Sunday, October 10, 2010

NAMI Walk & Union Station Benefit

Last week I had invitations that both relate to homelessness. Not my temporary, seeking-a-house-to-buy homelessness, but the serious kind, often symptomatic of mental illness, poverty, or addiction. Two vaunted organizations, National Alliance on Mental Illness and Union Station, sponsored their annual fundraisers.

NAMI hosts an October walkathon in Santa Monica. A dear couple I know whose daughter suffers schizophrenia invited me to join the walk. The local NAMI chapter rented a yellow school bus for the trip across town. Riders included "consumers" (who have been patients or those who live in board and care) and "supporters" (who are everyone else). Really, it wasn't that apparent as to who was in which category. But it did cause me to think back to my college job as a "mobility trainer," teaching developmentally disabled adults to ride the public bus system. How confounded I felt back then, trying to navigate the RTD as it was called. How do people cope, I have since wondered, when they are disabled or hallucinatory or ill and need to commute?

The NAMI walk drew 3500 participants this year. I walked with my friends' daughter, and we chatted away about spirits, reincarnation, food, geography, and more random topics threaded by the most delicate of skeins. But this young woman with the blue marble eyes is so much healthier now than she was when psychotic breaks ravaged her and her family. Some credit must go to the tireless support and education offered by NAMI volunteers, as well as her extraordinary family who never falters in trying to provide a high quality of life. Mental illness affects all of us to varying degrees. Depression, addiction, organic brain problems: I saw the placards reminding us THERE IS NO HEALTH WITHOUT MENTAL HEALTH. NAMI's work will never end. But the solace and the information for supporters, consumers, and anyone else will be its legacy. The bus rolls again in October, 2011. All are welcome. Check out

That same night I was lucky enough to return to our beloved Pasadena Playhouse for Union Station's 11th annual benefit. Hector Elizondo, the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra, the Yellowjackets and others donated their talents. Entering the Playhouse is its own happy homecoming. But since 1973 Union Station has given succor to those who find themselves in a rough patch or worse. Union Station's services include emergency and transitional shelter, meals, substance and mental illness outreach. The Pasadena Playhouse partnered with Union Station on this twinkly night so that others might not suffer colder nights in times to come. If you ever wish to contribute, there is a range of possibility and participation. See for yourself at

The Glass Menagerie

Dateline: Alhambra, 10/5/10
Twenty-seven students and three teachers headed to the Mark Taper Forum to see a Young Audience Program of "The Glass Menagerie." Beforehand I must confess I sweated out the roll-taking, the body-counting, and the alphabetical lineup to the bus. But hadn't the kids signed my homemade Pledge of Conduct, agreeing to sit for the duration of the play; to carry no gum or contraband; to leave electronics at school? We were ready for our public test of behavior.

Tennessee Williams' play is a family case study, actually more comic than any of us realized despite my enforced classroom reading. Right before the lights dimmed in the theater, I reminded the boy next to me, "If you do fall asleep, that will be me pinching you quietly. Do NOT reflex-punch me because it's just me, your teacher who loves you." "Don't worry, Miss," he replied, "I don't snore," which wasn't the answer I wanted. On to Act I. Thirty minutes into it, two shadowy forms from my class rose and exited left. My shoulders sagged. The Pledge of Conduct was already showing its fault lines! Over the next thirty minutes, two other students stood and headed to the restroom. Now I was breathing hard. Hadn't I hammered theater etiquette properly? I consoled myself until intermission by recalling that only one of the entire class had ever been to live theater. Still...

After intermission I hissed at everyone, "Stay in your seats for the remaining hour!" I have to say, however, that not one of our students hooted or vocalized during any part of the play as other students may have been doing. As one of the girls observed on the way back to the bus, "Miss, making noise was so immature in there!" Thank you, I didn't say aloud. Some remarks are best left with a profound nod.

Field trips are no longer the norm in our fiscally strapped school world. Our principal's resourcefulness pays for the bus and the $50.00 attendance fee. She gilded the day for the students by providing breakfast food at the start and pizza upon our return. Because we are a Title I school (a measure of poverty), transportation and food issues loom over our students all the time. If staff can somehow guarantee some solutions, then we have inducements that make participation all the more logical. These particular kids have to be reassured time and again so that they can become the learners we expect. Teachers have to make every step palpable. We want them to understand that this is their Los Angeles too, that they can enjoy its offerings even moreso if they know how to behave. For any field trip we deliberately assign one teacher to ten students. This time our retired art teacher, current art teacher and I were the ones who watched over the students while they watched the play.

During the two days following "The Glass Menagerie," we had our students write thank you notes. They wrote to the principal, to the home-school coordinator, and to Center Theater Group. I told the kids I would act as censor for quality control; I've gotten 48 notes so far. On Monday we will send some emissaries to deliver the on-site notes. I've just mailed the first wave to CTG. Writing thank you notes is a staple of our field-tripping. It wraps up an event; it provides an informal evaluation; and it exercises our civility. I just want every kid to feel equipped to cope in public situations. Father Greg Boyle is fond of saying, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." I tag along with, "Nothing builds confidence like a guided cultural experience." It's but one day of school, yes. But I hope it becomes a day they will remember.