I caught Alan Aymie as he was walking to a store to buy ketchup for his son’s dinner. This is very important. His 8-year-old son has Asperger syndrome and is very specific about what he will eat, and he won’t eat his dinner without it. No negotiating.
That’s a small sample of the trials confronting this actor, playwright and full-time teacher on a daily basis. Many of the problems he’s faced as a teacher are as intractable as his son’s condition, but they must be dealt with on their own terms. As the opening song’s lyrics say, “Only the strong survive.”
Aymie is the performer and writer of “A Child Left Behind,” a personal and humanizing look at the life of a teacher — and a father — who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. This masterful and powerful one-man show is in a limited run at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, following its highly lauded premiere earlier this year at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
While the play is partly fictionalized and the chronology is somewhat telescoped, this is essentially Aymie’s story about being caught in the soul-sucking web of national standardized test scores and the controversial series of articles by the Los Angeles Times which created a “value added” grading system for LAUSD teachers, and printed those grades in the paper.
Aymie was graded “below average.” But that’s just an abstract rating and doesn’t take in account the real-life circumstances faced by the students he teaches … or his own.
Aymie’s impetus for writing “A Child Left Behind” came when he was asked, not long after starting his teaching career, to join in a teacher strike downtown. It was his first year teaching and he had to say that honestly, he wasn’t a political person.
But he went, and sitting across the street in a car, he watched as striking teachers marched in the pouring rain carrying hand-written signs, being ignored by all and sundry. “Nobody listens to teachers,” he tells us. So he decided to speak out with this play.
The stage is bare except for a small wooden table that stands in for a teacher’s desk, with a small bell sitting on it. A “ding” on the bell and a change of lighting signal the rapid scene changes.
The play opens with Aymie demonstrating how his father taught him to walk to school in Boston and the right way to use his fists if he was ever confronted. Another lesson he learned was not to speak out. It’ll get you into trouble.
Interweaving scenes of school and home life, we see Aymie trying to teach his son to tie his own shoes before he heads off for his first day of kindergarten. Ignoring dad’s entreaties, his son recites facts about the planets, the sun, the stars, with such erudition that Aymie is certain his child is a genius. He just can’t get him to focus on the shoe-tying.
Aymie then gets to the meat of the story. When the No Child Left Behind law was put in place, it tied national standardized test scores to federal funding of public schools. Underperforming schools would lose money. All teachers had to be credentialed.
L.A. teachers were put on notice: get the credential or get on the substitute teachers list — or leave the job.
Many had masters’ degrees in education and had been working for years as teachers, both respected by parents and loved by their students. But without a credential, and unwilling to spend nights and weekends going through the process, many of the best teachers left the system.
Aymie, a new teacher with children and a pregnant wife, needed job security and opted to get the credential. Before long he is teaching in “a war zone,” South Central Los Angeles, where abject poverty and gangs rule, where children selling chocolate bars to raise money for their impoverished school are robbed while carrying the cash, where one-third of the students drop out before graduation.
And while he is doing this, he learns that his son’s genius is actually Asperger syndrome, setting him and his wife on a learning track to find out more about the condition and how best to meet his educational needs.
A trained stage actor with TV and film credits who’d been a professional children’s entertainer on the East Coast, Aymie adroitly sketches and portrays the many different characters in his life: his students, his principal, the gang-leader father of one of the kids, his own conversations with his son — this one-man show brings a roomful of inhabitants to vivid life.
Aymie struggles to stay on top of his challenges, both personal and professional. But he cannot fathom how, in view of such tribulations, his inner-city students can be measured in test scores.
And that is the crux of his message: Lives as complex as those of his students and his son cannot simply be reduced to quantification by test score, and teachers facing these realities cannot fairly be graded.
While it is instructive, it is also a heartfelt piece that is well written, well acted and well worth your time. Tell all the teachers, students and parents you know to go see it.
Alan Aymie will be performing “A Child Left Behind” at the Ruskin Group Theatre Thursday nights at 8 p.m. through Dec. 20. Find out more at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com.
Leaving the doors open
Santa Monica Art Studios has an eighth anniversary open house celebration this weekend, featuring open doors to artists’ studios as well as the opening of a curated show, “Even Gravity has its Ups and Downs” in its Arena One Gallery, through Nov. 10. The opening reception is Saturday, Oct. 13 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and includes the open house, which continues on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. These events are free and open to the public. For more info, visit www.santamonicaartstudios.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.