Calculations

In the play, Isa teaches math to elementary school students using an abacus.

We stumbled upon a great article today about how contemporary schools are using the age-old abacus as a way to teach mental math. Here’s an excerpt below. Find the whole article, “I learned how to do math with the ancient abacus — and it changed my life” by Ulrich Boser HERE on Vox.

A few years ago, I stood in a small basement classroom just outside of New York City, watching a high schooler named Serena Stevenson answer math questions in rapid succession.

An instructor read out numbers —

74,470

70,809

98,402

— and Stevenson added them in her head. For each question, she closed her eyes, and then the fingers of her right hand began to twitch, a progression of plucks and jerks. The movements were fast and exact.

For almost an hour, she used the abacus-based approach to solve math problems. Sometimes she would get problems wrong and smile and shrug. But she also answered many of the problems correctly, including the addition of multiple five-digit numbers in her head.

The key to her success was an ancient technology called the abacus. As I discovered while reporting on a book on the science of learning, the typical abacus has small discs that move up and down on thin posts. The small discs have different values, and the four beads on the bottom have a value of 1. The discs at the top have a value of 5. To calculate a problem, you move the discs up and down until you get to a solution.

Preschool Warfare?

This article from The Cut is first class bonkers, and worth a full read. The picture it paints of battles between factions of the 1% — over the traditions and future of a beloved, private, neighborhood nursery school for the rich and powerful — is unreal. That school is not Gleason Street, but there are resonances here of the power struggles, the privilege, and the dreams parents cultivate for their children.

An excerpt…

“Then there was the board. Once [School Director] Morgano realized it was an advisory committee, and therefore not really the boss of her, she displayed significantly less patience with the members, especially Ashley Phyfe, the new board president, a blonde stay-at-home mom who, according to Morgano, thought she knew everything about education because she’d taught public school for five minutes (It was actually seven years.) The board was well-meaning but, Morgano thought, clueless, as evidenced by what happened with the Diversity Committee, which was formed in 2017, after a request from a parent of the only child of color in her class. After the school rejected a motion to give up legacy spots to allow more diverse children into the school, they’d been spinning their wheels and coming up with piecemeal suggestions like busing children to Grace Church from other neighborhoods. ‘That sounds like more of an idea that would benefit your kids,’ Morgano snapped, and the silence afterward was deafening.

Chicken in a Can

VAL
Tin cans: soup cans: you can fit half a chicken in a can.
He’d ship those all over the country, all over the world.
I come from making things.
So I know.

As Val and fellow parents plan Gleason Street’s gala, she uses her family’s industrial background in tin cans as a justification for being “of the people” — people whose value is in making things. And while she rhapsodizes over the fancy china she grew up with, she conveniently leaves out how that family fortune set her up to be able to afford tuition at Gleason for three kids, plus one at Brown.

But the “chicken in can” also appears in a shared strange dreamscape. Like other kinds of nostalgia that are embedded in the play, this surreal ad for Franco American gravy is something that has been hanging around Kirsten’s brain for several decades. Revel now in the weird humming, the perfect manicure, the basting…

Mimeograph!

Some multimedia snacks to satisfy the mimeograph nostalgists and ink-sniffers alike…

“There was no ink used in the ditto process, which involved elusive ‘master copies’ that the teacher would keep filed away, far away from the reaching hands of students. The master was either typed on, drawn on, or written upon, and a second sheet was coated with a layer of wax that was impregnated with one of a variety of colors, usually a deep purple since that particular pigment was the cheapest, durable and had contrast with the paper. As the paper was hand-cranked through the bulky printer, a pungent-smelling clear solvent was spread across each sheet by an absorbent wick. When the paper came in contact with the waxed original, it would take just enough of the pigment away to print the image on the sheet as it passed under.” (Source)

The Systems Are Hungry

Embedded in the DNA of this play is a discussion of how class issues compound other forms of marginalization. The character of Kyle (they/them/theirs pronouns) is Gleason Street School’s only trans faculty member, and also one of the only faculty members who didn’t receive a raise this year. They are pulling extra shifts on their side gigs and still eating saltines, buying dented cans of tuna from the sale bin, and wearing a layers of sweaters until December to save on their heating bill. When Kyle asks Gordon, the Head of School, for a raise, Gordon blames the system and low budgets, but Kyle reminds him that it’s people who make the systems, and people who are responsible for acting as gatekeepers to change.

Earlier this week, Dev Blair (they/them/theirs pronouns) — the actor who plays Kyle — posted a Twitter thread that articulates many of the same issues Kyle faces. Dev and Kyle are not the same person, but Dev’s lived experience of a young queer/trans person of color in the gig economy is an important touchstone for the world of the play. Dev offered to share their twitter thread here as a way to shine more light on the issues embedded in the play.

AMPLIFY

Company One Theatre is producing GREATER GOOD to AMPLIFY…

  • that “access” isn’t equal for all, especially at the intersections of education, governance, and democracy.

  • questions about who holds the keys to power, from local parent-teacher organizations, to the highest political offices.

  • the challenges that institutions and individuals face in truly living up to their missions.

  • the ways liberalism and progressivism often avoid the convergence of race and class.

  • the culmination of Kirsten Greenidge’s 3-year term as C1’s Mellon Foundation Resident Playwright, celebrating the ways she breaks theatrical and narrative norms regarding representation and inclusivity.

Vesuvius Part 2 (aka “What is this, Rush?”)

In GREATER GOOD, both Michael and Christine reference the volcano Vesuvius as an image of young black boys finding and explosively using their authentic voices. But this isn’t the only time the play invokes the power of exuberant sound.

Gordon, as head of Gleason Street School, walks us through the way that children loudly playing music invites expression of self, and that the “racket” of such ebullience is fundamental for the growth of the child. In the scene “The Music Lesson; Yes, Mr. Vermeer,” Gordon’s drumming, and the xylophone music played by the audience, are like another Vesuvius — cacophonous and transformational.

GORDON:
My brother’s kid has a drum set.
Electronic.
You practice.
By plugging in a headset.
You hardly make a peep.
My kit.
Was so loud.
Growing up, the funeral home next door on Huron.
Would pay me fifty cents not to play on days they had a service.
Other days it was free-for-all.
Other days it was the rest of the neighbors saying
“That racket”
“What is this, Rush?” “You’re getting the hang, finally”.
No one will say any of these things to my brother’s kid.
Band of one. Alone in his room.
Here we say:
This racket is what connects and binds and the free-for-all is good.

— “The Music Lesson; Yes, Mr. Vermeer,” GREATER GOOD

🥁 🥁 🥁

RUSH, the iconic prog-rock band (1968-2018) known for epic story songs and concept albums, introduced the world to Neal Peart — a drummer considered by many to be one of the greatest artists and technical masters of the form. He is preternaturally fast and precise. And loud. With RUSH’s heyday pegged from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, they’d be a perfect reference point for the neighbors as they yelled at the adolescent Gordon, practicing his drum licks.

Interesting sidebar: the funeral home on Huron (referenced in the excerpt above) is a real place in Cambridge MA, which was just rehabbed and turned into a luxury townhome and put on the market for $2,875,000 😮.
(It’s two doors down from a townie pizza parlor. #gentrification)

Anyway. Check out this killer drum solo from RUSH’s Neil Peart!

Of course the answer is Neal Peart. Duh.

We Are Promissory Notes

In GREATER GOOD, Isa, a Black teacher, is assigned to serve on the gala committee. During her conversation with the parents who run the committee, she pushes back against their insistence on fancy centerpieces and fingerbowls, asking them instead to consider the true mission and purpose of a school. In doing so, she invokes the image of the “promissory note” — similarly to the way Martin Luther King Jr deploys it in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

ISA:
The thing is.
The thing is.
We do not.
We don’t.
Make anything.
Schools do not make anything.
We are promissory notes.
Who trusts a promissory note?

— “Our Fathers’ Parlors,” GREATER GOOD

Writing for The Grio, professor Alvin Tillery notes that “Dr. King stated that African-Americans and their allies had come to Washington to cash a ‘promissory note,’ written by the framers of the Constitution to all Americans, at the ‘bank of justice.’ In using this language, King was drawing on a long tradition in black political thought that highlighted the reality that African-Americans had been largely excluded from the American Dream despite the fact that they had been model citizens of the republic since the founding. In this same verse, King demands that America replace the bounced checks — ‘marked with insufficient funds’— that it had issued to its black citizens for more than 300 years with ‘a check that will give [blacks] upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.’”

And here is a relevant excerpt from “I Have a Dream” (1963):

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.