Shuffle Along, or How a Musical Can Teach Us to Remember and Treasure Black Art


Enjoying my summer in NYC for an NEH grant.

I have always been a closet fanatic of musicals.  I say “closet” as my bank account does not possess the sort of balance required to see the array of musicals I’d have to see in order to be considered a true connoisseur (I have never seen things like Cats or Phantom, for example).  But I do enter lotteries and try to score rush tickets, so I’ve gotten to see things from The Lion King to Rent to The Book of Mormon.  When alone in my apartment, if I’m not fervently listening to my latest audiobook (the current one being Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped), I’m singing along to Broadway showtunes.  Believe me, I’ve put on some pretty elaborate productions complete with Rockette kick lines while washing dishes and making my bed.  Idina Menzel would be proud.

I’m spending two weeks in the great New York City for a pretty amazing National Endowment of the Humanities seminar called “Freedom for One, Freedom for All? Abolition and Woman Suffrage 1830-1920.”  As history is cyclical, it is so fascinating to see how relevant the issues of voting rights, the right to love, and the disenfranchisement of people of color are still so stubbornly present in today’s culture.  It’s been an amazing seminar so far, but quite emotionally intense with a pretty hefty workload.  I’m still able to see some of New York, but on each train ride, you can find me frantically reading and annotating our readings to and from my daily adventure.


Our two core texts for the institute.

Even though I’m trying desperately to save pennies, thanks to my new friend Laurie, I heard that the musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed was closing for good. The post-reconstruction era and the Harlem Renaissance are two of my favorite times in history to teach. Not to mention that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Audra McDonald live.  And Tony winner Billy Porter.  And Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.  And nominee Joshua Henry…  And well, you get the point.  The show is pretty much packed with some of the best talent on earth.

But tickets were sold out.  I refreshed the seatgeek app several times an hour hoping that someone would give up his ticket, and I put up on ad on Craigslist.  And then, on Saturday evening—the day before the show closing–some tickets suddenly popped up on the screen for the final show, and I typed in the numbers on my credit card faster than I could consider the price (I paid face value.  But still).  I would find out later that Audra McDonald called off and stated that she would not perform as the care of her baby comes first (did I mention that she tap dances, does incredible high kicks, and belts her esophagus out, all while in her second trimester?!), which is why so many people gave up their tickets.  I’m glad that I a) did not know this fact and b) was happy to see that Audra did in fact perform the show closing.   She is one phenomenal woman.  

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As seen outside the theater.  #truth

I’ve never even so much as gone to a movie by myself, so I was a little intrigued to go a large broadway show stag.  But I was fourth row center, so I figured that the performers will feel very much like my companions for the evening.  It was an amazing experience to be almost close enough that if a character was downstage, he or she could spit on me when they over-enunciated words.  It turns out that half of my row was solo, and so we found ourselves talking eagerly together in anticipation of the curtain opening.  

It was thrilling to be in the caffeine of the packed house.  And it really was packed, as people even stood and shifted their weight from foot to foot in their jagged line against the back wall of the theater.  The only seemingly empty seat in the house was the one to my left.  About two minutes before the opening note, an attractive man snuck into the seat next to me.  “You made it!” I exclaimed with such exuberance, I’m pretty sure that the people in our close vicinity thought that we were friends.

“I better have,” he said, wiping sweat off of his forehead.  “I called off in order to be here for this.”

“Oh?” I said.  “What show are you in?”

Motown the Musical,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.

“What?! Cool! What role do you play?”  I was suddenly proud my solo seat family thought we were friends.

“Marvin Gaye.”

“That’s so awesome! That musical is on my list of musicals to see!”

The light went out a little bit in his eyes.  “You better go soon.  We close next week.”  

I had obviously struck a chord, and I stuttered a bit in my response.  “Oh man, that’s terrible.”

“Yeah,” he said, not making eye contact, “The social climate is changing.  It’s not one that’s as open for shows like us…”

He got cut off as the lights started to dim and people began cheering in anticipation at the start of the show.  I clapped and hollered too, but what he said stung and the irony was not lost on me.  Shows like us.  Shows featuring predominately Black casts?

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What it’s Like to be a Teacher at the End of Summer Break

Picture of palm trees along the beach at sunset.


My first day of school is just a week away, so I’m experiencing my last fleeting hours of the Sunday that is August.  That is to say, that in teacher world, we consider June to feel like a Friday, July like a Saturday, and August very much like a Sunday where you can’t quite relax and enjoy yourself because that “case of the Mondays” feeling is scratching at your front door.  I get a lot of comments from non-teachers about how blissful it must be to have the summers off–and believe me it is blissful–but the week before school starts is filled with bizarre feelings and behaviors.  So, for those of you always wanting to know what it’s like to be a teacher at the end of summer break, you now have to wonder no more.

  1. The “back-to-school”nightmares is a real thing.

The time in which the first nightmare will shoot you straight up in bed varies.  For me, it’s usually early August, but I have gotten a random one at the end of June (separation anxiety maybe?).  The usual dream is some variation of showing up to school to do some routine “get the classroom back in order action”–in my case usually unshowered and especially unkempt–and I realize as I walk up to my classroom that there is a classroom of eager (and confused) freshmen waiting for their teacher to show up to class.  The first sensation when I realize that I mixed up the first day of school date is “PUKE!”   And then that feeling settles into that panicked feeling of, “do I run and pretend that I’m sick?” or “do I walk in late with absolutely nothing prepared looking like I’ve come from a week camping in the Outback?”

The strangest back-to-school nightmare I’ve had involved the way I greeted students on the first day.  There I was, wrapped from neck to toe in several layers of bubble wrap, chest bumping each student as he or she entered the classroom–all to the tune of the Space Jam theme song.

This is the copy room two weeks before school started.  Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me.  I'm not quite that on top of my game).

This is the copy room two weeks before school started. Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me. I’m not quite that on top of my game).

Thus, most back-to-school nightmares highlight a) our anxiety of not being prepared enough for a new school year b) our worry that in the two months that we got to unkink the tension knots in our backs and be real people that we forgot how to teach, and c) that we will not make the critical good first impression on our students that we need to in order to have a successful school year.  Because the research states that most students make judgments on whether or not they will like a teacher and whether or not they feel they will be academically successful and socio-emotionally healthy in the class within the first few minutes of class.  And they are usually right in that first impression.  No pressure, huh?

So we care a lot about being prepared for that first day and that first impression.  I know I’m not alone in spending hours getting my classroom in working order, making copies well in advance, and starting to practice speaking grammatically correct and clean English again.

           2.  We go a bit nutty over school supplies.

This is a bit of an understatement.  There is a knowing look that teachers exchange between each other when we see other teachers at Office Max holding the same coupon clippings in their hands.

Teachers, as you probably already know, spend a lot of their own money on classroom decor, organizational supports, classroom sets of art supplies, and school supplies for low income students.  And we only get to write $250 of it off on our taxes.  So, we look for deals and free stuff wherever we can, because teachers never feel more broke at the start of the school year after they’ve bought all things needed get the classroom to its effective academic learning environment glory.

My strategy, because I’m especially broke right now, is to obsessively check, the free section of Craiglist, and my community swap and sell page on Facebook.  And there are occasional jackpots.  Just the other day, I answered a ad for 1,000 FREE PENS.  Yes, they have advertising on them, but hey, they work! Every teacher I’ve told about this find has gasped and cheered with me about my good fortune.

Picture of Jessica with pens

I’ve got pens for days!!

Writing utensils, when you teach high school at least, are a hot commodity.  I get asked probably 11.7 times a day for a pen.  And because I don’t want 2% of my paycheck to go to buying pens due to the low return rate of said pens, I get creative. In the past I’ve:

  • Had students give me a shoe in exchange for a pen.  But one time I had a student with feet so smelly I had to quickly give him his shoe back and change the policy to “some sort of valuable item” (i.e. their cell phone).
  • Spent hours attaching obnoxious fake flowers to the ends of pens and pencils, and “planted” them nicely in a pot, thinking it would cause students to garden each day when they returned the utensils to me on the way out.  But what I thought was obnoxious was “cool” to the high schoolers, and those puppies were stolen before I could even get through Of Mice and Men.
  • Attached stickers of Barbie and 90s boy bands to my pens and pencils thinking that again, the students would be dismayed at their utensil and want to swiftly return them.  But as in above, they started trading them like baseball cards.

I know that it’s good for executive functioning to help students remember to bring a utensil.  But I also don’t want to spend any of my precious class time arguing with the one student who forgets a utensil every single day. Because yes, there is always that one student.  Instead, I will provide that student with one of 1,000 pens I have in my classroom right now.  And yes, teacher friends, I am sharing if you need a hook up.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs.  Now I'm excavating all of my classroom materials out of boxes.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs. Now I’m excavating all of my classroom materials out of dusty boxes.

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Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico


I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.


Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.


Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

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