Teacher Turns Disgust at Publishing of Value-Added Rating Into Solo Play
As a stage, film, and television actor for 25 years, Alan Aymie understands that his performances may be reviewed by professional critics, whose opinions are published in newspapers and on websites. Through the years, he has learned to appreciate the good notices, and keep in perspective those that are not as favorable.
But as a fifth-grade teacher – employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District since 1999 -- he never expected that a one and two-word review of his classroom performance would appear in print and on-line. When The Los Angeles Times in 2010 published value-added ratings of elementary school teachers in the LAUSD, Aymie, graded average in English Arts and below average in Math, was livid.
Several of his angry colleagues reacted to release of the data with protests, comments on social media sites, and even by canceling their subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times. Aymie took more time with his response; he wrote a solo play, entitled “A Child Left Behind,” which ran this year at the Beverly Hills Playhouse from mid-April through August 14th. The show will be performed in September on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Ruskin Group Theater Company in Santa Monica (310) 397-3244, and is also scheduled to run in Ojai next April at the Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio.
Combining his experiences in the classroom, anger over the release of the ratings, and the challenges of being the father of a son with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that causes significant problems in social interaction, Aymie, who is in his 40s, created a work that the LA Times reviewer wrote relayed a message of “simple, truthful power.”
This was his second solo show; previously, Aymie wrote “Child’s Play,” which depicted the true story of his attempt to succeed as an unmarried father.
The latest piece begins with Aymie (called the “Narrator” in the text), a schoolchild in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, being punched out by a young bully. He arrives home with a black eye, bloody nose, and a fat lip. Looking at his injured son, the narrator’s father decides to teach the kid how to box. He also gives him a bit of advice, which over time will assume greater significance: “It doesn’t pay to speak up.”
Next, the action moves to Los Angeles, many years later, where a demonstration is underway against Sacramento-imposed budget cuts to public education. The narrator lets the audience know that “a small army of us is marching in front of the LAUSD.”
From there, “A Child Left Behind” weaves in such scenes as a white teacher interacting with African-American and Latino students in the classroom; tense exchanges between the same teacher and “Principal Jones” about the former’s less-than-stellar performance rating in The Times; and the narrator and others trying to understand and work with a child who has Asperger’s syndrome.
Aymie has created room in the text for a number of caustic asides about the difficulties teachers face today, inside and outside the classroom, especially the misunderstandings, slights, and humiliations. But these things are nothing new to the profession.
Not so the publishing of ratings in the newspaper, as we hear in this speech from the Narrator, which reflects the feelings of the fictional character and the real life teacher:
“But the one humiliation I have never suffered as a teacher is being called a bad one until the LA Times publicly called me out by name by stating ‘These graphs show that Alan Aymie’s value –added rating based on his or her students’ progress on the California Standards Test….blah-blah-blah…..BELOW AVERAGE!? The LA TIMES…This was not the Park La Brea News or some “How would you rate your stay?” local B&B comment card, this was the 4th LARGEST NEWSPAPER in the country telling the whole world , “Hey! He’s no good!” And to make matters worse they wanted me to publicly respond to their “assessment” but I had nothing to prove. Besides, it doesn’t pay to speak up.”
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You’ve heard of the person who knew from the age of five that he or she wants to be an actor, or better yet, a star? Aymie isn’t one of them.
He was 25, working in a miserable sales job, when he was asked to give a speech, after having won an award – for sales, no less. The prospect terrified him, and he reached out to friends and family for advice. One suggestion changed his life.
“My cousin said to take an acting class to get over my fear of public speaking,” said Aymie. “I loved it. “ It’s one thing to follow the script when selling a product, but quite another to speak witty, sexual, or profound lines written to entertain. “Wow, I can say this stuff?” is how Aymie describes his initial response to acting.
The company promoted Aymie to Baltimore, where he didn’t know anyone. He enrolled in the University of Maryland to obtain a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater, and began auditioning for various roles, both to practice his craft and to meet people. For his first show, he was cast as a waiter in Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy.” Another production in which Aymie appeared, “Marat/Sade,” performed by the Maryland Stage Company, won several awards as was reviewed nationally in Theater Week.
While living in Maryland, Aymie worked in equity theater, film and television. In Washington DC., he performed in several productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including the role of Puck in a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the famous Folger Theatre in Washington. He was also cast in three films: “Foreign Student” (with Robin Givens), “Guarding Tess” (with Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine) and “The Firm” (with Tom Cruise and Ed Harris).
How many people are there like Alan Aymie, who arrive in Los Angeles with the intent of working full-time in the entertainment business and end up going into teaching to supplement their incomes? The LAUSD alone may have hundreds of such employees within its ranks.
The immediate reason Aymie moved to Southern California, in 1994, was to study acting with the legendary Sanford Meisner, who died in 1997. He had applied and been accepted to Meisner’s program. Over the next years, Aymie picked up acting jobs in theater, film, and TV, but he needed additional revenue to pay the bills and have something left over.
That explains why he decided to become a substitute teacher. After performing in that role for a few years, Aymie was given the opportunity in 1999 to join the faculty of Hyde Park Elementary School, which had a mostly African-American student population.
He liked the job immediately. Full-time teaching gave Aymie the chance to directly impact young lives in a way that not even a matinee performance of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” could equal. “What I liked most about teaching was the feeling that I made a difference,” he explained. “Every day I had the opportunity to make a difference.”
After a brief detour from teaching, Aymie returned to the profession in 2003; first at Hyde Park, and then moving to Carthay Center Elementary School, where he has taught fifth grade for several years. One of his greatest joys each year has been writing and directing a play about early American history for his students to perform.
“Being from Boston, I love teaching about the Revolutionary War,” said Aymie. The play, which covers the period from the Boston Massacre to the Constitutional Convention, ran for three performances last year. Each time it was staged, “I was pacing in the back, nervously,” added the writer/director.
Aymie said that with massive budget cuts and what he described as increased scrutiny, it’s not as enjoyable being a teacher today as at the beginning of his career. Back in the early 2000s, for example, he didn’t have to purchase pencils and paper for his students.
Yet one thing hasn’t changed, and that keeps him tethered to the job. “The kids are still great,” he said.
Plus, where else would he find material for successful solo plays?
By: Tom Waldman