My first Five Keys graduation!

Sherri (right) was Shanon’s in-custody teacher

I’ve only been teaching at Five Keys since October of 2017, so this May was my first opportunity to take part in the end-of-year festivities. I’ve been to many graduations, mostly my former second- and third-graders, so I generally watched from the audience side of the auditorium.

But this time, my graduating students were adults, and I was up on the stage of the Solano Community College Theater handing out diplomas. All graduations have common elements: the director/principal/head/president greets and presents the graduating class, proud family members cheer as their loved ones cross the stage, and either a guest or a faculty member utters wise words to live by and wishes the graduates bright futures.

Jorge & me

Two distinguishing characteristics of a Five Keys version of this ceremony are (1) most of those accepting their high school diplomas received at least part of their education while incarcerated, and (2) the age range of the graduates may be anywhere from 19 to 90, which means some of those in caps and gowns had children and even grandchildren celebrating this milestone with them.

But what stood out for me were the students’ speeches. They were so grateful to everyone who had supported them, even if some didn’t have any friends or family members there to watch them get their diplomas. They related some of the difficulties they’d encountered along the way–and to be sure, some of them have surmounted huge obstacles–but the tears that day were all about happiness, and most of the speeches focused on the future. Some wanted to go to college, some wanted to start their own businesses, and some just wanted to find a job that would keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Only two of the fourteen grads who walked the stage that day had been my students, but I felt a swell of pride not only for Jorge and Shanon, but also on behalf of all those graduating. And I enjoyed being  part of this wonderful community that included my fellow educators, Jorge’s smiling auntie who carried a big bouquet of balloons, and the deputy sheriff who cut and served cake to her former inmates.

Even after I climbed into my car afterwards, I was giddy with positive energy. Although I suppose it could have been a sugar rush from the cake…


Eureka Day is brilliant!

Lisa Anne Porter, Elizabeth Carter, Rolf Saxon, Teddy Spencer, Charisse Loriaux (photo David Allen)

Jonathan Spector has penned a gem, and we here in the Bay Area are lucky to see its world debut. The first commissioned piece from Aurora’s new Originate+Generate program, this one knocks it out of the park. Josh Costello directs a talented cast who portray the board members at a progressive private elementary school in the Berkeley hills. Having been a teacher at a private progressive school myself, I was curious to see a play about one.

The congenial but not particularly decisive head of school (played delightfully by Rolf Saxon) doesn’t lead so much as facilitate discussion among parents in an attempt to rule by consensus. He reads Rumi at the beginning of every meeting and avoids conflict at all cost. The parents include Eli, the stay-at-home dad (a perfect performance by Teddy Spencer) who hysterically strikes yoga poses throughout the first meeting; Meiko, the hot young single mom on the prowl who presumably shops at Whole Foods and farmers markets (Charisse  Loriaux); the uber-lefty Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter), who makes cashew lasagna and speaks gently but is quick to remind the other board members that at Eureka Day, gender-neutral pronouns are used for everyone as a matter of course; and new Eureka parent, Carina (played by the versatile Elizabeth Carter), who is certainly the sanest of the bunch.

The good-natured skewering of the stereotypical Berkeleyite as ultra-politically correct was right on target and provided for much of the laughter in the play. And the scene in which a virtual parent meeting is happening on Facebook (pictured above) was one of the most hysterical I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

However, Eureka Day is not just a comic romp. The conflict that divides the school community is the vaccination debate, and some of the characters at first seem to represent simply their point of view. But Eureka Day is neither a propaganda vehicle nor a single-issue play, and the characters reveal more depth in the second act, which takes a serious turn.

At its heart, Spector’s play echoes the deep divide in our country, with red states feeding off Fox “news” and blue states angry at all those people who voted in the Cheetoh-in-Chief. Most would agree that we in Berkeley live in a bubble of like-minded liberals, so our brand of political arguments are less likely to span the full red-to-blue spectrum that exist elsewhere in the country. But the question of vaccination is one that strikes closer to home, since there are liberals on both sides of the issue here in the Bay Area (though I would argue it’s more of an issue in Marin, but I’m sure that’s because I live in Berkeley and don’t want to think that my neighbors could be anti-vaxxers).

Of course anyone who delves into the comments section of Berkeleyside knows that we in Berkeley are no strangers to vitriol, and the Facebook live-streaming session in the play illustrates how easily members of a community can turn on each other.

Given our current polarization as a country, it’s sort of refreshing to watch people argue about something other than politics. But the main reason to buy tickets for Eureka Day is to treat yourself to a stellar performance of a terrific world debut. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still a week left in its run, so get your tickets now!


Betty Reid Soskin–What a Life!

Recently at Pegasus Books on Shattuck, Betty Reid Soskin read from her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. I already owned a signed copy that I had bought when I heard her speak in her capacity as a park ranger in Richmond, California at the museum with the longest name ever: Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park. But at the museum, she spoke strictly of history because she was on the job. I had been looking forward to hear her talk about herself and her book. Apparently so did a lot of other people–when I arrived a half-hour early for the reading, most of the seats were already claimed. Luckily, I found a spot on the third row. By the time she was introduced, dozens of folks were standing shoulder to shoulder around the chairs on the crowded platform designated for readings.

Betty Reid Soskin is both a local and national treasure. She’s lived so many lives, running a record store in Berkeley, working as a legislative aide, becoming a park ranger in her fifties and an author in her nineties–and, oh yeah, she was also a mother of four.

She started blogging in 2003, sharing her life’s stories with that wry, distinctive voice. You can sample her entertaining stories at CBreaux Speaks.

Partly because all of her contemporaries have died and she’s lived so long, she states plainly that she no longer thinks in terms of the future and is absolutely content living in the present. That said, the dedication of her memoir promises that her next book will be more about her four children. So Betty may not live for the future, but she continues to make plans for it. And despite her new career as an author, she returned to her job at the museum as soon as her book tour ended. No resting on her laurels–she remains a popular speaker that packs the museum auditorium regularly. At 96, she has the energy of at least two 48-year-olds, and I’ve declared her as my new role model.

Although she was born in Detroit, her Creole parents moved the family back to New Orleans when Betty was just three years old. They lived there a few years before trekking west to California and settling in the Oakland hills, where Betty spent her childhood.

But rather than read my summary of her talk, you should buy her book and read it for yourself. And if you live in the Bay Area, you should order it from Pegasus Books. Of course if you live elsewhere, you should purchase it at your favorite independent bookstore or ask for it at your local library. But the point is that you should read Sign My Name to Freedom.

Another late New Year’s resolution

Okay, I think every New Year’s resolution from 1994 to 2013 had to do with losing weight and exercising. Which, of course, are good goals to have. But they’re boring resolutions.

Then, in 2014, I was having memory problems, so my word of the year was document, the verb. As in document what I do, or keep track. I blogged a lot and wrote down every play I saw, every movie I watched, and every book I read.

In 2015, I chose a theme and a motto rather than a resolution.  My theme was “letting go” and my motto was “Less is more.”

In 2016, my word was walk. That was my year of hiking every path in Berkeley.I was so depressed in 2017 that it took time to climb out of my pit of despair. From January 20 on, my word was resistance. And when I started to lose momentum, I added acceptance as a necessary corollary. Not as in accepting Trump as normal, but accepting the situation in order to look at it squarely in the eye and do what I could to turn things around.

balancing-act-400x507With so many new beginnings in my life starting last fall, I’ve adopted balance as my word for 2018. I can see that it would be easy to fall into a work-heavy routine, considering that I leave the house at 7:15 am and return around 6 pm. Cleaning house and writing are the two likely areas to fall by the wayside. My wonderful husband has already offered to take over the grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking. So that’s definitely going to make a difference, especially when my credential class starts up again this week. I’m hoping that focusing on balance will keep my stress level down and keep me sane. Here’s to a healthy balancing act in 2018!



Yes, I’m still alive…

I’ve been a very, very bad blogger.

The one thing you’re expected to do as a blogger is to write blogs, at least occasionally, and preferably on a regular basis. But life definitely got in the way of my writing this year. I have a folder, jam-packed with ideas and events I had planned to feature in posts, but I never got around to writing about any of its contents.

Rather than try to cover several months, I am opting to start fresh, which feels appropriate because I’ve launched a new career. I’m no longer a copy editor, though I do still spend quite a bit of time correcting papers. Neither have I returned to my former career of teaching elementary school. However, my job is in the field of education.Officially I’m an employee of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, even though I commute 45 minutes north to Fairfield, in Solano County, rather than across the bridge to the City by the Bay. As an independent studies teacher for Five Keys Charter Schools and Programs, I work with adults so they can either get their high school diploma or take the GED. The five keys of the school’s name refers to Education, Employment, Community, Recovery, and Family, which are all considered integral tools for people to have success after incarceration. Most–but not all–of my current students are adults on probation or parole. When they come to the probation department building to meet with their parole officer or to provide a court-ordered urine sample, they can stop by my classroom and either drop off work that they’ve done or ask for help with whichever subject they’re working on.

I teach everything but P.E., performing arts, and foreign language, although there is some curriculum for motivated students to teach themselves Spanish. I haven’t yet had to teach upper-level math, but I should probably brush up on my trig at some point, since that was where I hit the math wall back in high school. So far I’ve mostly taught fractions and negative numbers, which are both still in my comfort zone.

Some of my students stay twenty minutes, some stay an hour, and some stay all morning. Their ages are from 22 to 60, their reading levels are from 2nd grade to 12th grade, and their math skills range from learning their multiplication facts to algebra. A number of my students are in recovery for addiction, and a few are dealing with accompanying memory loss. Some have hectic work schedules that make coming to class tricky, and others are actively looking for work. Three of my students live in a group rehab house, and at least one is homeless. Several have children. A fair number have learning issues, and many just didn’t get much out of school the first time around.

But they all want to build a better life for themselves and for their families by getting an education, which increases their opportunities.

I’m the only teacher at my site, but I have colleagues in other social services within the building. My fellow teachers are spread out across Solano County and throughout California.  My principal is the director for all Solano County programs and has a lot on his plate, so I don’t see him very often. My classroom is all mine, as small as it is, and I’ve done some re-organizing to get settled.  Right now all my hours are there. When I get jail clearance, I’ll also teach students who are in custody at Claybank Detention Facility in addition to my current roster.

Getting out of jail and working on getting a diploma is a new beginning for my students, and commuting to Fairfield to work with adults is a new beginning for me–so we’re all starting down that road together. And so far, I love it.

It certainly keeps me busy, which means I’m not always thinking about the current political nightmare. And that is a good thing.

Best of SF Fringe Festival: Brooks’s Tasha

Cat Brooks in Tasha

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is part of a long tradition of giving the stage to less mainstream indie performers. From slapstick to satire to the one-person show, Fringe performances are ones you are unlikely to see at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. This year’s line-up offers 30 choices.

Cat Brooks artfully presents the tragedy of Natasha (Tasha) McKenna, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed in police custody in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2015. Representing her mother, one of the officers, the sheriff in charge, other characters, and most notably, Tasha herself, Brooks takes the audience on the journey that leads up to and includes Tasha’s death.

Actual footage from the events plays intermittently on screens between Brooks’s portrayals of different characters, never letting the audience forget that this is fact not fiction.

The most moving scene for me was Tasha’s mother after her daughter’s death. Her pain is so present and personal; yet set within the larger context of police violence against black people, we know that despite the specific details that make this case distinctive, it is a story that plays out far too often.

Through tears, I gave a standing ovation for Brooks as a playwright, a performer, a storyteller, and an activist. Afterwards, Brooks gave audience members the chance to ask questions in the limited time we had until the next show needed to set up. I think we were all glad that we had that time to process, if just for a few moments, before going back out into the world.

I was disappointed that the small house at Exit Theatre wasn’t full. Everyone should see this piece. I think it deserves a longer life than its four showings at the festival and hope it finds a home on one of the bigger stages in the Bay Area.

If you see only one SF Fringe performance, let it be this one.

Go to The Other Place!

Robert Parsons and Stacy Ross

Sometimes I’m lucky and see a play early enough in its run that I can recommend it to others. I am so glad that is the case for “The Other Place,” directed by Taylor Korobow.

I don’t recall even hearing of Symmetry Theatre Company before last weekend.  But the play featured my favorite local actress, Stacy Ross, so I was excited to be able to get tickets because I will see her in anything.

In fact, the whole cast was very good. Robert Parsons always gives a solid performance in everything I’ve seen him in. Lisa Morse and Michael Barrett Austin are both versatile actors who play a range of roles well. Within the play itself, Morse portrays three distinct characters, though her role is listed simply as “The Woman.”

Ross plays Juliana, a smart and confident research scientist, who opens the play by addressing the audience as if we were attendees at a conference where she was presenting. With skill, she smoothly goes back and forth between her presentation and her thoughts as she speaks. We meet her doctor (played by Morse), her husband, Ian (Robert Parsons), and hear her account of events. But clues are steadily dropped, and gradually the audience learns what’s really going on and also discovers the trauma in her past that makes its way into her present. The combination of the script and the staging let us know different facets of a complicated situation a little bit  at a time, rather than building to a big reveal all at once, which provided a more realistic feel that this story benefited from.

It comes as no surprise that the “other place” of the title represents not only the vacation home where the trauma originally occurred but also the alternate reality in which Juliana finds herself. Expressing that complicated transition from one reality to another on stage can be hard to portray convincingly, but Ross does so exquisitely.

The program, though glossy and professionally printed, gave little information about the theater company and even less about the playwright, which seems like lost opportunities to me. (It did have the largest print I’ve ever seen in a program, which was a refreshing change for my eyes; but I would have given up a few font sizes to have more content.)  I’d have thought the playwright was a woman, knowing only the name–Sharr White–which to my ear sounds like a diminutive of Sharlene or Charlotte. But I discovered that Sharr White is a man by googling the name while we waited for the show to begin. And after the show I went online to find out more about the theater company, whose mission is

to create professionally produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge our audiences. The plays we choose will always have at least as many female characters as male, and in any given show there will always be at least as many Equity contracts given to women as to men. In addition we will produce plays that acknowledge that women’s stories are as important as men’s and in so doing we will hope to bring about further awareness to the public and the theatre community at large of the need for more “balance on the boards.”

Live Oak Park
Live Oak Park Theater entrance

Now that wouldn’t have been so hard to put in the program, would it?

The program aside–and I realize that most theater-goers wouldn’t be bothered by its shortcomings–I highly recommend this production of “The Other Place.” It is playing one more weekend at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. If you appreciate a good story, excellent acting, and thought-provoking theater, go buy your ticket right now!