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.