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.
``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.
Next time I taught for the city was the '80s. The chairman said: ``Things are very different now. Not everyone gets into a senior college on the open-admissions policy. You have to have an 80 average from high school. And the curriculum's changed; there are tutorials, special prep classes, and extensive counseling besides. There is no such thing as what you term a `double standard.' It's all better now.''
It was worse. Around me now were teachers and counselors who'd come through the open-admissions system themselves. Many of them couldn't spell, write sentences, or speak anything approaching Standard English. Some had heavy foreign accents. They were now the role models in the speech department? I was aghast.
Also, the student body was almost all underprepared. Gone were the ``poor kids' Harvard'' students (to the one or two elite campuses in the system). The double-standard problem had indeed disappeared, as the chairman had promised. There was only one standard now: ``Shuffle them all through!''
My classroom was littered with garbage. People ate, smoked, talked, came and went at will. Walls had graffiti, windows were cracked. As the semester rolled on, there was tremendous absenteeism.
Students disappeared for weeks, returned with no excuse, no expectation to make up work, every expectation to pass. But my biggest shock came one day in the speech office when I noticed lists of grades still posted from the previous term: hundreds of ``B's'' and ``C's''! I left my job midyear and shortly thereafter wrote the one-act stage version of ``Open Admissions.''
The play to date has had three manifestations: a one-act Off Broadway play, a full-length Broadway play, and the CBS teleplay. On the stage it won the Samuel French Playwright's Award, the Dramatists Guild's Hull-Warriner Award, and was chosen for ``The New York Times's Ten Best Play List.'' It garnered a Tony nomination for the actor playing Calvin, and the CBS film will be released in Europe next spring.
LAST spring my daughter, a young teacher, took a course at a city college. When I asked her what the difference was between the city college and her alma mater, she commented: ``The same textbooks are used, but at the city college no one is expected to master the material. No reports, no discussions, no exams that show whether you know the stuff.''
A colleague, still teaching in the system, tells me, ``It's much worse now. The kids are hostile. A lot of anger and frustration vented on each other and me because we can't get anywhere with the work. The dropout rate is very high.''
My husband is consultant psychologist for a social service agency serving a core of urban foster children. Recently he commented that in his 11 years there, the few children that have been given scholarships from first grade on at private prep schools have all graduated and done satisfactorily at good colleges - despite the uprootedness of the foster-care milieu. Not bad. But how many prep school scholarships exist or can ever exist for foster-care kids out there? Too few!
I reached nearly 15 million viewers with ``Open Admissions.'' Not bad, either. But how many people out there with the wherewithal will do anything about the open admission of all this? Too few?