When one individual really cares, amazing things can happen in the most unlikely places. That’s one of the great messages in Michael Sokolove’s Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater (2013).
Unless you live there, you probably don’t know Levittown, Pennsylvania. It’s not even the original suburb—that’s the town of the same name in New York. Like that town, it began as a planned community, an alternative to living in nearby Philadelphia for soldiers recently returned from World War II and their young families. Levittown was once an upwardly mobile place with jobs from steel mills and other factories readily available, but those jobs are mostly gone, and for years, families there have been in a long, slow slide down the ladder, often out of the middle class and into poverty.
Most of us are lucky enough to encounter one teacher
that makes a difference. Book groups are a great place
to remember them.
That’s why Truman High School is an unlikely place for an elite theater program. Usually, such programs have world-class facilities, students who spend years taking expensive private lessons, and loads of donor money to invest in sets, costumes, and professional musicians. Truman High students have after-school jobs, hard-luck home lives, and poor test scores that endanger the very existence of arts programs and extracurricular activities. But Truman also had an unlikely hero, Lou Volpe, a once-closeted gay man with no experience as an actor, designer, or participant, but who always loved theater.
Once an English teacher, Volpe applied to become the school’s assistant director and instead found himself hired for the top position. Beginning in the late ’70s, he built the school’s drama program from something very basic into a place where Broadway tests controversial shows before they make them available to other high schools. When Truman goes to national theater festivals, Volpe’s students are often overwhelmed by the wealth of the other schools there, but they’re consistently lauded for high-quality, emotionally-charge productions of shows that most schools wouldn’t dare attempt. By the time he retired in 2013, almost a fifth of Truman High’s students were taking one of Volpe’s theater classes, and his school district and principal trusted him to handle the most controversial shows with seriousness and care.
Sokolove was an English student inspired by Volpe clear back in the early 1970s, back when Volpe had a wife, a son, and no immediate plans to take over a theater program. He knew firsthand, though, how Volpe’s teaching skills could inspire professional success. Volpe’s English class and the book groups he held for students in his home ultimately inspired Sokolove on a path to a regular job as a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, and an author of four books.
Volpe gave his old student Sokolove full access, and over the course of Drama High, Sokolove tells the story of two productions at Truman High, the lives of the students who perform in those productions, and the story of Levittown from his own upbringing there through modern times. In the background is a sad story, a cautionary tale for an American educational system obsessed with test scores, but Volpe’s quiet genius for bringing out the best in his students will leave readers with a sense of optimism that while life may be tough, most of the kids from Truman High will find a way through.
This would make a great selection for book groups, but you might also try it as part of a themed night. Have your members read a variety of inspirational teacher stories, or even better, talk about their own best teachers through the books that they connect to their educational experience. Most of us are lucky enough to encounter one teacher that makes a difference. Book groups are a great place to remember them.