I Am A Teacher
With production money provided by the publisher, Marquis researched and selected the subjects, while Sachs traveled across the country conducting interviews and photographing 78 teachers from every state and the District of Columbia. Says Sachs, "I've been everywhere from an Indian reservation in North Dakota to an inner-city school in the Bronx, from an Eskimo school in Nome, Alaska, to a one-room schoolhouse in Arizona.''
The book has garnered praise from important people in education and politics. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., calls it "an eye-catching and moving tribute to the American classroom teacher.'' And National Education Association President Keith Geiger says it is "a wonderful tribute to America's teachers--one that's long overdue.''
Similar praise has been offered to the original I Am a Teacher, Marquis' play--a one-man, two-act dramatic comedy about life in the classroom. Over the past decade, Marquis and other actors have performed the play for thousands of teachers, students, and school administrators, as well as the general public. For Marquis, all the world's a stage: I Am a Teacher has played everywhere from school cafeterias and gymnasiums to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he performed for an invitational audience of local educators and members of Congress.
The 39-year-old Marquis clearly enjoys playing center stage. He's tall and lean, and when he bends his knees--which he does often during the show--his kneecaps make sharp points through the fabric of his pants. His is the face of a man who wants to be noticed: He has a short-clipped beard and a handlebar mustache that accentuates his jowls when he's onstage. His exaggerated gestures and extreme facial expressions testify to the boundless energy required of any teacher.
Watching Marquis at work suggests that he was a vibrant teacher, one students looked forward to having because he was always doing something unusual. He taught junior high history, English, and American studies in the Dallas area for four years in the 1970s. Much of the play has been culled from his teaching experience and his continuing contact with teachers. "This show doesn't have a political agenda,'' Marquis says. "The reason this show has been successful is because it is true. Somebody who wasn't a teacher couldn't have done this.''
Marquis wrote the play in 1976, in response to the death of a former student. He wanted it to show audiences the risk teachers take when they get involved in students' lives. It's a risk that the play's character-- high school history teacher Ben James--and the teachers in Marquis' new book take every day.
Of course, the play has changed over the years to reflect the changing scene in the classroom. In the 1970s, Ben James might have commented on a student's long hair. But in the '80s, James made sarcastic remarks about a student's purple and green tresses. These days, he quips about the intricate designs shaved into students' hair.
Marquis also updates the play to reflect social change. An early version had Ben James dealing with the angry parent of an honor student, a comment on overly aggressive parents. Now, the parental sketch in the play taps into a widely publicized societal problem: illiterate parents.
The setting for I Am a Teacher is any classroom in any high school in America. The props are simple: a teacher's desk piled high with clutter, a chalkboard, an American flag, and a tin wastebasket. (The sponsoring school provides the props, gleaned from a nearby classroom.) Before a recent performance at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, N.J., Marquis looked disapprovingly at the two stacks of books placed neatly on the teacher's desk and asked for more--lots more. The school complied.
Teachers appreciate I Am a Teacher because, for the most part, Marquis' themes hit close to home:
"Mr. Sims. Mr. Sims,'' Ben James yells to an imaginary janitor.
"Good morning to you, too.''
'Fine, thank you. I was wondering, could you come down to my room today and see about the heater?''
"How about tomorrow? Sometime next week maybe? Anytime this decade?''
"Janitors,'' James says with a resigned sigh. "Janitors are the ones with the real power.'' With that, the audience at Passaic Valley laughs knowingly.
Other sections touch on more serious subjects:
"I don't want to raise these kids, I want to teach them history,'' Ben James tells an imaginary vice principal. "But it seems like every year I have to spend more and more time raising them, and I spend less and less time teaching them. And then the school board, the state legislature, all these blue-ribbon commissions come along and call for stricter teacher evaluations. They want evaluations? Fine. They let me evaluate the homes some of these kids come from, and then I will welcome them to evaluate my classroom.''
These words bring a shout of "That's right!'' from one teacher in the audience at Passaic Valley and an audible murmur of agreement from others.
And then there's the sketch on the all-important bathroom duty:
"Wait a minute. I almost forgot....it's my turn to check the bathroom. Bathroom duty. Fifteen years and a master's degree--how could I forget bathroom duty?''
James walks away and mimes opening the door to the boys' bathroom. He pauses before entering, giving the boys a chance to put out any cigarettes.
Heeeeere comes a teacher checking for guys SMOKING cigarettes,'' James says. "Wonder if I'll find anybody.
Here I come.''
These lines bring more knowing snorts and halflaughs from the audience.
Like many others who have seen the play, Louis Centolanza, the superintendent of Passaic Valley, recognized himself in I Am a Teacher. "I thought the play captured the successes, failures, frustrations, and dilemmas that a teacher experiences,'' he says. That's the highest compliment Marquis--and James--could ask for.
The play's touring schedule this fall is light, Marquis says, because he is devoting his energies to promoting the book. Eventually, Marquis plans to step out of the limelight and return to the classroom. "I am an actor, a writer, a producer,'' says Marquis. "But first of all, I am a teacher.''