What’s worse: Amherst Regional High School’s canceling ‘West Side Story’ or later embracing ‘The Vagina Monologues’?
Four years ago when ARHS became the only high school in the nation to perform ‘VM”, I couldn’t quite decide. Like asking a death row inmate to choose between the electric chair or cyanide gas.
But now that Amherst school officials have allowed adolescents to reprise that feminist manifesto, we have a winner!
In 1999 a 17-year-old Puerto Rican girl collected 158 (out of 1,300) student signatures on a petition decrying the production of ‘West Side Story’ for the annual school play because of ethnic (hers in particular) stereotyping. The School Committee took it a tad too seriously and things went downhill pronto.
Although School Superintendent at the time Gus Sayer showed some backbone with his original memo on the matter: "No group, neither in the majority nor in the minority, should have the ability to censor the decisions our community’s educators make about what to teach, what to read, or what to produce on the stage.”
But bureaucrats can be spineless. Sayer backed off, as he didn’t want to micromanage the High School Principal. and the School Committee did nothing as they didn’t want to micromanage the system.
Six months prior to the ‘West Side Story’ rumble, however, another enterprising 17-year-old activist collected 400 signatures on a petition protesting the policy of restricting students ‘off campus privileges’ during the school day, thus preventing kids from going out for a smoke.
Superintendent Sayer sympathized: “It’s not easy for students who are addicted to refrain from smoking all day”, while also applauding their “activism.”
Izzy Lyman, then co-director of the private Harkness Road High School, said with a sigh, “makes me long for the days when the only rights students had were the right to remain silent.”
To summarize: when the ‘West Side Story’ fiasco started the School Committee deferred to Superintendent Sayer, who deferred to Principal Scott Goldman who deferred to the play’s producers…who caved, saying the controversy had become too “distracting.”
And so Amherst Regional High School became the only entity in history (a record still intact) to cancel a play based on the timeless Shakespearean tragic love story ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
One of the more famous ARHS (1989) graduates Eric Mabius, recently voted “Sexiest man alive” by People Magazine started his career as Paris in ARHS production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Luckily he attended our bucolic High School back in the pre-activism days .
At a rally I organized on the Town Common to support ‘West Side Story’ about 100 folks attended, a few high school students, parents--but mostly media. State Senator Stan Rosenberg and ACLU attorney Bill Newman spoke eloquently about free speech and their was much buzz about bringing in a production of the play to the High School with a big-name volunteer cast, but nothing ever came of it.
Fast forward late-December, 2003: When I first read buried in the Amherst Bulletin (who refused to use the word “vagina” in a headline) about senior Kristin Tyler appearing before the School Committee in early-December to inform them (apparently not to ask) about performing ‘VM’, I thought “here we go again with those 17-year-old’s.”
I vividly recall the first school Committee Meeting after the news broke a few weeks later when about two-dozen folks showed up to support the play and only two to oppose.
Although Superintendent Hochman had trumpeted the girls courage to publicly speak out about violence against women he refused to let them come to the School Committee meeting to speak about why they should do it in the form of ‘VM’ because he wanted to shelter them from the brewing controversy. Hmmm.
But a young art teacher, especially supportive of the play, and faculty advisor to it (with a side business of “erotic photography”--specializing in women of course) did appear to read “statements” from the girls.
Immediately the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an editorial citing the strong support at that single School Committee meeting, casting me as a book burner; but then never bothered to issue another editorial after the next three meetings where play opponents far outnumbered supporters.
And the editor-in-chief also forbids me from writing another ‘VM’ column for the Amherst Bulletin, a violation of my verbal contract with editor Nick Grabbe. The same chief editor who accused me of censorship.
(To Be Continued…)