By lunchtime, Daniel Judah Sklar has taught playwriting to four junior high school classes at the Emily Dickinson School on West 96th Street. That’s part of his routine. So are the three flights of stairs he trudges up and down throughout the day. And so is the bulging tote bag, weighing down one shoulder, stuffed with student papers. Figuring there are 25 to 30 students in a class, this morning Daniel met with at least 100 students and each filled, say, two pages with writing. That means so far today, some 200 pages have been added to the collection that seems to splash over the sides of his bag. Daniel has been meeting with these students weekly for the past five months, so each student’s writing folder may be filled with as many as 40 pages of work. This means that even by the most conservative calculation, Daniel is likely carrying more than 2,000 pieces of paper. Which is why in the other bag he carries a folded cart like the ones people use in airports for schlepping luggage. Daniel uses it to bring the papers to and from school. Under his arm Daniel is carrying a thick, pink South American wool sweater that he shed during one of his classes. He also holds a dark wood cane, which moves in sync with his right foot as he pulls himself up one more flight.
I first met Daniel in the fall of 1994 when I was employed for the year under the auspices of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the organization that employs Daniel and some 64 other writers who fan out into 110 schools in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. So I am familiar with the routine, its trials and compensations. This has been a particularly rough morning, Daniel admits over a tuna sandwich in the teachers’ lounge between classes. Last night, tired after reading his way through most of his students’ work, he decided to call it quits and set his alarm for 7 the next morning, when he would finish the last batch before school. But as soon as he woke, he realized he should have gotten up at 6. So he skipped breakfast to add even a few more minutes to the time he could use to read papers, write his comments, and make it to school close enough to on time. For the kids his effort means that someone listened to them, that when Daniel promised on the first day of classes in September that everything they wrote would be read and commented on, he meant it. Week after week, following through on this promise has a cumulative effect, Daniel says. This morning seventh- and eighth-grade students opened their construction-paper folders to see his notes scrawled on their papers, “Good work,” or “That’s a good start—where’s the rest?” Even an “I know you can do better than this” means the promise was kept.
Today keeping to his word has meant that his sweater was lost and found once already, he has dropped his coat, his pen and his cane at least once each, and when he went to order his lunch in the deli across the street, he inadvertently asked the counterman for wheat bread on tuna, rather than the other way around.
This may or may not go down as one of those days Daniel calls “day-after-that” days, when it seems as though the good things will come tomorrow; days that are open spaces into which some seed of inspiration might invisibly slip or some root might silently shoot down to a deeper level.
Daniel still looks boyish, even at 53 and despite the gray that has overtaken his longish hair, and the arthritic hip and scoliosis of the spine which have him walking with a cane. His features are delicate, his voice soft. He is not much taller than the sixth-graders he will teach this afternoon. The boy in him is never far away when he is in front of a class. That may be one reason his students care about what he has to say, despite the fact that his is often the only white face in the classroom, that he doesn’t know about the things that interest them outside—what Sega is, who Snoop Doggy Dogg is or how the Chicago Bulls are doing. He still remembers how it feels to be one of them. In particular he remembers what it feels like to be the one of them who is having the most difficult time.
The year we met, Daniel visited a class of 11-year-olds who were so out of control he asked me to team-teach it with him. Actually, the class was slated to be one of the six I had been hired to teach. But soon it was clear that I would need help with this one.
Before walking into the vast, brick building on the Upper West Side that houses the first- through eighth-grade classrooms of the combined elementary and junior high school, my last experience inside a public school had been when I was fitted for a cap and gown 15 years before. On the front doors of the public school where I would teach poetry and creative writing two days a week, a red-and-black sign warned that all visitors were being watched. Inside, a surveillance camera stared down at me, and a hall monitor wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the international “No” symbol circling a gun kept watch at the entrance. Uniformed guards asked me to sign in and out of school on my first half-dozen visits.
The classrooms were so crowded I could hardly navigate the aisles between desks. Teachers I worked with requested that I provide my own paper because their supplies were so low. A seventh-grade teacher baked muffins and sold them from her desk for a dollar apiece to raise money so Teachers & Writers could keep coming to the school. One boy I thought was ignoring me just didn’t speak English. When these kids don’t have their homework done, they don’t say that the dog ate it. One boy said it was taken when he was mugged outside the projects where he lives, and I suspected he was telling the truth. A teacher polled several junior high classes and learned that 70 percent of the students had been personally touched by violence—muggings, rapes, shootings, murders. The father of a fourth-grader described the neighborhoods these children came from. “They have to step over drunks passed out on stoops and walk past drug dealers just to get to the subway or bus,” he said. “What their teachers don’t understand is that for these kids, just getting to the school is an accomplishment.”
In the classroom where Daniel and I taught that year, kids were literally climbing over desks to have a swing at one another. I was prepared to be patient and understanding but not to be ignored as if I were a ghost—even by the kids who spoke English. Nor was I prepared to have 11-year-olds wrestle out of my hands the comic books or Game Boys I had confiscated. Even Daniel, despite more than a decade of experience, couldn’t quiet the roar of yelling and name-calling. He tried all the tricks I had seen him work magic with in other classes. He called on the most bellicose students to be the first actors. He found traits to praise in every child. He promised respect for them in exchange for their respect of him. He bribed them with improvs, their favorite part of his visits. I even saw him get mad at the students. But when he did, his voice was pleading, not angry Some days we convinced ourselves we had seen the slightest progress. I stuck with it, reluctantly at times, complaining to Daniel that I didn’t know how we could teach kids about respect, one of his pet lessons, if they wouldn’t show any for us. He’d listen to me with the same patience he used on them, and somehow I kept coming along. On the last day, a resigned Daniel said to them, “Well, I guess we didn’t do what I’d hoped we could.” Determined to salvage something from the semester, he even met with the students in small groups to talk about what had happened. That class, he told me, was one of the most difficult he had faced as a teacher.
The following year I met up with one of the more rambunctious members of that class, a boy named Jason. What did you think of that experience? I asked.
Jason was slouched back in a chair in his sixth-grade classroom. “It was good.”
What about Daniel, what kind of a guy was he?
Jason’s face lit up with a soft, easy grin. “He’s cool,” Jason said, elbow cocked over his low chair.
What was cool about Daniel?
“Don’t you remember?” Jason’s voice became urgent, as if my asking the question at all implied some painful gap in our impressions. “Last year he talked about imagination. And he asked us what’s our one wish.”
Later when I told Daniel this, he nearly sighed with relief.
“He remembered that?” he asked. It was a “day after that” he’d been hoping for.
When Daniel first used the expression “the day after that,” I was confused. “You know,” he said, “like in that song from ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman.’”
I didn’t know, so Daniel began to recount the plot of the Broadway show. The couch where he sat in the teachers’ lounge was partially covered with a tapestry almost as worn as the upholstery it was trying to hide. An easy chair with a broken leg crouched in the corner. A few plants on cast-off tables did their best to liven up the place. Teachers filed in and out, getting a soda from the Coke machine or walking past us to use the faculty bathroom in the rear of the lounge.
Daniel summed up the tale of the two characters, one a flamboyant gay man, the other a reserved revolutionary, who share a prison cell in an unnamed South American country. “The gay man is always telling stories about himself and expressing himself. The other guy is kind of repressed, angry. You don’t really know who he is. Then they have this incredible song, ‘The Day After That.’ And the revolutionary says, ‘I grew up poor, and there was nothing. Then I was thrown in jail here, and you know, it may not be tomorrow—we may not make this revolution tomorrow. And it may not be the day after that. And it may not be the day after that. But it will be the day after that.’ It’s a wonderful song,” Daniel said. “But it also is, you know, a way of living life.”
Suddenly he was crying. Daniel’s burst of tears sounded like wild laughter. The storm of emotion built and quickly passed. “That’s what I’m doing,” he said.
Daniel grew up in West Hollywood on a suburban street of Spanish bungalows just off Melrose Avenue. His father, whose claim to fame was that he never drove a car in that town, where no one walked, was a nonconformist in many ways. Although they were born Jewish, his parents were atheists, living in a neighborhood with one rabbi across the street and another next door. On Jewish holidays when his neighbors passed on their way to synagogue, Daniel would be out on his lawn with his football. In the 1930s his father had worked as a playwright. In the tradition of left-wing theater, he wrote about workers standing up for their rights. During World War II he was under contract with a movie company. Then came the McCarthy years. And he was blacklisted.
The blacklist defined the rest of Daniel’s life. He and his two siblings grew up with one priority: protection. Everything the family did in some way reflected their need to keep the secret of their father’s being blacklisted. His mother taught private dance lessons to support the family. She couldn’t teach in the public school during the ‘50s because she would have had to sign a loyalty oath. After describing all of this, Daniel laughs. “I say they were Communists, but I don’t really know. No one actually said so.”
His parents may not have admitted to membership in the party, but they did live and promote its idealistic values. Supporting causes such as civil rights in the early ‘60s and women’s rights in the ‘70s was never something Daniel questioned. Working as an artist-in-residence, making $20,000 in a good year in a school system fighting for its survival also feels right. “I want to be here,” he says, shifting his weight on the sagging couch. “It’s easier for me, in a way, to be satisfied working hard in a setting that’s not particularly glamorous. In fact, I prefer it.”
Coming to this resolve was a long process. Initially, writing seemed to Daniel like a horrible way to make a living because “a) you didn’t make any money and b) you didn’t get any respect. And to be truthful, it wasn’t romantic at all. Romantic to me was to be a worker or an organizer.”
The summer he turned 21, Daniel got a job at an East Harlem settlement house that served poor Italian boys. “These kids were very tough. These were culture-of-poverty kids.” Despite the difficulty of working with these young men—“They were a very old 17; I was a very young 21”—Daniel returned the next winter to work with them year round. The young men dueled with pool cues, wrote epithets on the felt cloth of the pool tables, and worse. During an argument, one of the boys knifed another in the belly. When the police asked Daniel who did it, he told them. The boys found out, and Daniel was labeled a rat. “They made my life miserable after that. When I refereed the basketball games, they threw pennies at my head. They threatened me.”
Daniel finally quit that job but not before the frustration drove him to take up writing. “It was one of those revelations. Suddenly God came down and opened something within me. I knew then that I’d write for the rest of my life, and I have. Not very successfully in terms of publishing, but I’ve been writing.”
A handful of his plays were produced at off-off-Broadway theaters, but he never had the success with production and publishing that he’d been striving toward. Teaching, as he saw it then, would be a sign of surrender. “I can’t even articulate it anymore,” he said trying to pin down his aversion. “Basically it was snooty.”
In 1975 Daniel hit a wall. His mother died, his marriage ended in divorce, and the career breakthrough he’d been hoping for remained elusive. On the invitation of some friends, he moved to Atlanta. In that community the only job for a struggling writer seemed to be teaching children as part of an artist-in-residence program. The first day he stood in front of a classroom, Daniel was petrified. “I would lose my breath. I was a man of 40, and I was with these teenagers, and I lost my breath.” But soon all that changed. “It was the most amazing thing. I liked it, and I was good at it.” Five or six years later, he returned to New York to teach with Teachers & Writers, which he has done, more or less, ever since.
In 1993 Daniel nearly gave up on teaching. Two years before, he had published a book, “Playmaking,” about his work, and in some ways he simply felt finished. Also the physical pain of teaching was becoming nearly unbearable. He took a sabbatical and lived for a few months in France. “I knew the sabbatical was over when I realized I really wanted to work with kids who were genuinely interested.” He wanted to teach kids how to be autonomous. “How do you teach someone to take control of their own life? There are a lot of psychological and political aspects to all of that,” he said.
His solution came in the form of a free Saturday afternoon workshop his students have dubbed DRAMA PM. The title is an acronym for the names of the founding members. Daniel began his new endeavor under the auspices of Teachers & Writers, which paid the rent for the meeting space and the students’ transportation to and from the class. Each week Daniel meets with about 15 students and teaches them how to write and produce plays. With these students the process is as important, if not more so, than the final product. Showing up on time is a big issue for these 13- to 19-year-olds. Learning respect is another. Arguments between group members over anything from tardiness to creative issues are central to this educational experience, Daniel says. “Talking about it leads to autonomy, to not being a victim. The reason people accept a drug culture and a lot of other things is they don’t feel in control.”
Finished with his sandwich, Daniel balls up the butcher paper it was wrapped in and throws it away. Now he’s ready for the climb to the sixth-grade classroom where he will teach his last lesson of the day. The 27 students are divided into five groups, each working on its own script. One and a half weeks remain until their plays will be produced for members of the PTA in another classroom upstairs. Daniel does not stand at the front of the room, where the blackboard displays the notice “No Gum. No Walkmans.” Instead he takes a relaxed stance, hands folded on top of his cane, along the side wall, which is made up of a row of closet doors. “Have you done your blocking?” he asks. He invites each group to report on its progress. His chin reaches slightly toward whichever student is speaking, as if he is doing all he can to bridge the physical distance between them.
“Our group is doing good,” one boy stands to say. He is wearing an oversized sweatshirt with the words New York printed across the front. “We have everything down pat. But we don’t really have the feeling thing yet.”
“Maybe I can help you with that,” Daniel says.
The next report comes from a girl whose hair is a maze of corn-rows. “This group is like a puzzle. We’re all in pieces,” she says. Daniel’s face remains attentive but impassive. The girl continues. “James is moving away. We have to find a new person for his part. We need two other girls.”
“So you’re having casting problems.” Daniel and the classroom teacher, who is sitting on one of the mismatched desks in the rear of the room, confer loudly about who can fill in for whom. “What are we going to do for sets?” Daniel then asks.
The teacher answers, “They say they want to use cardboard-and-paint sets, but no one has brought any in, so I guess we’ll have imaginary scenery.”
“That sounds okay,” Daniel says, turning back to the students.
The kids let out a loud groan.
“Okay then, what do you want to do?” he asks.
One boy suggests using big rolls of paper. “We can paint on it, then just throw it down when we need sets.”
“That sounds good. Good idea.”
A flurry of alternative suggestions follows. Daniel says that if they bring in the materials for any of these proposals by next week, he will allow them. Otherwise, imaginary scenery will win out.
A few minutes later, one of the groups gets up to perform. There is a barely tolerable din of chairs scraping and desks dragging as the students clear a stage area. Daniel sways back and forth on his cane, waiting. One girl tries to ask him a question, but he can’t hear her. “Whoa, folks,” he calls out, stretching himself up a little taller. One hand floats up over his head, “Wait, not everyone’s listening.” In a moment it is so quiet that only the whine of a siren passing three stories below can be heard.
The play is slightly rambling. A boy in the role of someone’s father is complaining about the white people he works for. “They don’t like when black people touch their food,” he says. In the next scene, he is shot during a street fight. His recovery is nearly complete by the end of the act, but he has amnesia and can’t remember his daughter. His daughter, in turn, is distressed and contemplates running away from home. She turns to the audience. “What should I do, run away or stay home?”
“Stay home,” someone calls, “you’ll never find a family as nice as that.” The girl stays, and in the next scene her father’s memory returns, and all is well. But the play still isn’t done. A romantic subplot still needs resolution.
During the performance Daniel gives only subtle clues as to whether he is amused, impressed or, much less often, perturbed. When a girl in a pink sweater and jeans jive-walks through her part as a madcap doctor, Daniel indulges in a smile. His mouth barely moves, but his eyes arch into down-turned crescents. He jots notes on a scrap of paper he leans against his wallet, with a pen he borrowed from a student.
“That was a good run-through,” he says after the actors take their bows. “Do you know what I mean by run-through?” Daniel is always pausing to define words or ask his students if they’ve understood. No one is meant to feel left out.
Back in the lounge after class, Daniel says flat out what I’ve often thought about him: “I’m a good teacher.” He says this without pride or fanfare. “I can sort of hear what a child is saying and give what they’re asking for. Sometimes the kid is asking for someone to be really gentle with them, sometimes they’re asking for someone to reach out, and sometimes they’re asking to be kidded with.”
In many ways Daniel has long been looking for the kind of instruction he offers his students. In fact he says he prefers the kind of schooling they are getting to the type he received in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the focus was on acquiring information to prepare students for college. Most people his age probably look back on that era—before taxpayers’ rights legislation such as California’s Proposition 13 began squeezing public dollars from the schools—as the golden age of education. But Daniel dismisses it. “It didn’t work for me,” he says. For the students he teaches, he fears it would have been even worse.
At the Emily Dickinson School, 70 to 90 percent of the students are part of the free-lunch program—meaning they are officially poor. Roughly 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, 30 percent are black, and the remaining 10 percent are either white or Asian. What the students need more than college prep courses, their teachers are coming to realize, are skills that will prepare them for life in the world they face at the end of the school day. Kids come to school angry about what they have to cope with in the world. “You can’t just be dispensing information when that’s the cauldron underneath,” Daniel says. “They’re struggling here to deal with the reality of lives in the neighborhood.” A curriculum including lessons on subjects like conflict resolution, and creative programs like Daniel’s indicate the school is moving in the right direction, Daniel says. “Here they are very interested in what the kids are thinking and feeling. This is a very healthy school in that way.” This is not to say, however, that he is content with the way public education is being dispensed. He calls education cutbacks “frightening” and the people who vote them in “bordering on diabolically evil.”
Taking my cue from Daniel, who always asked his students about their dreams and wishes, I often asked my students what they wanted to do when they grew up. Most of the girls said they didn’t know. The boys, nearly every one of them, said they wanted to play for the NBA. It’s not surprising. Pumped-up basketball sneakers and anything with the Chicago Bulls insignia counts for fashion here. The Bulls logo is scribbled obsessively in the margins of kids’ work and decorates the folders where they store their writing. When the boys say they want to play for the NBA, they are saying that ballplayers are the only men they’ve heard of who have gotten up and out in one, sparkling piece. The girls are still looking for a role model.
The way out for these kids, which Daniel is attempting to help them navigate, is in. Imagination is what he teaches.” If you really do work with the imagination, you’re saying what’s important is what you feel and what you think. You’re saying you’re valid, you’re important.”
It’s difficult to commit to an ideal whose results aren’t always visible. Some teachers complain, for example, that even after all this trying, the kids still get C minuses on their tests. Daniel admits freely that what he’s doing may change no one’s life but his own. Still, despite the criticisms he knows are cast against him, he’s driven to try. A crease deepens above his nose, and his dark eyes grow darker as he leans forward to make a point. “There’s always going to be someone who tells you, you are just doing this out of your guilty white conscience,” he says. “There’s a lot of name-calling. And guess what? Maybe all of that’s true. But there’s something else that’s going on, too.” He pauses as another teacher walks past. “You have to have faith that something else is happening.”
Faith, Daniel says, is what keeps him going up and down these corridors and the flights of stairs, even when his body is wracked with pain. “You can’t assume that you’ll have immediate results. You can’t assume you will have any results. I just believe in good faith. That’s a really powerful force, and that’s what I’m doing. And it doesn’t matter if I’m not, quote, ‘successful.’ I’m just looking for a day after that.”