A lesson from pupils on being `ostrich-ized' in America

September 08, 2004|By Norman Allen

IT IS OFTEN said that a teacher learns more from his pupils than he imparts. The adage was proved true for me this summer as I led 19 San Francisco teenagers through a five-week exploration of writing, theater, movement and voice. We gathered in a tiny theater with the mission of developing a play about folks who feel shut out - from cliques, from society, from the norm.

We would address the gulf between artistic and athletic prowess, between economic sectors, between the privileged and the repressed. By the end of the month we would have a scene that featured two Juliets on a balcony. We would hear from an Afghan youth watching bodies fall from the World Trade Center. And we would see the most popular girl in school betrayed by her fair-weather friends.

But first we had to explore the very nature of the word "ostracize." Some students didn't know its meaning. Some misheard me. "Ostrich-ize? What, we become ostriches and stick our heads in the sand?"

The metaphor was apt, and a new word was coined. In an early improvisational exercise, three chickens pecked an ostrich to death rather than share their feed. The scene was comic and included a farmer with a hatchet, but the idea was there - clear, concise and frightening.

As we became more comfortable with each other, the students began to share their experiences. One girl brought in a monologue about the daughter of a lesbian couple who moved to a rural and unaccepting community. Asked if she wrote from personal experience, she responded, "Oh, no. This isn't me. I have two dads."

When invited to craft monologues for ostrich-ized figures from history, the cast transformed themselves into Galileo, Helen Keller and Vincent Van Gogh. But they also came in with the words of more obscure figures. Hank Greenberg, the first Jew inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was repeatedly walked so he wouldn't have a chance to beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. Melba Beals survived the taunts and blows of her peers as she helped desegregate the public schools in Arkansas.

I reveled in the students' intelligence - and was drained by their hormone-driven, Starbucks-induced energy. On the July 4 weekend, I escaped to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for a quiet visit with my father. A proud veteran, Dad asked that I join him for a pancake breakfast at the local American Legion.

The crowd was friendly. The pancakes were good. The biscuits and gravy were heart-stopping. The Legion's commander stopped by to welcome us and asked if I was going to join. "We've got SAL," he said. "The Sons of the American Legion. We need people."

With that I recognized myself as an ostrich among chickens, without the courage to say, "You're inviting me to join a club from which I am legally excluded. I'm a gay man. I'm not allowed to serve my country."

I've had this feeling only rarely, usually at weddings. The tears that come at the beauty of shared vows are simultaneous with the veil that descends between me and the altar. It's a place where, except for rare pockets of the country, I cannot stand.

As of July 1, my personal "ostrich-fication" is a matter of public record. With the passing of House Bill 751 by the Virginia Assembly, the discrimination against gay men and women in my state became law. I am now denied the right to construct a legal contract with my partner. The future of our shared property is no longer secure. Emergency medical decisions rest with distant relatives.

America has far to travel in its quest for freedom, and the fight against "ostrich-izing" must be a top priority as we approach the presidential election.

The students that I worked with this summer deserve a coherent, unified nation of distinct individuals who share equal rights and mutual respect. Each of them should be free to serve his or her country. Each of them should be free to marry the person of his or her choice. Each of them should have the basic right to secure his or her property and to assign quality-of-life decisions in a binding contract.

Should we fail them, watch out. These kids have the energy and the will to change the world. Their voices will be heard.

Norman Allen, a playwright, is director of Signature Theatre's Signature in the Schools program in Arlington, Va..

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