There’s nothing easy for an elementary school teacher when teaching 5th grade. For the students, it’s a time of transition. They roll their eyes when told to do something; they’re not always interested in explaining things, particularly when they’re not entirely sure why they think what they think; and they pick sides as they group together in cliques while circling around those they don’t particularly like. After teaching this age-group for a number of years, it’s not unusual for a teacher to request a transfer to a younger level.
In playwright Johnna Adams’ wrenching classroom drama, Gidion’s Knot, as presented in a co-production at Tempe Center for the Arts between TCA Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, Heather Clark (Alison Campbell) has been a teacher for just two years. She wasn’t always a teacher. For a while she pursued a career in advertising, but changed direction and went for a teacher’s degree. Now she teaches a classroom full of 5th graders at a public school in a Chicago suburb. After the events that are about to unfold, even though it’s only been a couple of years at the 5th grade level, it would not be a surprise if Miss Clark requested a move anytime soon.
4th grade isn’t necessarily easier; there will always be challenges, but they’re challenges of a different nature. A teacher can see the kind of character a child is beginning to form, due either to peer pressure or the support or conflicts of home life. By the end of the school year, there’s a lot for the 4th grade teacher to tell the 5th grade educator. But no teacher would want to be faced with the kind of challenge Heather Clark is about to face. And, once events are witnessed, there’s no teacher who could safely say how they would respond, either. It’s a confrontation that needs to be experienced before anyone who teaches at any level can safely say how they would react.
The setting is Heather Clark’s empty elementary school classroom where, curiously, the theatrical placing of the chairs face away from the chalk board. Presumably, students have to crank their necks during lectures. (And for the record, present day schools across the country use only white boards for markers due to regulations regarding asthma in the classroom). From the muffled sound of the bell ringing outside, and the hustle and bustle of noise coming from the hallway, school is now out. It’s two-thirty in the afternoon, and room 418 is done for the day. At least, that’s what Miss Clark believes. Seated alone behind her desk, she’s clearly upset. She gets up. She paces the room. She catches her breath, trying to stop herself from breaking into tears while declaring “God, God,” repeatedly to herself. Then the classroom door opens. Enter Corryn Fell (Shari Watts).
Corryn is there for a parent-teacher conference, though she says not quite sure if she’s in the right room. Miss Clark, believing all appointments were now done, directs the woman along the hallway to the office for guidance, but even though Corryn leaves, she soon returns. “Two-thirty, April 5th, room 418, Miss Clark,” the mother insists. She’s in the right room.
“You forgot,” Corryn tells the teacher. But the young Miss Clark has forgotten nothing for reasons that will soon become apparent. “It never occurred to me you’d keep the appointment,” the teacher states.
Under Tracy Liz Miller’s taut direction, and told in real-time with a running length of seventy-five minutes, no intermission, Gidion’s Knot is an adversarial drama of a meeting that was arranged before a tragedy occurred. Within minutes we’ll learn that eleven year-old Gidion, a student in Miss Clark’s classroom, killed himself after being given a five-day school suspension. As with most 5th graders who have yet to process information and are not entirely sure why they think what they think, Gidion, either because of humiliation, rejection, or perhaps for some other reason, reacted to something that resulted with a permanent solution to a temporary problem. “I came here with a simple question,” the mother tells the teacher. “What the hell happened?”
Like a murder mystery where the detective slowly peels back the layers of evidence, sifting through information, discarding the red herrings, focusing on the truths, until all is finally revealed, Gidion’s Knot unveils the events of the previous few days in small, conversational nuggets, slowly forming an overall picture. Blame is not entirely obvious, though you’ll certainly walk away with an opinion.
Alison Campbell’s Miss Clark is exactly how you would see an elementary school teacher. The actor convinces in both appearance and behavior as she defends her actions and reluctantly shares information she clearly doesn’t want to face, and shouldn’t have to; at least, not without others present in the room. If, like a 5th grader, there are sides to take, your early reaction is to sympathize with Miss Clark, particularly when Shari Watts’ Corryn enters the classroom on the attack, practically a bully, and full of snark. When the teacher tells the parent of the two hundred and twenty student sympathy cards she’ll receive, in a comic though sarcastic southern belle accent, the mother responds, “My, my, where will I put them?”
But despite the two outstanding performances, Gidion’s Knot is not an easy play to like. Among the many reveals, one will be the reading of an essay written by the boy, it’s contents lurid, immoral, and, for one so young, jaw-droppingly shocking. “This is not a product of my classroom,” the teacher insists as if lobbing the ball of blame back into the mother’s court. Yet what comes completely unexpected is the mother’s reaction to it.
While there’s a certain level of understanding that would lead us to believe why Corryn would respond to the essay in the way that she does (there are truths and career paths previously revealed that would be an injustice if mentioned in this review) it doesn’t altogether help us sympathize with her, even though a mother grieving for her dead child and angered because of unanswered questions would normally warrant automatic sympathy. If anything, her response is almost as upsetting as the essay itself. You may even find yourself questioning whether the author and those who helped her develop the play know what it’s like to even raise or be around a child. Yet, as with the David Mamet rule of writing where the important thing of all is to have the audience always wanting to know what happens next, you may not want to look, and you may not be enjoying what you’re seeing or hearing, but you can’t turn away.
Gidion’s Knot continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until March 24
Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose