There are good teachers. There are bad teachers. There teachers somewhere in between. And then there is Lou Volpe. And journalist Michael Sokolove deftly tells Lou Volpe’s journey and how he has affected his students and their town in the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.
Lou Volpe is the drama teacher at Harry S. Truman High School located in the struggling, blue collar town Levittown in Pennsylvania. Truman High is most notable for its amazing theater program, which has not only helped launch some of its graduates into entertainment, arts and media careers but has also caught the attention of successful Broadway producers. The drama program has also won countless impressive drama awards that often go to schools in much more upscale areas.
Most of this is due to the hard work and dedication of Volpe, a man truly committed to his students and the idea that the arts are an educational necessity. A strict taskmaster who challenges his students to fulfill their greatest acting talents, Volpe often chooses plays and musicals that encompass thorny topics like teen sex, rebellion, bigotry, homosexuality and other issues most high school drama programs would eschew. Though Volpe knows these productions may court controversy, he knows his students have the talent, maturity and intelligence to handle them. Included in these productions are the musical “Spring Awakening” (the Broadway production starred Lea Michele of the TV show “Glee”) and the play “Good Boys and True.”
Drama High covers one particular school year, in which Sokolove focuses not only Volpe but several students in the drama program and former Volpe students who are now being mentored to take Volpe’s place once he retires. Sokolove doesn’t only write about the arduous task of choosing the plays, long, difficult rehearsals, various backstage activities, limited funding for arts programs, delicate egos, the glory of performing on stage in front of a packed house and the joy of winning awards and rewards. He also writes about the what Volpe’s students deal with when they aren’t performing, including their classes, homework, money troubles, after school jobs, applying for colleges and assorted family issues. And though the “show must go on” Volpe is truly empathetic regarding his student’s off-stage lives.
Furthermore, Volpe’s students are not all the typical hammy, extroverted theater geek types. Many of his most gifted performers defy stereotypes. Some are shy and retiring offstage, and some are “macho” jocks who are talented on the football field and on the theater stage. Sokolove also covers Volpe’s personal life in Drama High, including coming out as a gay man while married with a young child.
Drama High is a riveting read, and Sokolove clearly has nothing but respect, affection and concern for Volpe, his students, Truman High and Levittown. I found myself not able to put this book down, truly wondering how things would turn out for everyone, especially the students. Let’s face it. Being a teenager isn’t exactly easy.
But I also felt a wee bit jealous of these talented kids. Where was my Lou Volpe when I was in high school? We all need a Lou Volpe. Damn, I need a Lou Volpe now!
Drama High also reminded me, in time of strict educational budget cuts, No Child Left Behind, and the attacks on public schools, the importance of arts education in young people’s lives. Not all of these students will go to Broadway or Hollywood. But the lessons of creativity, discipline, expression, teamwork, dedication, dealing with failure and success, and building a strong work ethic will stay with Volpe’s students throughout their lives.
Ultimately, Drama High truly conveyed the importance of teachers, and how those like Volpe, deserve our respect and admiration even though they are Public Enemy No. 1 to some political pundits. Many teachers are not babysitters and they didn’t get into teaching so they could have their summers off. They teach because the love kids and want to shape their future in a positive way. Or as Lou Volpe puts it in Drama High, “They are the reason why I come in every day. I love working with them. They make me happy and frustrated and all the other emotions you can imagine.”