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Gretchen Teague has been Central High School's drama teacher for the past nine years. Last summer her students participated in the prestigious Fringe Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. But in addition to the daily pressures of teaching, Gretchen and her husband are dealing with the serious illness of their teenage daughter Haley. Randy Stewart profiles Gretchen Teague for this installment of "Sense of Community."
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(Fade up on Gretchen in her drama class)
GRETCHEN TEAGUE: What I want you to do is start on your Classical monologue... you SHOULD be pretty close to being off-book with this monologue right now... yes?
(kids in class) Oh-ho, no...
RANDY: Some of the most creative kids in any high school are the ones involved with theater and drama. And in her nine years teaching drama at Central High School, Gretchen Teague has probably worked with hundreds of them.
GRETCHEN: I have two groups: I have the IB Theater Arts group, which is working on devising original scripts; the other half of the group is the Advanced students that are not doing the IB course. They are doing monologues that will be their audition.
RANDY: And they are supposed to be getting off-book as soon as possible.
GRETCHEN: Yes... and they know that, yet they still procrastinate! (chuckles) But that's what they're working on right now.
RANDY: Originally from St. Louis, Gretchen Teague received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Missouri State University, and a Masters in Education from Drury University. She taught in the Mount Vernon school district for two years before coming to Central High School in Springfield nine years ago.
GRETCHEN: I've always wanted to be a theater teacher, from the very beginning of time!
RANDY: Who or what influenced you to do that?
GRETCHEN: My drama teacher in high school was the most amazing man, and he just touched my life so much, and gave me focus and a place to feel at home. And ever since then I've really wanted to create that for my students as well. Theatre to me is so important because it covers every aspect of life, and a way for a lot of students to access things like history that they wouldn't normally feel comfortable with in a regular classroom setting. My favorite time is when we're building the set, and one of the technicians will say, "Well, I'm just gonna whip out a little Pythagorean theorem now!" And I'm so proud that they're applying their math skills! (laughs)
RANDY: Gretchen teaches four levels of drama at Central, from introductory to advanced. Students can take the Advanced class two or three times if they wish. And if they're in the Middle Years Scholars program--in other words, they start at the 7th-grade level--they might be in Gretchen's Drama III class three or four years.
GRETCHEN: I hope,if nothing else, that they walk away with a love for theater, live performance, and that they will continue to be an active audience member if not a performer, and support live theater.
RANDY: Gretchen and her husband Shawn Teague have a high-school age daughter, Haley, who in fact is in her mom's Advanced drama class at Central. But real-life tragedy has struck Haley and her parents in the past year. Haley was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gherig's disease. When asked if her daughter's illness makes doing the job every day more difficult, Gretchen prefers to dwell on the positive aspects.
GRETCHEN: She and I are very, very close. Haley is one of my biggest cheerleaders. She still comes to class--she's in the advanced class. She comes two days a week. And she is not only a cheerleader, but a critic! And she's HARD on me, because she'll say, "Mom, that didn't really work out real well today... try something else." Or, I go to her for advice on--whenever the students are working on monologues I try to memorize one as well, just to keep my acting chops going, so to speak. And I was performing for her the other day, and she said, "You're talking too fast." I was like, "No, I wasn't!" "Yeah, you really were!" So in that sense, she's still very much a part of everything we do.
RANDY: When Gretchen's students were invited to the prestigious Fringe Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland last summer, Gretchen and Haley weren't able to go along because of Haley's health. But Haley inspired the class to create a moving, no-holds-barred, but often humorous theater piece that deals with the devastation of ALS.
GRETCHEN: The message, overall, seems to be this idea of hope and living every day to its fullest. And I think that they were very successful about it. It's a very moving piece, and funny, and just lays everything out there for you. I guess the shock value is there because they talk about, just really blatantly, "This is what's going to happen"--you have a two- to five-year window that most people live once they're diagnosed. But the way that they wrote the script and approach it, I think it's just really nice.
RANDY: Obviously family--and especially Haley, as she continually grows weaker--are Gretchen's first priority. But she makes time to be a mentor to her students as well.
GRETCHEN: These kids are a part of my family. And so when they have problems, they know that they can come and talk to me and we'll try and work something out. And I think on the reverse side, I know that I have THEM to support ME as well. Just the amount of support this whole school has given us as a family has been overwhelming.