by the same standard,'' he advised simply. ``If their attitude is good and they try, just slide them through. Work with the others in the usual way.'' I was told this on the sly. A personal tip!
Well, as time passed, it became harder and harder to do that. And I hated it. Slowly I began to leave the official curriculum - Shakespeare, ``Informative Speeches,'' debate - turning instead to the reading of poetry aloud.
Contemporary American poetry was my choice - not too many black or Hispanic poets in print then, but there was Langston Hughes. We read James Baldwin, too, and Carl Sandburg's ``Chicago,'' which had meaning for the class.
I would read aloud, they would attempt to read, and we would discuss what the literature and poetry meant. They liked the course and me. I felt this was a first step. How much actual learning happened, I don't know. My ``poor kids' Harvard'' students suffered. It was the best I could do.
Eventually word of this drifted to the administration. I was a renegade. I had broken ranks, and when my name came up for tenure a few years later, I was turned down and dismissed. By that time, the double standard teaching-grading system was fully entrenched.