In the immediate wake of announcing to the Trumbull High School Thespian Society that he was canceling the planned spring production of Rent, Principal Marc Guarino spent almost an hour talking to the students about his decision, speaking of “challenging issues” with the play and saying it wasn’t “the right time.” These nebulous explanations didn’t seem to satisfy the students or many of their parents. Two days later, the principal let it be known that he was going to have further conversations on the topic, suggesting there might still be the opportunity for the Tony Awarded and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical to play this spring.
Well the hammer dropped last night, only two working days later, given the Thanksgiving holiday. At a meeting of the Trumbull Board of Education, a letter from Mr. Guarino was read reaffirming his decision to terminate the production. Yes, that’s right – a letter was read. Principal Guarino wasn’t present at the meeting to make his position known, or to respond in any way to the comments and questions of parents in attendance.
As the first-year principal of a school in a new system (he was previously an assistant principal in Guilford CT), Mr. Guarino has adopted a stonewalling stance. He has not responded to inquiries from me or from any member of the media, including major national outlets. What at first seemed like it might become a valuable dialogue about art, educator’s responsibilities and important themes that run from Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical right through the present day, has turned into the cone of silence. In the course of a little over a week, Mr. Guarino has transformed himself from educator to autocrat. That’s a real shame.
Neither Guarino nor the system’s superintendent’s office are willing to even release the text of the letter that was read at the board of education meeting last night. Obviously by dragging things out, he makes it utterly impossible for Rent to go forward, even though his letter will eventually (presumably) be released when the minutes of last night’s meeting are approved and made public. But make no mistake about it, his actions have poisoned the atmosphere at his school and fostered a somewhat heated dialogue on the Facebook group Keep Trumbull Real. The issue will not die.
In the absence of official comment, I can only respond to what I’ve heard and read from others. As a result, I have many questions.
- Why did Principal Guarino meet on Tuesday afternoon with the drama director and principal of a nearby high school which has already successfully produced Rent, if there was presumably already a letter to be read at the Board of Education meeting hours later? Was that meeting for show, a pretend stab at looking for a positive solution?
- In speaking about the “issues” of Rent, what exactly troubles Principal Guarino? Is it the mere mention of AIDS & HIV, which have been sad facts of life since before the Trumbull students were born? Is the mention of drugs, which are so prevalent in both our society and our entertainment that one of the most acclaimed TV shows in recent years is about a high school teacher turned meth kingpin? Surely Mr. Guarino can’t think of gay, lesbians and transgender people as lesser citizens. Besides being discriminatory, that retrograde thinking can’t be countenanced in anyone in an educational position. So exactly what’s the problem here?
- Mr. Guarino reportedly expressed the feeling that there was not adequate time to prepare the appropriate contextual activities to prepare students and the community for the show. But beyond asking the drama teacher what she would do, did he reach out to anyone for the study guides and lesson plans that already exist at the many high schools that have already done the show? Or did he just foist blame onto a 17-year veteran of Trumbull High for not having one that met his undefined standards? There’s so much support that could be brought to bear if only Mr. Guarino wished to try.
- Could there have been better communication between the drama director Jessica Spillane and Principal Guarino? Yes, it would seem so, and presumably appropriate but not draconian consultation will occur in the future. Yet why punish the students for this, since that’s who are really losing out – in particular the seniors.
- Mr. Guarino, are you opposed to Rent, or are you afraid that others will be and, in your first year, are you moving it off the school’s stage to avoid controversy? If so, you’ve actually blown it, because now, unless you completely capitulate and let the show go forward, a portion of faculty and the community will always see you as someone who didn’t want to work for the best possible solution for the students, rather than for yourself. If, as I’ve been told, you’ve said that you’d be open to Rent at some point in the future, you might salvage the situation by immediately and unequivocally declaring your approval for Rent beginning next year, and leading the effort to create whatever education plan you feel is necessary for a production.
- I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I was intrigued to learn that the mother of Trumbull’s First Selectman, Timothy Herbst, is the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Education. Neither of them have spoken publicly about this situation, but do I detect a bit of a dynasty? And is it at all relevant that in winning his third term, Mr. Herbst defeated Martha Jankovic-Mark – the mother of Thespian Society president Larissa Mark? What is the official stance of the Town of Trumbull on this dispute?
One person who was eager to talk about the situation in Trumbull is Daphne Rubin-Vega, a Tony nominee for creating the role of Mimi in the premiere of Rent, now the mother of a nine year old child. Asked about whether the content of Rent should be considered problematic for teens, she said, “In this day and age, I can’t think of anything more appropriate. It’s perfectly designed for high school. To me, a loving awareness of the issues, sexuality, health, AIDS in particular is important. Rent is the perfect way to open up dialogue with young people. The cancellation of a production that people have been looking forward to is an obvious sign that our educators don’t want to take on the responsibility of educating our young. They’d have to answer questions and they don’t want the questions raised.” Vega said her child has already seen Rent and asked me if we should jump in a car right now and go up to Trumbull to lobby for the show. That may yet happen.
Does any official in Trumbull have to answer my questions? I guess not. I’m a former Connecticut resident, but I don’t live there or pay taxes there. However, if these questions are being asked by residents, by parents of students in the schools, by the students themselves, by the press, they deserve a coherent, public answer, and an answer that is neither reactionary or fearful. They deserve it not next week, not next month. Now.
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Update December 4, 10 pm: Several hours after my post was made public, the statement from Principal Guarino was publicly released. I reproduce it here in its entirety, as posted on the Keep Trumbull Real Facebook page.
Dear Trumbull students, parents, and community members.
My decision regarding the spring 2014 musical Rent: The School Edition was a difficult one and understandably caused much disappointment. I truly believe that successful and supportive schools are those that nurture strong relationships between the school and its community. Programs which foster student learning, growth and creativity require support from all aspects of the school and community.
With that said, I understand the responsibility I have as Principal of Trumbull High School to assure that our school is a safe, supportive environment for all students to learn, grow, and create. I first learned Trumbull High School was producing Rent: The School Edition not from the theatre arts department, but rather from a member of the community where I reside. Mrs. Spillane neither informed me nor consulted with me regarding the selection of Rent: The School Edition during the meetings we had in July and August. I appreciate that Rent is an important piece of American musical theatre. It presents educational opportunities for our students, staff, and community members to explore themes like acceptance, love, and responsibility.
Rent: The School Edition also presents challenges – both in content and execution. There is no evidence that an open communication, collaborative process – with either my predecessor or me—was considered to further explore Rent: The School Edition’s inherent opportunities and challenges. Open communication would– to the best of the school’s ability – provide a safe environment educationally, artistically, and emotionally for all of our students. Whether or not a formal approval process was required in the past, these opportunities and challenges should have been shared with me, especially given the fact that I am new to Trumbull High School and the Trumbull community.
Since this decision has been made, I have met with students and have read their messages of support for this production. I have met with parents and received correspondences from community members and concerned individuals from around the country. The commonality I share with all these groups is the potential Rent: The School Edition has to promote our district’s mission statement and our school’s core values and beliefs. To date, I have not been presented with a plan to make this a reality for our students, staff, and community. Without a thought out plan, Rent: The School Edition will be a missed educational opportunity. Without proper planning, Rent: The School Edition has the potential to become a speech rather than a meaningful dialogue to capitalize on all significant themes it presents. I am committed to developing this plan to best meet the needs of all students.
Trumbull is a wonderful community and our students continue to impress and amaze me. I am honored to serve as Principal and will always focus my efforts to support all aspects of student growth and development. I have already spoken with Dr. Cialfi, Dr. McGrath, Mrs. Spillane, and Ms. Bolan regarding my intentions to develop a collaborative process based on open communication to bring Rent: The School Edition to Trumbull High School. This process will require input and feedback from various groups. Most importantly, it will take time. Based on my research with various schools, this process will not meet the timeline for the spring of 2014. As I told our student leaders, Mrs. Spillane, Ms. Bolan, Dr. Cialfi, Dr. McGrath and some parents, I fully support Rent: The School Edition. We will bring Rent: The School Edition to Trumbull High School following a model that has proven to be successful at meeting our intended learning goals.
Marc W. Guarino