America's youth shows a heartening mixture of skepticism and faith
By THOMAS FRENCH
Published October 31, 2004
[Times photos: Autumn Cruz]
Gibbs High senior Michael Mastry, 17, narrates Our Town during a September dress rehearsal.
Senior Jessica Borusky changes costumes between acts of Our Town earlier this month. She has been politically active this election year, but she won't turn 18 until February.
Gibbs High seniors Matt Everett, 18, and Jessica Borusky talk politics during Sen. John Kerry's appearance at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on Oct. 1. Jessica said they were there "for the experience,'' and not because they're big Kerry fans.
Is fear tearing us apart? Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago? Has information overload crippled our democracy? Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism? In a series of four essays, we explore how our nation has changed between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and this year’s presidential election. Part one Fear: One thing uniting the country is unease, but even that has a dividing line: Should we fear terror or the means to quell it?
Part two Information: There are a lot of truths out there. Just choose one that suits you.
Part three Optimism: Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago?
Part four Idealism: Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism?
Didn't want to hear another word about the polls, forever up and downing. Was tired of the ads and their poison, the jugular thrusts delivered with a wink, the postgame analysis of who stayed on message, the braying of outright lies - the entire appalling parade.
I needed an antidote. Something untainted. So I went to my son's high school and watched him and his friends rehearse for a play.
* * *
The first act opens in darkness.
"This play is called Our Town," says the stage manager, stepping into the light. "It was written by Thornton Wilder and produced by the Pinellas County Center for the Arts."
Beside the stage, at his table, Matt Everett listens for his first cue.
"The name of the town is Grover's Corners," the stage manager continues. "The first act shows a day in our town. The date is May 7, 1901. Just before dawn."
That's it. The cue. Matt takes a deep breath and crows like a rooster.
As farm animal renditions go, this one is more than decent. Full-bodied, urgent. Not easy to pull off, either; as Matt will tell you, the human larynx is not built for crowing. Which is why he has worked on this effect for weeks, downloading files of rooster sounds.
Matt is the play's sound designer. Over the next three acts, he will replicate the chiming of church bells, the metallic rasp of lawnmower blades, the patter of a steady rain.
He and the other students in this production are theater kids enrolled in the arts magnet at Gibbs High School. With the permission of the teacher directing the play, Christine Hansen, I've been watching as the cast and crew enter their final few days of rehearsal, putting the finishing touches on Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning vision of small-town America.
Nearly 70 years after it was first performed, Our Town still manages to startle. In a couple of hours, with a bare-bones set - two tables, a few chairs, a pair of ladders - it sketches out the streets and homes of Grover's Corners and introduces the audience to more than a dozen characters, including a milkman, a family doctor and a church choir director who also happens to be the town drunk. The play spans 12 years in these people's lives, detailing their routines, their gossip, the arc of their hopes and disappointments.
Somehow, it captures both the eternal and the everyday. More accurately, it asks us to recognize the presence of the eternal inside the everyday.
As promised by the stage manager - the play's narrator - the first act shows one day in the town's life, starting just before sunrise. The milkman chats with his customers. The family doctor returns home after a late-night delivery of twins. A boy, named Joe Crowell Jr., delivers the local paper, the Sentinel.
"Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there," says the stage manager. "Joe was awful bright - graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Boston Tech - MIT, that is. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France."
"All that education for nothing."
A few feet away, waiting for his next cue, Matt Everett feels a surge of connection. Thornton Wilder's doomed paperboy died on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. But when Matt hears these lines, he thinks about Iraq, Iran, North Korea.
In September, Matt celebrated his 18th birthday. His voter registration card just arrived in the mail. So did a notice from the U.S. government, informing him - as young men have been informed for years - that if the draft is reinstated, he's old enough for military service.
The president and his challenger both say they won't bring back the draft. But Matt and his classmates have grown up in the shadow of 9/11. They know that history has a way of shattering plans. If the war worsens, or if the United States invades another country, some of these kids could wind up on the front lines.
So they pay attention. Not just to the war, or to the election. To everything.
Matt and one of his friends - another senior drama student named Jessica Borusky - lead a nonpartisan group at Gibbs called Students for Progressive Action. To them, the scorched earth dynamic of Democrats vs. Republicans is too limiting. The key, they believe, is not converting people to a particular viewpoint; it's getting their classmates to develop a viewpoint of their own.
This fall, Matt and Jessica and others in the group have been registering young voters. They have a booth set up in the school cafeteria; at lunch, they roam the tables looking for anyone who's old enough. They've also been distributing a handout outlining the issues and the candidates' positions.
Matt is excited about voting in his first election. All his life, he has listened to dinner table conversations about politics. His mom, a member of St. Petersburg's Public Arts Commission, is a registered Republican; his dad, a doctor who heads the intensive care unit at All Children's Hospital, is a registered Republican, too, as well as a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. But they vote their minds, not by the party line. They encourage Matt to think for himself.
So he thumbs through the New York Times, surfs the CNN and Fox News Web sites, watches the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. More than anything else, he reads, boning up on current events, politics, history. At home, the bookshelf in his room is crowded with tomes that would frighten most adults: Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, The Chomsky Reader, Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1968. Matt is also addicted to Chappelle's Show and to the cheesy arrests on COPS. Above his bed, he keeps a poster of Jimi Hendrix at Monterey, kneeling before his burning Stratocaster.
In Matt's vision of the future, there is room for both Hendrix's fire and Kissinger's politesse. He plans to go to college, get a job, help change the world. He thinks he might work overseas. Maybe something for the State Department. Or even the CIA.
He has almost nothing good to say about President Bush, but he's not particularly enamored of Sen. John Kerry, either. He maintains a healthy skepticism. He loves signing on to FactCheck.org, keeping tabs on the inaccuracies from both sides. Not long ago, he downloaded the Patriot Act, just so he could read it for himself and see what all the fuss is about. ...
From the corner of the theater, the milkman ambles forward.
"Giddyup, Bessie!" he says, leading a wagon pulled by an imaginary mare. "What's the matter with you today?"
At his table, Matt snorts like a horse, rattles a box of bottles, claps two halves of a coconut shell together to make clopping noises. Matt enjoys this immersion inside the world Wilder created. No cars, at least in the first act; no cell phones; no computers. The characters don't lock their doors at night. To them, fear is almost irrelevant.
That notion is impossible for Matt to envision, especially since 9/11. He remembers sitting in his third-period freshman English class that morning, watching footage of the Pentagon burning. He believes 9/11 was the defining moment of his generation. Once he got past the initial shock and anger, he began reading about the attacks and the hijackers, trying to understand.
What Matt came to see, in ways he hadn't seen before, was that history is not just a recitation of the past, encapsulated in a textbook. History, he learned, is personal. It's alive. It's messy. And it's happening right now, surging around us and through us every day. We breathe it.
Matt agreed with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He does not agree with the war in Iraq, or with many of the other things that have been done in the name of fighting terrorism. To Matt, the war is a distraction, shifting our attention away from the deficit, from problems in education, from al-Qaida's strongholds in other countries. He wonders if the war hasn't inflamed so many people that it's actually feeding terrorism.
He's sick of hearing about what Bush did or didn't do three decades ago in the National Guard. He's sick of the allegations about Kerry's service record. If they want to bring up Vietnam, he wonders, why don't they dig into the real lessons of that war? Why, he asks, don't they talk about how we extricate ourselves from a conflict that could be far more damaging than Vietnam ever was?
Onstage, Grover's Corners goes about its business. Morning becomes afternoon, afternoon drifts into evening. The church choir rehearses. A train whistle whines. A teenage boy and girl, next-door neighbors, do their homework together and gaze at the moon.
The stage manager turns to the audience - or at least, to the rows where the audience will sit next week - and tells them that he wants to bury a copy of this play in a time capsule. A thousand years from now, he wants people to read the script and know what Americans were like in the beginning of the 20th century.
"This is the way we were," he says. "In our growing up and in our marrying. In our living and in our dying."
Just before the end of Act 1, a bobwhite is supposed to call in the distance. Matt, a city boy, had never heard a bobwhite, so before the rehearsals began he downloaded a file of that sound, too. Now, he softly makes the two-note whistle.
* * *
Halfway through the second act, the stage manager makes another pronouncement.
"Every child born into the world," he says, "is nature's attempt to make a perfect human being."
Listening from the wings, I nod. It makes me happy, seeing the young man who's playing the stage manager. His name is Michael Mastry, and I've been watching him onstage for years - he went to the same elementary and middle schools as my kids. Michael has a gift. He was always focused, quietly unstoppable, even as a kid wearing an oversized cowboy hat, galloping through a silly Western skit. Now he's a senior, on his way to college to study acting, and he has grown into someone with so much presence and self-awareness, he seems to own the stage without even trying.
Like Matt, Michael is one of these people who seems to be involved in everything. Aside from his work in the theater, he's the vice president of Gibbs' student government. His dad owns Mastry's Bait and Tackle shop; his mom's a homemaker.
Although he's already registered to vote, Michael doesn't turn 18 until December. It doesn't bother him, waiting for the next election; the intensity of this campaign, with all the charges and countercharges, weighs on him. At night, when he's watching the news, he changes channels during the commercial breaks so he won't have to sit through any more campaign attack ads.
"I can't stand them," he says. "Fruitless conversation."
Not that he lacks opinions about what's at stake in this election. Between rehearsals, I've been asking Michael - as I have with Matt and the other students - what he makes of the race, the war, Our Town and its depiction of this country. He thinks for a moment, then launches into a quiet but impassioned answer that touches on the war, the divisiveness of the election, the fraying of the American dream, the sense of paralysis so many feel in their lives.
"There's a large number of society that is worn out and tired and doesn't know what to do," Michael says. "People are looking, and they're lost right now."
Our Town, he tells me, is Wilder's attempt to describe some truths that transcend politics. The play, Michael says, reminds us that our time on earth is limited, that the smallest details of our lives are sacred. Clearly he has thought about these things for a long time.
One afternoon, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the theater lobby, Michael talks about the importance of work. He believes that when we perform any form of service, it brings us closer to the divine. Work, he tells me, is worship.
Like his being in this play.
"I'm still trying to align myself to that thought - that I'm worshiping God as I act on stage."
I admire Michael's stillness, his reflectiveness, his willingness to look beneath the surface. Every time I talk with him, I walk away feeling reassured. I get the same sense when I interview Matt and the other members of the cast and crew.
Take Jessica Borusky, Matt's friend and the other co-president of Students for Progressive Action. Jessica also grew up hearing politics at home. She lives with her mom and stepdad, who design trusses for construction.
In Our Town, she plays Mrs. Webb, the mother of the teenage girl who gazed at the moon. Like Matt and Michael, Jessica's a senior. And like both of them, she seems older than her age. In the course of an hour, her conversation will range from the lessons of the Gilded Age to the subtext of Citizen Kane to the environmental writings of Rachel Carson.
Jessica's only 17. Her birthday isn't until February, which kills her, since she wants so badly to vote in this election. Instead she has been trying to get other people to the polls, taking part in voter registration drives around the area. The other day, she was talking to a guy about the importance of voting. He asked whether it really mattered, until Jessica reminded him how close the tally ended up four years ago.
"I think I was getting through to him," she says. "Because he didn't ask for my number."
Hearing this, I go for the obvious followup. Um, is it normal for her to get hit on while she's out manning the barricades of democracy?
She answers with a measured smile.
"I've learned," she says, "that I'm not unattractive."
Although she has strong opinions about the war, the issue that really gets Jessica fired up is the environment. She volunteers with the local chapter of the Sierra Club. She's considering a career as an environmental lawyer. She's so intense, some of the other students make fun of her. They call her Erin Brockovich. They threaten to litter in her presence.
"Why don't you save a tree?" they ask her.
That's when she gives them one of her looks.
As I listen to Jessica and the others, I'm struck by their directness. For a generation supposedly addicted to irony, these kids seem comfortable saying what's on their minds and in their hearts. They are unapologetically engaged. Many of them I've known since they were in kindergarten or first grade. And yet I'm repeatedly caught off guard, seeing how poised they've all become, how much they've learned.
My own son, Nat, just turned 16. He plays George Gibbs, the neighbor boy who watches the moon with Mrs. Webb's daughter, Emily. In the second act, they fall in love and get married.
For me, watching is almost surreal. Since Our Town is set a hundred years ago, it pushes the audience to reflect on the past and compare it to the present. But because this production is put together by kids I've watched grow up - and since it includes a scene where my son stands at a wedding altar, kissing his bride - it forces me to contemplate some eventualities that, until now, seemed far away.
Here at the theater, I've been trying to give Nat some room. It must be awkward for him, having his dad hanging around, interviewing his friends. So I leave him alone.
Every afternoon, the rehearsals go forward like clockwork. The kids are so well trained that Mrs. Hansen, the director, doesn't have to say a word.
As the second act rolls forward, the actors prepare for the wedding scene, filling the stage with rows of chairs that double for the pews of a church. In the middle of the chairs, they leave an aisle for the bride to make her entrance.
While they work, Michael Mastry - still in character as the stage manager - talks to the audience.
"Some churches say that marriage is a sacrament. I don't quite know what that means, but I can guess. ... People were made to live two by two."
A few feet away, Matt Everett strikes some chimes that pass for church bells. The wedding guests take their seats.
One of them hesitates at the church door. It's Mrs. Webb, Jessica's character. The mother of the bride is fighting tears.
"I don't know why on earth I should be crying," she says. "It came over me at breakfast this morning. There was Emily eating her breakfast as she's done for 17 years, and now she's going out of my house. I suppose that's it."
Mrs. Webb shakes her head.
"Oh, I've got to say it. You know, there's something downright cruel about sending our girls out into marriage this way."
This part is kind of quaint. One of the things that's upsetting Mrs. Webb is that she hasn't warned her daughter about what happens inside the marital bed.
"It's cruel, I know, but I couldn't bring myself to say anything. I went into it blind as a bat myself."
"The whole world's wrong. That's what's the matter."
Something about hearing Jessica say these lines is pleasing to me. Maybe it's the distance she has to travel to reach them. The character of Mrs. Webb is cautious, a bit naive. The actor playing her is not. Jessica is still young, and she'd be the first to admit that she has much to learn. But she's not a child anymore. Like anyone else, she has experienced setbacks, disappointments, loss. None of it seems to have closed her off. She's open and aware. She pays attention. She believes.
Watching Jessica reminds me how easily faith can slip away. I remember when Nat and some of his friends - kids here at the theater today - were just starting kindergarten and I saw them reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a school assembly.
For years, saying the pledge had irritated me. Every time I came to "with liberty and justice for all," I would inwardly scoff. But that day, when Nat and his classmates spoke that phrase together, I studied their faces and fought back tears.
There were no doubts inside my son and his classmates. They hadn't yet learned all the ways the system conspires against the ideals expressed in the pledge. Holding their hands over their hearts, they accepted every word, without question or hesitation.
That was when I finally got it. The pledge, I realized, is not meant to be an assessment of where we are now. It's a promise. A naming of the destination we're striving to reach. As adults, our job is to travel down the road as far as we can. Then, when our children are ready, we hand them the keys.
"Do you, George, take this woman, Emily, to be your wedded wife, to have ..."
The wedding has begun, with the stage manager officiating. When it comes time for the newlyweds to kiss, he turns to the audience again. As he speaks, all the other actors freeze, including the bride and groom, their lips still pressed together.
"I've married over 200 couples in my day," says the stage manager. "Do I believe in it? I don't know. M marries N. Millions of them.
"The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will ..."
"Once in a thousand times, it's interesting."
I watch my son and his bride, still locked in their frozen kiss.
There it is again.
* * *
In the third act, Matt makes it rain.
At his table, he picks up a handful of rock salt and slowly pours it over a piece of muslin stretched tight on a wooden frame, like a drum. Then he picks up another handful and pours that over the cloth. Then another.
The sound cascades on and on. Soft, rhythmic, unmistakable.
The effect is easily the most beautiful in the show. Also the saddest, since it accompanies the funeral of Emily, the young woman we just witnessed getting married at the end of Act 2.
By now it's the summer of 1913. Nine years have passed since the wedding. In that time, George and Emily have bought a farm, begun a family. Now, at age 26, Emily has died giving birth to the couple's second child.
The act opens in the cemetery. Before the funeral procession arrives, the stage manager walks through the rows of tombstones, giving the audience a tour.
He comes to a corner of the cemetery where the graves are relatively new. Mrs. Gibbs, recently struck down by pneumonia, is buried in one of these rows. Other characters from earlier in the play have been buried here as well. The dead are onstage, seated in rows of chairs beside their tombstones. The chair next to Mrs. Gibbs is empty.
"They're waitin'," the stage manager explains. "They're waitin' for something that they feel is comin'. Something important, and great. Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?"
Soon it's time for Emily's funeral. The pallbearers make their way forward with her casket. Behind them, her husband and others huddle beneath umbrellas. When they reach the grave site, they begin a hymn.
"Shall we gather at the river ... "
As the mourners sing, a woman slips from their midst. Unsure of herself, she steps toward the tombstones and the ranks of the deceased, seated in their rows. It's Emily, crossing over to the realm of the dead. She finds the vacant chair and joins them.
For a second, she glances back at her husband, her parents, all the mourners at her grave.
This moment in the show gets me every time. Emily's mother - Jessica's still in character - is quietly crying into her husband's arms. So is George.
Across the stage, among the dead, Emily looks at her mother-in-law.
"Live people don't understand, do they?" she says.
"No, dear. Not very much."
Emily struggles to let go.
"Goodbye, Grover's Corners," she says. "Goodbye to clocks ticking, and Mama's sunflowers, and food and coffee, and new-ironed dresses, and hot baths ... "
She turns to the stage manager.
"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every minute?"
The stage manager shakes his head.
"No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some."
It's brutal to see Emily at her wedding one moment, and in the cemetery the next. But it's the heart of the play. The moment that Wilder was building toward when he first created Grover's Corners. The thing that Matt and Michael and Jessica have been talking about, beyond the election and beyond politics. The notion of waking up.
I look over toward Matt at the sound table. He's done with the rock salt and the muslin; the rain has stopped. The play's almost over, but he still has a couple more effects to render. The toll of a bell. Another train whistle.
He turns toward the actors, following their progress, waiting. In the light, his face looks so young.
He doesn't need a script. He knows what comes next.