Source: NBC Network/ Creative Commons
I started watching Rise while home sick recently and am so glad I did. This show offers a new lens into the challenges and supports experienced by teens and educators in public schools. Based on the non-fiction book, Drama High, the show is set in rural Pennsylvania and centers around an English teacher, Mr. Mazzuchelli, who takes over the drama program and wants to shake things up by doing the Broadway musical, Spring Awakening. He does not want to adapt its content to be family-friendly and gets lots of resistance from parents and colleagues. In the meantime, we get to learn about the lives of the students in the play and the ways they are navigating the stresses they experience as adolescents in this town. The cast is diverse and so are the storylines: here are three to follow as they model the challenges parents and teachers face, and I conclude by offering some resources to show your support for public education and the #red4ed movement.
Early in the show we meet a student who is transgender: Michael. At the first rehearsal, he signed up to audition using his birth name, then scratched it out and wrote in Michael. Mr. Mazzuchelli was looking at the sheet and rather than defaulting to the birth name, or making a big deal out of it, he simply addresses him and says, “How would you like us to call you here?” He responds, “Michael” and that is how it goes from there on out. There are various times in the show when his fellow cast-mates have to correct their peers (name, pronouns, etc.) and stand up for Michael, and they do. It is a great example of allyship and how adult role models are important in setting the tone for behavior expectations and acceptance in their communities. We just saw an example of this as the teacher of the year, Mandy Manning, was honored at the White House and she wore various pins supporting her students including one stating, “trans equality now” and handed President Trump a stack of letters from her immigrant and refugee students.
There is a second storyline about a young man, Simon, who is from a conservative Christian family who is cast to play a gay teen who has a love story in the play. We see how drawn Simon is to his peer playing his love interest in the play, and the internal struggle he experiences as we see the possibility of his same-sex attraction emerge in love scenes. He seeks a girlfriend, avoids his scene partner, and has power struggles with his parents – his father in particular – who disapproves of the show and his son’s role in it. Simon’s role in the play forces the mother to deal with the possibility that her son might be gay. This issue creates a rift in the parents’ relationship as she chooses to stand up to the father knowing that she needs to find a way to support her child so he knows she loves him unconditionally.
The third storyline that I am finding compelling and fraught is that of Maashous, a foster teen who lives in the lighting booth at school until Mr. Mazzuchelli discovers him there. He learns his foster situation is not good and makes space for him to stay in his home with his family. The lines in this show (and in life) are constantly blurred for the teachers seeking to support their students and demonstrates the importance of having access to many caring adults in the lives of youth. The ethical dilemmas faced are real: is it legal? Not always. Will it help this kid right now? Yes. So, what do you do?
Rise helps show the important work done by caring teachers and coaches in public schools around the country and the difficult job they have helping their students learn, develop, and grow. I love how the writers humanize the students and the teachers and show multiple facets of their lives and how they overlap in this small community. Many educators can never “go home” at the end of the day as they are still always the drama teacher, the football coach, or the math teacher in the grocery store, the neighborhood, at the football game. Kudos to the folks putting this show together as they recognize the deep work and love that many educators put in to their students and communities every day. During this era of #red4ed and needing widespread support to fund public education and teacher salaries, we need more stories like these. I hope you will support efforts in your communities to fairly compensate teachers and ensure public schools have the funding they need to serve their communities well.
Here are some places to start: