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The Magnifying Glass
Author's note: Roosevelt is my high school. All the characters in this play are my friends and peers. Granted, all names are changed, but the sentiment and the content is real. High schools - or at least mine - have a problem. I live my life praying for Harvard, bowing down to Dartmouth, and yearning for Yale, but I know that in the end I will just be disappointed -- a 3.0 in eighth grade math will do that to you. The Magnifying Glass is, if nothing else, a cry for help. I hope the world is ready to listen.
Cast of Characters:
Ora Stanley – Student, age 15; struggling in many classes; joining experience-based learning program at Roosevelt High School in the near future
Miranda Stevens – Student, age 16; very competitive student; dances competitively on weekends
Pamela Ruth – Miranda Stevens’ best friend
Ellie Feinman – Student, age 15; taking several advanced classes but struggling in others; star of school theater productions
Lisa Stanley – Ora Stanley’s mother
Jonathan Stevens – Miranda Stevens’ father
Megan Walker – Student, age 16
SCENE 1: THE GILDED AGE
(Stage is entirely blank and dark, except for one spotlight in the center and four folding chairs downstage left. There is a light switch on the wall downstage left. ORA STANLEY starts out standing in the spotlight. MIRANDA STEVENS, ELLIE FEINMAN, and NARRATOR are sitting in the chairs. PAMELA RUTH and LISA STANLEY are offstage stage right).
NARRATOR: Scene One – The Gilded Age.
ORA STANLEY: Roosevelt High is one of the best high schools in the country.
NARRATOR: Ora Stanley is a struggling student.
ORA STANLEY: We’re ranked, like, 50, or something (she ponders this for a moment, then snaps out of it). There are so many opportunities to try so many different classes. Everyone does well. Teachers are caring and want to help the students. We have freedom, and get the experience one should have right before college.
NARRATOR: Ora has endured increasing pressure from her parents and peers as her grades drop and she is placed in less and less advanced courses.
ORA STANLEY: This school, surprising to some, is like the Gilded Age. Looks golden and perfect from the outside, with many smart, happy-go-lucky kids getting 4.0s. Inside, the school oozes with exhaustion, judgment, and competition. It's like we've all become little robots, or machines, trying to be the best (she sits in the empty chair).
MIRANDA STEVENS (walks into spotlight): Roosevelt’s slogan is, like, “a lifelong love to learn,” something like that.
NARRATOR: Miranda Stevens is a student and competitive dancer.
MIRANDA STEVENS: But that’s literally bull, that’s like saying that… well, it’s just not true. I can’t have one freaking conversation without the word “college” coming up. Today I told my friend Pam that all day I wasn’t going to think about college or SATs or my GPA or being valedictorian or any of that stuff that gets me freaked out. (She yells, facing towards stage right) Tell them what you said to me, Pam!
NARRATOR: Pamela Ruth is Miranda’s best friend.
PAMELA RUTH (walks briskly from stage right, into spotlight): I told her that she was crazy. How could you not think about college now? Literally everyone knows that junior year is all about college. Why else would anyone take AP Chem? (She exits stage left).
MIRANDA STEVENS (waits in silence, with head down, until PAMELA RUTH exits stage): I told you. The damn slogan should be… should be “a lifelong joy of getting into AP classes,” that’s what it should be. Or “a lifelong joy of cheating in AP classes,” for that matter (she shakes her head and sits in the empty chair).
SCENE 2: EVERYTHING BEGINS TO COUNT
NARRATOR: Scene Two – Everything Begins to Count.
ORA STANLEY (walks into spotlight): When you’re a freshman, everything begins to count. The only problem with this is that the younger you are that you begin thinking about college, the worse. Kids start taking classes and doing things only because they’ve heard from other kids that a college may like that, or it may look good on the application, or because so-and-so did it an so-and-so goes to such-and-such school (moves over, ELLIE FIENMAN joins her in spotlight).
NARRATOR: Ellie Feinman is a school theater star.
ELLIE FIENMAN: Kids should think about grades all through high school, but they shouldn’t feel the need to stress about it until junior year. People feel that school and getting good grades is the most important thing and that doing badly is awful.
ORA STANLEY: Their pursuing of their own passions becomes less likely. It’s totally common to hear a lot of students talking about what to do with their life because it “looks good on college” or “prepares you well for college” and the robot aspects become clear again. We aren’t individuals anymore, but kids working against each other, doing the same things, so we can get into whatever prestigious university is hot at the moment.
ELLIE FEINMAN: Grades are important – but they are not everything.
ORA STANLEY: Except for… sometimes I wonder if that’s even still true.
SCENE 3: BROKEN RECORDS
NARRATOR: Scene Three – Broken Records.
ELLIE FEINMAN: The first thing my dad asks me every morning is if I have a test that day.
MIRANDA STEVENS (joins ORA STANLEY and ELLIE FEINMAN in spotlight): Parents talk – parents have friends that have kids getting into college, kids not getting into college, kids doing super well in school, or kids failing out of school. That’s when I get compared.
ELLIE FEINMAN: The first thing he asks me every night when he gets home from work is if I got any tests back.
MIRANDA STEVENS: But my parents don’t realize that yelling at their kids isn’t something that is actually, like, effective! (Sits in an empty chair).
ORA STANLEY: Whenever I get a bad grade, I make sure to tell my parents that the test was actually significantly hard and I’m not the only one that didn’t do well. They respond, like they’re scripted, saying they don’t care how other kids do and it only matters how I do. But then, they go comparing me to kids that did do well. “How come you didn’t get the same grade as them?” “Did you do better than this person?” “So-and-so got a good grade and is a third-generation legacy.” And so on. Of course they are comparing me.
LISA STANLEY (walks briskly from stage right, just to right of spotlight): Now, that’s not true, Ora. Don’t be unfair. You know I’m just looking out for your best interests! Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little competition from time to time. We all know that you could use some academic motivation right about now.
ORA STANLEY (monotonously): Okay, Mom.
LISA STANLEY (smiling): Great. Don’t forget, you have SAT prep this afternoon! (She kisses ORA STANLEY on the forehead and briskly exits stage left).
ELLIE FEINMAN: You have to succeed in every possible way for them to be happy.
ORA STANLEY: Fights arise every day having to do with school and grades, and now it’s become almost the only topic of conversation. They ignore any of the other stuff I do. My life isn’t just my schoolwork. Only mostly.
ORA STANLEY: It makes me unmotivated and angry, and tired of hearing them being broken records. And so I’ve stopped telling them about my grades – good or bad – altogether.
SCENE 4: MAGNIFYING GLASS
NARRATOR: Scene Four – Magnifying Glass.
ORA STANLEY: My passion for learning is decreasing.
ELLIE FEINMAN: People feel as if they need to get good grades purely to do better than a classmate, and this is not a good environment for a class.
ORA STANLEY: Classes have become a game, every man for himself. Make fun of the kid that doesn’t do his homework, gossip about that one kid that got a 70 percent on the easiest test of the year. I’m always that kid! It sucks! It really sucks. Kids have turned against each other in more of a secret way, as opposed to working with each other to actually help the other person. Kids don't raise their hands because they're afraid they will get judged. Me, I like to sit in the back, because my teachers don’t call on me back there.
ELLIE FEINMAN: They feel like they’re constantly under a little magnifying glass, with everyone judging and analyzing their every move.
ORA STANLEY: With kids that learn differently doing the same work and working towards the same goal, results will obviously be different, but going into class the next day with all those kids looking at the genius that got a 100 percent on a test, they now feel the need to beat that. We can’t all go to that prestigious three-billion year-old university. I know I won’t be going there. But for some reason, we all feel like we have to, like we’ve failed if we don’t. Sometimes I wonder – does everyone but the valedictorian leave high school feeling like all their hard work has been for nothing?
ELLIE FEINMAN: People see school, all parts of school, as a race. A race to get the best everything – test scores, essay topics, project ideas, course choices, teachers, et cetera et cetera et cetera et cetera (she groans and sits in an empty chair).
SCENE 5: DECISIONS
NARRATOR: Scene Five – Decisions.
JONATHAN STEVENS (enters from stage right, pauses to right of spotlight, and speaks into a cell phone): Jennifer. Be reasonable, here. She got an 84 on her last history test. She can’t go on traipsing away to dance classes every other night with her grades dropping like that (he pauses for a few seconds). She has to drop at least one class. Or two (he pauses, again, for a few seconds). Fine. I’ll tell her (he turns off the phone and briskly exits stage left).
MIRANDA STEVENS (joins ORA STANLEY in the spotlight): I’m not so sure I’ll be able to dance next year as much as I did this year. My parents have been thinking about that for weeks. They like to pretend that it’s actually my decision, in, like, any way. They’ll make me think about the choice for a month or two and then they’ll use weird passive-aggressive persuasion and eventually I’ll bend to what they want. It always happens.
ORA STANLEY: We have adult responsibilities, yet our freedoms are limited and we have to listen to what adults say. Some can push through this, and some – I – simply cannot.
MIRANDA STEVENS: They don’t realize that without my dance classes I won’t really have anything to look forward to. The day will just be classes, homework, drudgery.
JONATHAN STEVENS (yells from offstage): Miranda! Come here just a moment!
MIRANDA STEVENS: If school can’t be fun then dance has got to be! (She exits stage left).
SCENE 6: REFLECTION
NARRATOR: Scene 6 – Reflection.
ORA STANLEY: Watching people talk about grades and college all around school every day is really sad. It’s sad because one number or one percent changes the way you think about that person, so it changes the way he or she thinks about him or herself. Kids get humiliated and judged and their self-confidence becomes lower. Competition varies between boys and girls – and competition is not only evident with grades and school. It’s who is better at what sport, who was invited to that party, who was at that party, who is friends with who, who’s prettier, who’s hotter, who’s stronger, who wears better clothes – pressure comes from all different directions.
MIRANDA STEVENS: Wherever it is I end up, college better be freaking worth it.
ORA STANLEY: We talk about it all the time, our parents say it’s such a shame, but no one does anything to fix it (she sits in the empty chair).
(NARRATOR turns off light switch. MIRANDA STEVENS, ORA STANLEY, NARRATOR, and ELLIE FEINMAN pick up chairs and exit stage left).
SCENE 7: PTA
(Several dozen PTA MEMBERS file onto stage from stage right, each with a folding chair, and set up chairs in rows facing stage left. A blank projector screen is moved onto stage left. PTA MEMBERS all sit in folding chairs. PTA MEMBERS yawn, murmur with neighbors, and ad lib with other post-movie activity).
PTA PRESIDENT (stands up, turns on light switch so that all lights turn on, not just spotlight, and walks in front of projector to address the group): I hope you all enjoyed the documentary; I think we all gained a little bit of insight into the everyday travails of students, especially those at Roosevelt, given the high-pressure conditions which they are under. We only have a minute or two for discussion. Questions, comments, anyone?
PTA MEMBER 1 (stands up): I think it’s quite clear that the students have a lot on their plates, above all, of course, the juniors and seniors featured in the movie. Quite obviously, us parents are largely at fault for this (she sits down).
PTA MEMBER 2 (stands up): Forgive me, Marcy, but I have to object. The stressors of high school are only preparing our kids for college and the workforce. It’s sort of a competitive edge for them. We don’t want them getting lazy. It’s all good, motivating stress, anyway (he sits down).
PTA MEMBER 3 (stands up): As a licensed psychologist, I’d like to point at the difference between good stress and bad stress, or eustress and distress. It seemed that the stress to which the students in the film were subjected was most certainly distress. Stress that could cause long term psychological issues (she sits down).
PTA PRESIDENT: All right. Great. Thank you all for your insightful comments. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to discuss the movie. At our next meeting we can perhaps continue the discussion before talking about the effects of the newly proposed budget cuts on the sports departments at the elementary schools, as per agenda.
(PTA MEMBERS fold up chairs and exit stage left. Projector is removed from stage).
SCENE 8: HOME
(A bed is moved to center stage, with MEGAN WALKER lying on top of it. She is wearing headphones, which are plugged into her laptop computer. The screen shows a half-written essay on a word-processing program. A door is moved to a position eight feet to the left of the bed).
PTA MEMBER 1 (enters from stage left, opens door, and takes a few steps into “room): Megan. (MEGAN WALKER hums, oblivious to her mother’s presence). Megan! (She pauses; after no response, she walks up to the bed and takes the headphones out of MEGAN WALKER’s ears).
MEGAN WALKER (surprised): Hey!
PTA MEMBER 1: Don’t wear your headphones when I’m trying to speak with you.
MEGAN WALKER: How would I have known that you were trying to speak to me? I had my headphones in.
PTA MEMBER 1: Did you finish your homework?
MEGAN WALKER: Yes, mother. As I always do.
PTA MEMBER 1: Did you study for your math test?
MEGAN WALKER: Yes, mother. As I always do.
PTA MEMBER 1: Well, maybe you should study some more. I talked to Ava Perlmutter’s mother tonight. Ava got a 99 on that test you took last week. She’s applying to Hopkins, too. Did you know she’s the student council president? And this summer she’s doing research at a national lab in engineering. And she’s a merit scholar. Quite a spread.
MEGAN WALKER (clenching teeth): Yes, mother. As you told me yesterday.
PTA MEMBER 1: Fine. Finish whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t forget to study your vocabulary flashcards. A 2300 just won’t suffice, not with your ambitions (she exits through door and walks off stage left.
(NARRATOR enters from stage left and turns off the light switch. He exits stage left).