Up The Down Staircase play climbs into challenges of the public-school system

Valsy Bergeron plays Miss Sylvia Barrett, and English teachers trying to order a class including students played (clockwise from Bergeron) by Jordan Charles, Austin Giles, Shalev Sharabi, and James Chung. - Andrew Leong
Valsy Bergeron plays Miss Sylvia Barrett, and English teachers trying to order a class including students played (clockwise from Bergeron) by Jordan Charles, Austin Giles, Shalev Sharabi, and James Chung.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Sylvia Barrett likely represents a sort of every-teacher in Brentwood College's dramatic play Up The Down Staircase.

The title of director Susan Quinton's show, opening tonight, symbolizes uphill battles against red tape and social stresses all instructors — in public or private schools — face for quality classroom time.

Two Brentwood actors, who've attended both systems, signal the odds favour private schools for a better education.

But Sylvia's a scrapper.

"Our play shows show teachers are struggling to actually connect with the students," said actress Valsy Bergeron, cast as Sylvia, an American teacher in New York's rough, racially mixed Calvin Coolidge high.

Sylvia meets bitter, burnt-out colleagues, plus a passel of demanding pupils pulling her across the script tracing Bel Kaufman's autobio-novel, turned 1967 film.

"If teachers get past the rules, they can actually start teaching, and gain kids' respect," said Grade 12er Bergeron, 17.

She attended the Lower Mainland's public regimen before entering private Brentwood.

The big difference, Bergeron indicated — noting both systems can offer good schooling — is how Brentwood lets students build solid relationships with teachers who are house parents and coaches.

"In the public system they can do that, but there are more students to teachers, and you usually only see them in class so it takes more time and more effort to build a relationship with teachers."

Staircases' grim reality is bannistered by comic relief, she added.

Punk pupil Joe (Hut Chaiyo) apparently has little to laugh about.

Thai-born, Aukland-reared Chaiyo explained his hostile Joe is "cynical against the academic system."

"He's been let down in the past, and finds it hard to accept Sylvia, who's reaching out to him."

Like Bergeron, Grade 12 actor Chaiyo experienced public classes in elementary and middle schools before reaching Brentwood in Grade 8.

"The private system's a lot more welcoming," the Salt Spring Islander said, admitting some classmates come from monied families bankrolling private educations.

"In the public system, I had no interest in learning," said Chaio, 17, perhaps mirroring his scrappy character.

"At Brentwood, I started thinking about what to do with my life; they want you to succeed."

So does frustrated Sylvia, shooting for student success in a system depressed.

"Everything comes down to funding of course," said Chaiyo, "but (public school) incentives could be provided to teachers and administrators to try to make education have more meaning — and provide success to students who try hard and push for success."

Your ticket

What: Up The Down Staircase

When: April 17 to 20, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Brentwood College's T. Gil Bunch Theatre

Tickets: $10. Call 250-743-8756.


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