Small Town Politics

Every small town has them. Everyplace where there are people who go way back. Everyplace where there are insiders and outsiders. Everyplace where old relationships and personal agendas outweigh what is best for everyone else.  If you have lived in a small town for very long you have seen these kinds of politics in operation. You may have even been a victim by being on the wrong side of someone else’s plans and schemes. Of course, big cities have politics too, and they are just as cut throat, but they don’t have the personal touch of the small town.

I can tell you from personal experience it is a horrific place to be. Similar to a relationship with a narcissist, these kinds of mind games make you feel as if you are the one who is crazy. You rack your brain trying to figure out what you did to make everyone whom you trusted turn on you. You replay events and conversations over and over in your head. You try to think of a way situations could have gone differently. You feel stupid for not seeing the writing on the wall or the target on your back. And while you are sitting in the pain of betrayal, you are ousted from all groups where you were formerly welcomed. Small town politics is abusive childish behavior at its most insidious. If you have ever been the victim of it you will carry the wounds right into therapy and probably after that for the rest of your life. Trust will be hard to come by when regarding community involvement, all while the parties who perpetrated the treatment go on with their lives as if nothing happened, or point to their victims as the problem.

The victims of this kind of small-town structure pile up. There is a road littered with them. Most move on to other places, or leave quietly in the orchestrated humiliation that never should have belonged to them in the first place. Shame keeps them quiet, which was the plan all along. The hardest part is the betrayal. It eats at you from the inside and is excruciating to bear. When this kind of activity invades a school system the students are the ones who get the short end of the stick. I have watched many teachers get “run off” over the years. Some are forced to resign. Some are intentionally made as miserable as possible so they will move away on their own.  Others are set up to fail with impossible schedules or “extra duties as assigned.”

Mr. T is the latest in a long line of teachers to be singled out. Any school system would be crazy to get rid of him. In his time in White County the drama department has grown significantly in every way. From barely selling any tickets to selling out night after night. From just a few students to a crowd that turned into family. From NO parent involvement to a large volunteer force. From a run-down facility to a state-of-the-art auditorium. His vision and his energy have turned the department around.

Pete will tell you he didn’t do any of this alone. That the kids are the ones who make it all come together and he is right, but if they didn’t have him as an example showing them how, these increases never would have happened. Kids who used to feel left out because they hadn’t quite found a fit in high school, found their place on the stage. The theater department is inclusive. These kids have bonded as a family to each other and to Mr. T.  For him to be ousted two weeks before a production has inflicted trauma, not only to him, but to every one of his students.

Drama teaches kids so much…how to build a set; how to dance; how to sing; how to act and be convincing; how to move an audience; how to project your voice; how to convey emotion; how to understand a character; how all these things have been done in history before you. Honestly, anyone who is trained can teach these things, but Mr. T does it with heart. It is his passion.  It is his gift. We all know that the teachers who are passionate have the biggest effect because passion cannot be taught, it has to be caught. Add to that how Pete himself goes above and beyond by putting in many all-nighters to bring stories to life, and it is clear there is going to be a huge hole in the drama students’ hearts and the department for a long time.

He doesn’t just teach the basics, he uses his enormous talents as a creative to pull the talent out of kids who never knew they had any.  Kids who have never spoken on a stage, suddenly have new found confidence. Kids who couldn’t sing on key, suddenly find the right notes. Kids who have never built anything, suddenly can read a blueprint. Kids who have no friends, suddenly are a part of a group. Kids who don’t know how to work together, suddenly are a part of a team. Kids who were depressed, find hope. Kids who were angry, find an outlet for their feelings. Every kind of talent is pulled from them by the master teacher. I’ve seen him make a recording of an entire show so a student who had dyslexia and couldn’t read the script could listen to learn his part! That’s the kind of teacher he is. EVERY student has a place at the table he sets.

These kids work harder than they ever have and they do it because Mr. T encourages them. He gives little inspirational talks to motivate them…some of which have literally saved lives. He believes in these kids no matter who they are and because he does, they begin to believe in themselves and each other. They rise to the occasion.

I love to watch when the first standing ovation gets them hooked. A change comes over them when they see how the audience responds to all their hard work. They shine. They believe. They gain confidence. It is amazing to see. I can tell the ones who have been in drama for a while from those who are new by the looks on their faces. The veterans look at the newbies during the bows like “see I told you drama was great and all the work would be worth it.” All of them glow with pride and confidence. My favorite part is to go to the lobby after the show and watch them interact with total strangers from the audience. They laugh and smile and thank anyone who compliments them. They stand a bit taller and carry themselves with more poise than before. I can see the self-assurance on their faces and they begin to believe there is more in life than grades and high school cliques. They see beyond all that and begin to get a vision for their futures.

However, there is plenty of high school fun in the mix as well. Mr. T is a big kid who believes in fun. He doesn’t wield an iron fist, he creates an atmosphere of creativity. Of brainstorming and thinking of new ways to do things. He is an innovator and in his class kids learn that their ideas have value. They are not dictated to, but listened to. Their ideas are considered even if they eventually are discarded or adapted. That kind of teacher, who can make kids feel heard, is a rarity. There are pranks, and dance parties, and trips to Huddle House in full make up after the show. There are work days, and long rehearsals as well. It is all part of the mix which Mr. T combines to make drama magic happen.

He is going to be missed…but never replaced. We love you Pete Talton!  Don’t you ever forget that!  You have made our lives richer and fuller and a ton more fun. To the hundreds of kids he has inspired, and the thousands of audiences he has entertained, please reach out and give him some love.  He could use it right now. Also let the school system and school board know how you feel about this. And please go and see his last show Into the Woods this weekend and cheer on his students…since he will not be able to.

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