At Wexler-Grant, "The Christmas Lesson" Gives A Master Class In Grace

Lucy Gellman | December 18th, 2023

At Wexler-Grant,

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Theater  |  Community Heroes  |  Wexler-Grant Community School

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The cast during intermission at a recent performance. The school's next show, a junior performance of The Wiz, is set for May 2024. Lucy Gellman Photos.

In the depths of a sleepy Saturday detention, conversation began to rise to a steady hum. At one end of the classroom, student Brenda Johnson admitted that she couldn't shake the feeling of failure every time she looked at a page, and the letters twisted and turned themselves into illegible blobs. Nearby, Kara Anderson listened quietly, nodding as though she’d been there too. From across the room, Deidre Allen piped up: there was no shame in being different.

That exchange—and a master class in learning from others—came to the stage at Wexler-Grant Community School last weekend, as students brought the world premiere of The Christmas Lesson to life in the school's Foote Street auditorium. Written and directed by music teacher Jaminda Blackmon, the work tells the story of six students who meet in Saturday detention, and come out of it with new friendships and a fresh perspective on both school and giving back during the holiday season.

It continues Blackmon's tradition of getting students to learn about and support a local nonprofit at Christmastime. Last year, students raised money for Columbus House as they put on a play about homelessness and job security. This year, donations will go to Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides temporary housing to kids and families facing pediatric cancer. While the play is very loosely based on The Breakfast Club (which students have not seen, because it's a good three decades older than they are) Blackmon has made it entirely her own.

"I thought it would be a good way to just address some of the challenges that students are facing right now," said Blackmon, who has taught music at Wexler-Grant for six years, and has become a second mom to many of her drama students during that time. "I'm so proud of these students. They've overcome a lot."

Set in New Haven's Dixwell neighborhood—down to scenes at the Stetson Branch Library and a character playing Branch Manager Diane BrownThe Christmas Lesson does just that, with cast members who range from fifth to eighth grade, seasoned actors and total novices on the stage. When the play begins, a small group of girls has gathered in a classroom for Saturday detention, all of them juggling their own set of personal and academic burdens. In their deep sighs and hunched backs, it seems like this could be a weekend at Wexler-Grant, where a Saturday Academy gives students the chance to extend their studies. 

In the play’s universe, Brenda (Naomi Johnson) is struggling to read, with dyslexia that makes her feel like she's done something wrong. Kara (Rosandra Furtado) has stolen a wallet from a teacher, so she has enough money to buy groceries for her younger sisters. Deidre (Taylar Wylie) is just trying to find her voice, and having trouble doing it. Lydia (Anayiah Dixon) seems to have everything working in her favor, but feels isolated when her parents are less-than-present. Even the teachers (Tanylah Wylie as Mrs. Mongomery and Vanessa Scott as Ms. Neal) seem a little in over their heads.

Until, of course, they start to talk it out, and provide solutions for each other on the fly. Deidre breaks the silence around learning differences, so sweetly that when she says "there's no shame in being different," the audience can feel it in their bones. Kara gets connected with a social worker, and learns how to ask for help and advocate for herself and her family. Lydia makes friends, first tentatively, and then with ease. Mrs. Montgomery, who is a relatively new teacher at the school, has an unexpected breakthrough.

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Tanylah Wylie and Vanessa Scott.

In other words—and this is where it's like The Breakfast Club, but both more diverse and so much more wholesome—students learn they're not so different from each other at all. By the second time they meet up after intermission, they're coming up with ways to give back to others in the community, from a site visit to Stetson Library (a nod to Harmoni Mabins as a pint-sized Diane Brown) to a letter-writing campaign and fundraising effort for young cancer patients. 

As the play roared to life last week, it created  a sense of support that radiated from the low-lit stage to an intimate audience of parents, teachers and family friends that had gathered to cheer on the young people at the drama's core. When Taylar came to the lip of the stage to sing a few bars of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," the applause was contagious. When Harmoni-as-Ms. Diane proclaimed "We are all kings and queens, and we should be treated as such!" it seemed like Brown was indeed in the building. When Ms. Parnell tried smudging and yoga, it was a reminder that sometimes, standard curricula can’t hold a candle to experiential learning.

Backstage and in a school hallway flooded with fluorescent light, that energy remained palpable during intermission and after the show. As students bustled from one side of the stage to the other behind the thick black curtains, many of them said they were excited to get back into acting, some for the first time since last year's holiday play (many were also in the school's production of Moana, Jr. last May). Each, it seemed, came away from the performance with a lesson of their own.

"It's fun!" said Taylar, a fifth grader who acts in the show alongside her sisters Tailyn and Tanylah. "It makes me feel good, especially when you're onstage and you get to know the people you're acting for. It feels like we're teaching people not to bully each other because they're different, you know?" 

"Yeah, I feel like it's not just acting," chimed in Rosandra Furtado, an eighth grader who graduates from the school this spring. In the play, her father has been injured in a car accident, and she takes a teacher's wallet because she's afraid her family won't otherwise have money for groceries. It's through getting caught that she connects with the school's social worker. "People really do go to extreme measures to care for their families."

Tanylah Wylie, a seventh grader who played Mrs. Montgomery, stressed how much the play taught students about not being so quick to judge each other. For instance, she said, Kara's storyline of falling unexpectedly on financial hardship helped her realize how quickly a situation can go from stable to precarious without a more robust safety net in place for families and kids.

"It can happen to anybody!" she said after the show, as she and fellow seventh grader Vanessa Scott celebrated another successful performance with a hug. "You have to cherish everything that you have and be grateful for the things that you have."

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Tailyn Wylie and Jai’Myz Demps.  

Nearby, those words resonated with sixth grader Jai'Myz Demps, whose character Misti learns from the students around her. After playing the demigod Maui in Moana, Jr. in May, Jai'Myz described The Christmas Lesson as a helpful and timely reality check.

"People don't always have the same kind of privilege as me," she said. "It makes me change my actions, because I never know what someone is going through." 

In the days after students presented The Christmas Lesson, they have also seen some of its immediate effects and echoes, a testament to both Blackmon's clear writing and their own ability to bring the story to life. After an all-school performance opened the show on a recent Thursday, a classmate confided in Naomi and Taylar that he had dyslexia, and had been too afraid and embarrassed to seek out academic support.

Before the play, "he felt like he couldn't learn," Naomi remembered. When he saw her character learn to ask for help, he realized that he could be doing the same thing as the characters—and that nothing was wrong with learning differently than his peers.

When students relayed that message to Blackmon, she said at the end of a show last Saturday, she was overjoyed. Each year, she builds the play on a shoestring budget of popcorn sales and out-of-pocket funds; there's currently no district support for the school’s theater program. When she hears those anecdotes, it reminds her why she does this work on top of a full-time teaching job. This year, she added, she was grateful for the help of Elka Wade, a Yale senior who is studying theater.

"To me, that's where I'm like, it's all worth it," she said. "This is why the arts exist. This is why we tell stories. You never know who you're going to reach."