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EDITOR: Andrea Kirk
Michele Hunter
Mark Share
Matt Share
Josh Herz

By M.R. Hunter


Amid steep budget cuts, teacher layoffs and disenfranchisement within school districts, one educator is intent on making a difference in his one-man show, “A Child Left Behind.” It’s been a decade since former President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, an educational reform bill that requires yearly standardized testing and greater accountability in its top down approach from administrators to individual teachers. While proponents of the bill claim it’s too premature to determine the results of this broad-stroke attempt to assess students progress and meet state mandated requirements, the effects of a “one-size fits all” approach to learning is leaving every child behind and putting teachers behind the 8-ball.

In a pass or fail dichotomy, playwright and performer Alan Aymie knows all too well the porous nature of this legislation that sees disadvantaged students and special needs children slipping between the cracks in an effort to level the playing field without addressing the individual child. A fifth-grade teacher, Aymie has experienced the vast differences between socioeconomic boundaries, seeing his west-side students moonlight on TV shows as they bring in residual checks for show and tell, against the sharp relief of “lower-performing schools” in neighborhoods riddled with gang activity, poverty and a pervading sense of distrust and apathy. Thrust into a teacher intern program that pits educators obtaining their credentials in substandard schools, Aymie, like his students must make the grade in a system designed without contingencies, context or appeal.

After seeing his name in the LA Times ranking of “below average” teachers, Aymie’s response takes his story to the stage to do what he does best: educate…in spite of the odds. Ultimately, the real test isn’t Aymie’s to pass but ours. Chatting with him before his show in the courtyard of the Beverly Hills Playhouse, I’m struck by Aymie’s passion and thoughtful conviction as an educator and a parent of two children, one of which is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. We discussed the educational model, No Child Left Behind and the difficulties for students to succeed under the grueling pressure, budget cuts and special needs not often met under the homogeneous system.

MR Hunter: What prompted you to write this show?

Alan Aymie: I started writing this show a couple of years ago and at first it was a piece about the LAUSD and the educational landscape but things were going on with my son and as I shared them with the director at the time he said this was something I should include. So I started to introduce stories about my son. In another way, the show is like “A Tale of Two Cities” it’s looking at and comparing two different school systems and students who have different need and challenges.

Hunter: Where is the system failing?

Aymie: Not every child learns at the same rate. There has to be some allowance for every child to come into their own. The attitude that says every child must be at the same level at every grade…we have almost a socialist approach to learning. The idea that everyone is all the same and we’re all going to improve at the same level annually is insane. George Bush’s No Child Left Behind is setup for failure because it says let the numbers dictate the educational plan instead of the children.

Hunter: What can teachers do? How do you work within this system?

Aymie: Teachers don’t do it for the money. You go into teaching because you have a calling for it. There should be afforded more respect for those who are trying to make a difference in the world. When you’re being scrutinized and told, ‘you’re the problem’—who works well under that kind of pressure. The students are under pressure too. These children receive quarterly tests, unit tests, standardized testing, pre-tests….they are inundated by tests. Testing is not part of the daily landscape of learning. Tests push learning out of the way.

Hunter: Tests can have a serious impact on teachers too.

Aymie: I don’t put much value on these kinds of statistical based judgments. An inside joke at one of the schools I taught in was the worst teacher got the best rating only to find out later they were cheating [by proctoring the exams]. That’s what happens when you place so much emphasis on [testing] it’s not about learning anymore.

Hunter: Where are the parents? What role do they play?

Aymie: You can go to any school and see parents who are involved and parents who are not. I think as a teacher, there’s a lot of rage. We see the parent as the first teacher. I think the parents who complain about teachers are usually the ones that aren’t there at the school. There’s no accountability. Everyone wants to pass the test or pass the buck. There’s a lot of finger pointing. The finger pointing comes from the frustration of not succeeding. We’re in this together. I tell my students I only want to see two things: effort and improvement. That’s all I care about in the end.

Hunter: Do you feel pressured to pass students or meet certain requirements?

Aymie: There’s constant pressure of bringing everyone up. There’s no direct consequence for individual teachers. But there’s an internal pressure. The statistical data we’re going through for these tests is overwhelming.

Hunter: What do you think of No Child Left Behind? Has it been successful?

Aymie: No Child Left Behind is asinine. It was doomed to fail. The only good that’s come out of it is for the book publishers.

Hunter: How many schools have you taught in out here?

Aymie: I substitute taught for 3 years in over 60 schools. Most of the stories [in the play] are based on children at a school I taught in South LA. It’s a composite in terms of the characters but the stories are true.

Hunter: Do you think schools are prepared for the rising number of children with special needs?

Aymie: No. I don’t think schools know what to do. In one way, their hands are tied because there isn’t enough funding. I think this shift is sudden. I’m hoping shows like this bring it to light. I don’t think the schools or the educational model at this time can support the rise in special needs students.

As a parent and a teacher, Alan Aymie’s one-man show is heartfelt, informative and moving. It doesn’t attack the system by pointing blame but reveals the deep cracks from which children of various backgrounds and individual needs are slipping through.

Seamlessly transitioning from over 20 characters as divergent as a bright but troubled streetwise pre-teen to emotionally charged one-sided conversations with his son about bullying, basketball and tying his shoes exacerbated by his son’s brilliant observations and fixations, a signature of Asperger’s, Aymie presents both sides to a rising epidemic without any easy, spoon-fed answers. Simply directed by Paul Stein and minimalist in its design, Aymie, a stand-up comic, fills the intimate stage with an energetic presence and a high-degree of specificity, beseeching the audience through the myriad of students he channels, making them his own and ours to root for, even when it seems no one else will.

The challenge with a show like this is that it inevitably sings to the choir, a shortcoming not of Aymie’s but our own. It’s easy for everyone to say they want better education but when push comes to shove, the last decade has seen more students and facility pushed aside from budget cuts, layoffs and an enormous pressure to succeed even under the worst of circumstances. No doubt education will be a hot topic in the upcoming months before the election, but no matter how much President Obama or others campaigning for affordable tuition, better resources and a globally competitive educational environment may entreat the people to invest in the future, the reality is no one seems willing to pay for it. In that vein, the very people who should see and would benefit from this production are the same people who probably won’t. Those that appreciate the value in this type of small theater performance are probably the same folks who are actively involved with their children’s education or are educators themselves.

Ultimately, Aymie leaves us thinking and his story makes us a little wiser to the very thing we should care about the most: education. If that isn’t the mark of an excellent teacher then I don’t know what is. There isn’t a test yet that can measure for compassion, integrity, energy and perseverance but it’s qualities like these that Aymie exemplifies and goes a long way to creating a lasting impression.

“A Child Left Behind”
Runs through May 26
Fri & Sat @ 8pm
The Beverly Hills Playhouse
254 South Robertson Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
PH: 702-582-8587

--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareviews[at]gmail.com)

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