Sunday, October 29, 2017

On Fun Home and Gaining Consciousness

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(Posting in September was impossible. The girls had a tough beginning to 7th and 9th grades and I've been running a low grade fever of depression since November 8, 2016. But Friday afternoon had some leaked news of charges that brought a ray of hope and last night was an inspiration.)

I took my fifteen year old Mia to the musical Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater last night. We had both read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and loved it and I couldn’t wait to share with her the moving experience I had had watching the national tour show last year. I got to see the gorgeous (sing it, “GOR-geous!”) Kate Shindel in the lead but Mia would have a more intimate show and one directed by Chicago great Gary Griffin to boot.

But it’s not really a kid show and Mia was by far the youngest person in the theater who was not on stage so I suffered a pang of doubt whether it was the right choice for her. I glanced over at her a couple of times in the dark but I couldn’t tell if she was into it. Although the funeral home advertisement song “Come to the Fun Home” by the three sweet actors playing small Alison and her brothers is a total Brady Bunch/Jackson 5 style joy, there’s a challenging patch near the end with the penultimate tragedy songs, “Days and Days” sung by Alison’s mother about a wasted life married to closeted gay man and then Alison’s father’s “Edges of the World” (“so much damage...why am I standing here?”) sung in the moments before he steps in front of a truck.

But Mia got it, she got it.

“They shouldn’t have clapped after that song,” she said about the intense “Edges” and I said, “Yeah, it needed a moment of silence, when we're still in the story, before we praised the performance,” and she said, “yeah” and I was so happy she understood.

And back home, when we were retelling the experience to Nora and Randy, who had happily stayed home cozy on the couch for the Nebraska win, both Mia and I crowed and laughed about the manic David Cassidy/Partridge Family fantasy number “Raincoat of Love” (“Everything’s alright, babe, when we’re together/’Cause you are like a raincoat made out of love/Magic shield of love protecting me from bad weather”) and I cried all over again because the pain and the funny are so intertwined in a song that interrupts parents fighting and drowns out their awful words and I know by god something about blessed escape from awful reality into the sunny silliness of 70’s tv and its music.

Because that is it right there, the reason I am drawn again and again to this show, a musical about an utterly unique life that creates an experience so universal my breath is taken away with its familiarity. Our lead is a lesbian with a closeted and withdrawn yet talented yet criminal yet anguished father in the strangest of settings, a funeral home for God’s sake, and it thrusts me into consideration of my own need to forgive my father, to give his memory honor and “balance” as playwright Lisa Kron names it in the final line.

And in the joyous songs “Ring of Keys,” and “Changing My Major,” I see myself again, and cry with the recognition. The child and the teenager who sing these songs are discovering a reflection of their identity in the world for the first time and their feelings of relief and recognition make them burst into song. “Can you feel my heart saying ‘hi?’” sings little Alison seeing a butch lesbian for the first time; “I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky.../And my heart feels complete” sings Medium Alison after her first sexual experience. It’s so lovely and such a long time coming, I weep with their joy. “I know you; I know you” sings little Alison. Me too, little Alison, I know you too. I didn't need to come out of the closet but recognizing my strange self in my strange world did not come early.

Everyone enters the world with a single possession: a story.

I forget my singularity most of the time. I travel through my familiar world of home and work and pretty Wilmette neighborhood and beloved Chicago environs like the transparent eyeball of Emerson (and discovering this concept in my childhood within the pages of my older brother Ron’s American Lit textbook was a revelation both earthshaking and one I always associate with the sloping intersection of two suburban KC streets on the way to our YMCA swimming pool. Is this where I read the words? Or talked about them with my brother in the car?) until.

I travel through this familiar world until I remember the twisting coincidence that not only is my consciousness the only one I know (!) but this body from which I look out has a history unlike everyone else. I stay with this awareness that “I” is/am the same as “Cindy,” the person moving through this world, I try to stay in this weird awareness, thinking these thoughts, try to stay with the tilting vertigo and flushing strangeness, try to understand that “I am Cindy. I am the only one in the world who is inside my head,” fail to put the strangeness that is as large as my universe into words, wonder fleetingly if I could fall to insanity if I go too far, and then slip back into transparency.

Examining my life for ethicality, kindness and meaning is a piece of cake compared to this.

Perhaps it was all the reading, the blessed escape I found in that magical work: black and white shapes transformed into letters, into words, to meaning, to alternate worlds, to immersion within those worlds, within other consciousnesses. Peter in The Snowy Day, Adopted Jane, Laura of the Little House, Homer Price, Harriet the Spy, Francis Hodges Burnett’s orphans, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s runaways, Narnia (they’re all dead!), Watership Down, The Tombs of Atuan, Algernon, Scarlett O’Hara, Stephen King, paperbacks ordered by the dozen from Scholastic book orders, pulp, trash, forgettable titles that created yet unforgettable pictures in my mind, their titles lost forever. I’ve seen the libraries toss out bags of battered books. All those worlds. Immersion into someone else's head was my pasttime and my relief. "You were always reading," says my cousin Jeanne. It was strange to her.

The adjective “understanding” is high praise to me; I try “thanks for your understanding” as a balm in bad news emails. As in, thank you not only for being patient with me, but with trying to understand what is going on. When the girls fight, I want them to understand each other, think about why her sister might be feeling bad today, the causal link between a sharp word and no breakfast or a disappointing test or a text from a classmate asking to shift their friendship to “back-up friends.” Yeah, that’s right. A child asked my seventh grader to be her “back-up” in case her other, preferred friends don’t come through. I am trying to be understanding myself. 

Here's a facinating video about the writing and adaptation process of Fun Home the graphic novel to Fun Home the musical with playwright Lisa Kron, who won a Tony for her work and Jeanne Tresorio, who wrote the score.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

Summer, 2017

Let this temporary dross burn away in the crucible of time, leaving only the precious behind: enduring love, timeless art, radical compassion, persistent gentleness and these happy memories:


Nora played Mayor Shinn in our park district's Broadway Bound camp version of The Music Man and if she's missing from this photo you can bet her jaunty straw hat and energetic emoting are somewhere very nearby and you can also bet those two little cuties in the front just encapsulate all the joy I felt watching, singing along and crying through this lovely show.



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Mia and Nora dressed up as Totoro and Mei for last weekend's Comic Con -- it's their fourth cos-play experience together and they still get such a kick being recognized and ooed over and asked for photos.





In between the trips to Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, Mia and I took a break for steak quesadillas  and Saga comics (for her) and Thoreau and tequila (for me) at Depot Nuevo. My favorite night of the summer.




And this shot is EVERYTHING. My dear darling grand-niece Caroline at nineteen months who stared for the longest time at the three of us from the comfort of her father's lap when we first walked in the door and then, after giving it a great deal of thought, burst into confused tears. Which just made her slow warm up to us all the more wonderful. For by the time we left Cleveland after a lightning quick weekend, she was giving long hugs to all of us and little kisses in the air next to our faces. A miracle, really, to watch her learn and think and discover before our very eyes. A walk to the park is a journey through wonderland. And here also is her little bestie, Brinkley, the gentlest and softest of sweet doggie friends. And see Maggie's welcome sign for the three of us on the mantle and on the other end of the mantle Maggie's photo album of photos from her trip to Nepal to perform corrective cataract eye surgery at free rural clinics. Maggie turned 30 in April on that trip and it makes my head spin and my heart melt to remember her at Caroline's age. Like it was yesterday. So proud, so in love, so happy to spend time with them.



Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sisters, Side by Side

Here are my beloved maternal grandmother and her sister Julia, off on another adventure. The sisters called each other "Mimi" and "Jule." This July 11 was the 110th anniversary of Julia's birth. Amelia's 112th birthday anniversary was July 13.

These dear women were the only daughters of Mateusas and Petronella Gedminas, married in Lithuania in 1892 when he was 24 and she was 20. Mateusas went ahead to America to work in the coal mines of Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania while Petronella lived with her parents. After ten years of waiting, Petronella finally took matters into her own hands and asked her parents for her share of the homestead. She made her way to Amsterdam and then to the U.S. by boat, bringing with her a down-filled feather bed and a ram's horn to shape sausage.

Petronella reunited with Mateusas in Scranton, Pennsylvania where Amelia was born on July 13, 1905 and Julia was born two years later. Mateusas worked in the coal mines while Petronella cooked on a coal stove in their coal-company owned house and carried water from a community pump for baths and washing clothes. She made a small garden for fresh vegetables and kept a few chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner. She also kept boarders to earn extra money. The neighbors would get together to help make a barrel of sauerkraut to share. The housewives made homemade soap and washed clothes on a washboard. They sewed all the clothes for the entire family and made their own bread. They managed to have a pot of homemade soup on the table every day.

As the coal mines were depleted, the family moved to Mollenauer, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburg, where Mateusas worked the No. 3 mine. The public school was on the hill near the company houses. The Catholic church and school were in the next town, Castle Shannon. The mothers bundled up the children and went down the hill past the No. 3 mine and on the road to school. The children came from Lithuanian, Polish and Slovak homes. They spoke no English when they first arrived but learned it in record time with help from the Catholic Sisters.


When Julia was nine years old, in third grade, the mines were depleted in and around Pittsburg, so the family moved farther west to Dorrisville, Illinois, to work the Harrisburg coal field in the O'Gara No. 9 mine. Sister Salatia had been a favorite teacher of Julia's and gave her several good-bye presents to Julia to remember her by. Petronella carried the family's entire life savings, $700, in a secret pocket sewn in her undergarments.

The family lived temporarily with the Klevinskas family on South Poplar Avenue before buying the Jarvis' home across the street, right next door to St. Joseph's Church. Both children attended public school and Harrisburg Township High School.

Amelia taught herself to play the piano and the organ. She put on home shows, selling tickets for five or ten cents each. The house and porch would be crowded. She made Julia play a duet with her on the piano. This started out fine, until Julia became stage struck. Her hands froze, her brain became like a big vacuum. Mimi carried on as if it were planned. She also taught a bunch of children to play an orchestra on homemade instruments. She had another group of children sing while she played the piano. The neighbors loved this entertainment.
 



At church, Mimi played the organ while Julia pumped the bellows in the back of the organ all through Mass. Both girls pulled the ropes to ring the bell on Sunday. They dusted and swept the church. They decorated the altar with wild flowers. Once, when they used wild cherry blossoms, the perfume was so overpowering that the priest turned deadly pale and had to cut the services short.



The mine workers were busy during the winter but were on strike in the summer. There was no welfare, no unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no disability pension, so when my great grandfather's hand was crushed, he was no longer able to work. The family moved to Cicero. When the girls graduated high school in 1924 and 1926, Amelia went to work at the Tobey Furniture Company on Michigan Avenue and Julia worked for the F.J. Sauter insurance company.

By 1931, Julia had married Victor Litwin and given birth to Victor, Jr., her only child, who would become like a brother to my mother. Amelia met Anthony Seraponas, whom she called "Tony" or "Tone" and on February 25, 1933, they were married.



Amelia's diary describes the day:

Saturday, February 25, 1933
Our Wedding Day. What excitement, what flurry! I am glad it is over. It was a lovely day, not cold. Nevertheless I was cold in church. Mother was so lovely. We had breakfast and then went to have our pictures taken. After the pictures we came back and played piano, cards until 5:00 then we cleaned ourselves up and the people started coming in. Received some lovely gifts. 2 bronze lamps, sandwich toaster, lovely crystal glasses, embroidered cloth, set of Rogers silverware, table cloth and 2 sets of dishes. The first table was served at 7:30 and 48 people were served thru the whole evening. Jule certainly worked hard. Then after the work she came downstairs and danced till 2:00 AM. The basement was a great success, with the bar and the accordion player. I was sick through the whole day. I took 3 aspirin but I got thru the day & night all right. I told Tone I certainly never wanted to get married again.

My mother Bernadette was born December 9 of the same year and her sister Joan in September of 1935. Julia had one son, Victor, who became as close as a brother to Bernadette and Joan.

You can read more about my grandmother here:

Amelia and Me
 My Grandmother's Diary

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Desert Island

Remember the weeks of shock after 9/11 when we felt like we were living in a disaster movie? The fireball images on TV looked like the work of computer graphics and that fiction was easier for our stunned minds to accept than the reality that the damage and death were real, forged by real people, not comic book super villains.



I'm having flashbacks to that same floaty sense of unreality now only the movie this time is an international spy thriller mashed up with a wicked Wag the Dog/Dr. Strangelove satire about craven villains and sycophant aides who whisper mendacious scripts in bought politician's ears.




"It's just like Veep!" I yelled at Randy when the Orin Hatch's staffer coached his vapid response to Claire McCaskill.




This sense of unreality, of floating, unsure what the next morning's news will bring and where we are headed is undoing me. I've had a headache since November 8 and a heartache to match.

My fantasies are of escape, escape but where, really, is the deepest wood, the farthest mountain cave, the tiniest desert island?

Mia slipped a penny into the Highlander's CD player to see what would happen and I can't really blame her toddler-like curious impulse, it even gives me a blast of nostalgia for those innocent days of pushing the boundaries of the physical world around her so even though she is fourteen I can't scold her just wish we could turn the car up-side-down to shake the coin out.

Because that little penny has locked in the six CDs I had in the player and those six are now our only choices. I only listen to music, really, in the car so these six random picks from my CD collection have turned out to be my desert island albums, the unplanned answer to what would you listen to forever if you had to pick and it turns out they are a pretty perfect unplanned collection. Would I have chosen these if I knew they would be my last choice? Possibly.

Our Permanent Playlist:

1. Beyonce's Lemonade, which would have made the list if I had any forethought or not, even though I skip the C/W "Daddy Lessons" and most of the slow moments. But "Hold Up"/"Don't Hurt Yourself"/"Sorry" make such a searing trio of pure female rage and goddess power that Wonder Woman herself would be proud. And because "Freedom's" fuzzy 60's throwback guitars and swampy organ and "All Night's" soaring background vocals and implied forgiveness.

2-3. Both discs of Hamilton, natch.

4. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie which grows and grows in my mind the more I think about it. The slow burn of building desperation as the struggling folk singer of the title hustles his way to another gig, another place to lay his head for the night. The Gomer Pyle soldier with the voice of an angel who will surely soon be Viet Nam cannon fodder. Lovely Carey Mulligan's harshness which first seemed oddly out of place but now works in the context of a piece about motherhood and fatherhood's incompatability. How the threads of fatherhood fear and responsibility repugnance and vulnerability weave together with AND WITHIN the gorgeous music until it's Eraserhead meets Bound for Glory. Plus an indelible cat.



5. Inside Dave Van Ronk, a double album on one disc by the actual New York folk singer inspiration for the Coen Bros. film. The real singer may not have been the hapless asshole that Llewyn is, but his music, oh jeez, what a collection, funny songs and the dreamiest paean to cocaine that I've heard since Eric Clapton and beautiful violent ballads of dead children, abandoned children, a tortured and murdered ship's apprentice and all in his unforgettable raspy voice.

6. Joanna Newsome's latest album Divers. Newsome will always make my list but given a choice, I may have gone with an earlier, folkier album like The Milk-Eyed Mender yet this new one is a thing of wonder too, just witness that rising groove and climax telling the strange history of the fantasy land of Sapokanikan, her most propulsive song since "Good Intentions Paving Company."  The girls and Randy can't take her high soprano or odd twists of melody so this album is destined to be heard only when I'm alone.



Another story from Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, probably my favorite:

The Lama of the Crystal Monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again. Since Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu's question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, "Of course I am happy her! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!

Mike and Christina come over on Saturday night and after steaks and trout stuffed with herbs and overdone salmon with a fantastic mustard-honey-mayo-dill sauce, Randy brings up his dusty guitar and amp from the basement for Mike and I grab Nora's sticks and we jam to shouty, sloppy versions of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Dream On." I'm just slamming the melody on the drums or matching the rhythm of any guitar riff I remember and throwing in some nonsense fills with a cymbal crash accent here and there but god it feels good to bang away and wail SEWED MY OLD BLUE JEEEEEEEEEEANS! and after ten o'clock, bring it down for the sake of our poor neighbors and croon a little misremembered "Pennies from Heaven" together. The overhead light shone down on us at the dining room table, laughing at the Instagram videos Mia just shot and labeled "Help Me" and "My parents are drunk" although I was sober as a judge, the table an island of light in the darkness.






Sunday, May 14, 2017

All the Mothers' Day, 2017

Aunt Susan, me and Aunt Ruth

Mia and Aunt Joan
No one can replace your mother, but you can be loved and mothered by many. People commonly use the village metaphor, but the baker in me prefers to think of this cobbled together love as the pieces of a pie. Many women in my life, friends, cousins, aunts have all filled in the circle of need for me. Men too, my husband, colleagues, teachers, even works of art and yes, even my children. Here has been unconditional love, there has been rich compassion, here gifts and hugs and advice, over here has been silent understanding. There was a woman in New Orleans in the summer of 1986; I sat in her kitchen and she asked me about my life with immediate intimacy and made me feel so welcome and wanted, I will never forget her.

My mother's sister and my father's sisters have been the biggest slices of goodness and giving in my life. They all rose to help and teach me. Aunt Ruth, of course, did the lion's share of raising me, bless her. Aunt Susan babysat my siblings and me before and in the weeks after my parents' disappearance; her gentleness has always been a balm when I see her. My father's lovely sister Joan opened her home and her heart to me so many times; she left us in 1994 and we miss her so much. I have another Aunt Joan, my mother's only sister, and while we love each other, I know that that love is mixed with an amount of unavoidable pain. We look at each other and we both see shadows of Bernadette.

There's a boy at school who lost his mother this winter is the worst way possible -- suddenly, violently and in the next room. I don't feel right telling him my story; we are not that close, but when I ran into him in the hall on Friday, I pulled a box of Thin Mints out of my bag and pressed it into his hands. He was walking with another teacher when I passed him going the other way -- it looked something like an escort during the passing period. He had some new marks on his face.  

"Thin Mints!" he said. "Ms. Fey, I love you." "I love you, too" I called as I went on to the tutoring center. I had been hoping to run into him and had put aside the cookies just in case of a chance meeting. It wasn't much but I know how agonizing a holiday can be.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Romeo and Juliet Breaks My Heart (In a Good Way)

I must must must tell you a story about our Reading class where the freshmen have been struggling with Romeo and Juliet for the last few weeks. The text grows more and more beautiful every time I read it, but you know, for these kids the language is largely impenetrable, and the text is a dense ancient wood with only a few shafts of comprehensible light in the darkness. So we work our way through, translating, trying to give the kids as much info as we can reading out loud and watching movie clips and reading the ever-helpful graphic novel and slogging away, line by line by line.

So I've got to tell you about the wonderful day in First and Second Period when we put the kids in groups with a section to paraphrase into their own words, then act out for the class. We were working with Act III, Scene 1, where Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's fiery cousin Tybalt in a street fight, setting in motion the final inevitable cascade of tragedy.

The scene opens with Mercutio, our resident jester, teasing the good Benvolio by accusing him of being a hot-headed fighter. Now we all know that dear Benvolio only raises his sword to part fighting fools so this speech is a gentle joke at the expense of a friendly and favored character.

(Whenever I think about Benvolio, I think of a freshman I had in 2002, the ego-less and cooperative quarterback on the freshman football team, who asked me, "Hey Ms. Fey, why can't you keep teaching after you have your baby?" And he laughed with wide eyes and a big open-mouth smile when I said, "I could! But I want to take care of the baby. And they eat about twelve times a day! And they POOP about twenty!")




Adorable Dash Mihok as Benvolio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version Romeo + Juliet


So our freshmen were working in groups on their passages and Sugar, Dristian and Mayla were grappling with these lines:

Mercutio
Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

Benvolio
Am I like such a fellow?

Mercutio
Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon mov’d to be moody, and as soon moody to be mov’d.

Benvolio
And what to?

Mercutio
Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrell’d with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath waken’d thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? With another for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!

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Mesmerizing Luigi Sotille as Ned Alleyn playing Mercutio in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love


I sat with the three kids and told them my story about the quarterback and read them some of the lines with all the inflection and drama I could muster and they were totally getting it. "What's tavern?" asks Mayla and "What's hazel?" "What's quarrel?" We worked through it and it was so exciting to see the light break through. At the end of the period, Imee the English teacher collected their work and made a copy of the script for each kid in the group to perform the next day.

The day of performances one of the kids drew a background of houses and trees on the whiteboard and Christine the Reading teacher brought in placards with the characters names strung with yarn to hang around the kids' necks.

The three kids got up in front. Imee had put down a wide rectangle of purple duct tape on the floor to designate the borders of the stage. Dristian gave an overview of the scene, then Mayla as Benvolio and Sugar as Mercutio began the scene.

Mayla/Benviolio: Let's go home. The Capulets are looking for us. We don't want to start a fight.



Sugar/Mercutio: You are one of the angry people. You walk into a bar and pull out your knife for no reason.



Mayla/Benvolio: Am I that type of person?

They were doing great. Mayla put on a smile to show she how sweet Benvolio is. The irony in the casting was that this lovely girl is the one I need to remind nearly weekly to use her words instead of slapping other kids.



Sugar/Mercutio: You are as stubborn a-a-and moody as anyone in Italy. 

Sugar's stumble may have been because he was a little nervous. His one hand held his script, the other was tucked into the pocket of his red hoodie.



Mayla/Benvolio: And why is that?

Mayla gave Sugar the stinkeye.

Sugar/Mercutio: If there were two of you, you'd kill each other! You'd pick a fight with someone who has a bigger beard than you! You'd a pick a fight with someone who has the same hazel eyes as you. Your head is always thinking of fights, like an egg is full of meat. And like an egg, you always get beat!

And with the egg line, the class LAUGHS. They laughed, a quick little bubble of joy despite the rushed, monotone recitation, the swaying awkward stance of the actors distracted and concentrating by the work of reading, eyes down on their papers.

Sugar smiled as he continues: You'd  fight someone across the street because they woke up a sleeping dog. Didn't you fight someone for wearing a jacket before Easter? And another for wearing shoes with old laces? And you're teaching me how to fight?

Mayla/Benvolio: If I fight like you describe, I would be worthless.

Sugar/Mercutio: Oh yeah, you are worthless.

ANOTHER LAUGH! this time, with a taunting "uh-oh" and "oo" thrown in to heighten the tension.

Mayla/Benvolio: The Caps are coming.
Sugar/Mercutio: Let them come, I don't care.

Big applause and finger snaps. One of my favorite moments of the school year.