Les adieux et les aventures:
It was a brisk July afternoon when the members of the Ivy League Connection's UChicago cohort and I, their chaperone, said good-bye and boarded the shuttle for Oakland Airport.
We landed in St. Louis a bit late, and after dealing with a luggage carousel mishap (a strap on my smaller checked bag literally jammed the entire carousel and warranted the help of a technician), we finally arrived at the Charles F. Knight Conference Center hotel where we flung our bags in a corner room and dashed back to the waiting taxi to arrive for our tour at the Gateway Arch. Constructed in the 1960s, the Gateway Arch is quite a structure to behold. After a tram took us to the top of the arch and we looked out at the St. Louis view, the cohort and I watched a documentary which showed the painstaking process needed to construct this beautiful, curved monument. On the particular day when the final piece was mounted in the center of the two emerging sides of the arch, citizens waited below and applauded.
|The cohort smiles in front of the Arch memorial.|
|Ernestina takes a picture of the full arch on a clear night.|
On arrive - Chicago:
During our stormy and rainy site visit the next day at WashU in St. Louis, I received a call and text message from Don during the student panel that our flight had been cancelled due to the storm, and we would be taking an Amtrak train to Chicago. Although it was scheduled to be a long train ride, I didn't fret. I have taken Amtrak before, and I welcomed the spaciousness, lack of lengthy airline protocol, as well as access to WiFi so the students could put their headphones on and draft their blogs. I drifted off into a mid-afternoon slumber, and at different times during the 6-hour ride, I believe each of the cohort members also closed their eyes and engaged in much needed naps. One skill I have honed while working with the Ivy League Connection during our summer site visits is flexibility, and the students all seemed to agree that their flight cancellation-turned-train ride was actually in their favor. Just as the sun was setting, our conductor announced that we were approaching Chicago. I smiled as I saw the grass and silos fade into urban brick buildings - we were finally in Chi-town!
|The view of our arrival in Chicago via Amtrak|
After a taxi ride to our hotel room from the train station, we checked in and headed to an Asian-fusion restaurant around the corner from us, called Chant. On social media the night before, I had learned about the police shooting of Philando Castile and the seemingly retaliatory killing of police officers in Dallas a few hours later. I overheard talking in the restaurant about the events and I was overall saddened by what had taken place. A young man in the restaurant wore a shirt that said, "I am Trayvon Martin. I am Mike Brown. I am..." with a long list of names of young black men whose lives had ended in police shootings. I realized that St. Paul, Minnesota, the city where Castile was shot, is a state away, yet close to Chicago geographically. The thought crossed my mind that we might run into protests during our time here, but I hoped they wouldn't be violent. As I'm writing this, news breaks that in Baton Rouge, more police officers were killed by a shooter. While I process the news, I can only think of the quote that Ghandi may have once said: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
Le Tour de Northwestern:
Our busiest, and in my opinion, most exciting day was when we toured Northwestern. After taking two forms of public transportation, and walking through skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, we made it to one of my favorite visited schools, Northwestern University. I'm a sucker for views, and this view alone could be why Northwestern is on my list of favorite universities -- just after Harvard and Cal:
|Ahhh, that view.|
|The cohort giddily smiles before our Chicago Riverwalk self-tour and architecture cruise.|
|Chicago was home of the first skyscraper.|
|With my favorite flowers, hydrangeas, on the Chicago Riverwalk|
Following our Northwestern tour, we returned to downtown Chicago and had the loveliest dinner with ILC alumnus, Simon Cohen, and his fellow UChicago friend, Will Smith. Simon works for the Mayor of Chicago's office in creating and revising public policy, and Will works in law advocating on behalf of those who have been on the receiving end of discrimination by employers. Both are still in school at UChicago, showing that it's never too early to do work that makes an impact in your community. I really loved hearing about their experiences at UChicago and knowing that our next generation does include citizens who care about and are dedicated to making legal and societal changes to better our communities. I was thrilled that all of the students and our special guests enjoyed the dinner and atmosphere at the jazz restaurant I chose on North Michigan Avenue, Bandera. I went there last summer by myself and was impressed with the freshness and quality of the food, as well as the ambiance created by the nightly live jazz quartet. I wanted our guests to feel special and also expose the students to a jazz restaurant, with music and jazz specifically being important to the history of Chicago's culture.
Following dinner and with Don's approval and generosity, we were able to purchase tickets for the Chicago River Architecture Cruise. This was one of my favorite tourist activities last year, and the students seemed to enjoy it as well. The tour combines history, architecture, humor, and the added convenience of passive viewing while seated on a large tour boat. The cohort snapped a few adorable pictures - I am still waiting for the one with all of them looking over their right shoulder with the boat rails behind them. Please post!
Le Commencement du Sejour: UChicago
And finally, it was the morning for the kids to move into their UChicago dorms. I took them around the corner of the hotel to President Obama's favorite diner, Valois, for a departure brunch. And it was really delicious! I am going to honestly miss Obama. Under him, the United States found Osama Bin Laden, legalized gay marriage, and has begun to move towards a system of (albeit imperfect) universal healthcare. I think he is one of the best presidents to have ever served our country.
|I ordered the steak and eggs, one of the prez' faves. They were delicious.|
The students became more and more anxious to get to their dorms as we finished up breakfast, so we headed over to the campus in the Hyatt Place shuttle a little early. There, the students checked in, we went shopping for UChicago jackets and hoodies, and finally, we ended up at the orientation where I would have to say 'good-bye' for the next week. Any worries I had about them feeling abandoned by their chaperone vanished as I saw Ryan, Mauricio, and Alice jump fearlessly into a group dance of the 'Cha Cha Slide,' with Ernestina laughing and videotaping the whole scene. They are going to be just fine, I thought.
|The 'Cha Cha Slide' with Alice halfway hidden in the middle of the back line|
Le Retour Au Theatre - iO:
While the students settled down and began their studies at UChicago, I was set to begin my own studies, but at a different Chicago institution: the IO (Improv Olympic) Theater. Back in April when Don asked me to chaperone for UChicago again, I had already enrolled in the IO intensive workshop in Los Angeles. Thankfully, the schedule director at IO was able to transfer my tuition to Chicago's IO so that I wouldn't lose out on the significant cost of tuition, as there are no refunds allowed. Don was understanding of my prior commitment, and with the class hours being MTWTH from 11-5pm, I am pretty much on the same schedule as the students, and still readily available in the event that an emergency occurs and they need me. And in all honesty, I was flippin' ecstatic to be able to do ILC and IO at the same time, in Chicago, my favorite summer city in the world after Paris and San Francisco.
What is IO? IO Chicago is basically a mecca for improvisers, comedians, sketch comedy writers, and those wanting to learn how to be improvisers, comedians, and sketch comedy writers. Have you heard of Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, John Belushi, Chris Farley, or Tim Meadows? They are all from IO, as well as nearly half of the cast of Saturday Night Live and other sketch comedy shows. The improv community began developing in Chicago in the 1980s and 90s, and Del Close and Charna Halpern founded IO and developed a long form of improvisation called The Harold.
Now, your second question is why is this chaperone, a high school teacher, studying improv? And the short answer is...... because I love it. Performance arts (acting, dance, improv, stage make-up, children's theater) were a huge part of my life in my teenage years at Pinole Valley High School and into my early twenties through Pinole Community Players, and no other hobby has been as fulfilling for me as the arts were. In the past years, I have found myself particularly attracted to performing and watching comedic acting. After being in Chicago last summer and seeing shows at both IO and Second City, I really had a yearning to be apart of this community. Thankfully, being a high school teacher and having this ILC opportunity gives me the freedom to explore this passion of mine over the course of a month-long intensive in the summer. The intensive will culminate in a long-form show with my section teammates.
On July 11th, as the UChicago cohort members walked to their first day of class, I also walked/metro-ed/train-ed to my first day of class in OldTown at the IO Chicago. Charna Halpern gave an introduction in the Del Close Theater about the program and its history as one of her three dogs barked and wagged its tail onstage. And as she spoke genuinely about the power of improv to mirror reality or create a new, better reality onstage, I smiled, knowing that I had come to the right place, and that I was just where I needed to be.
|Orientation in the Del Close Theater|
|What an unexpected and welcome surprise - Adrian Vazquez!|
|Here's my Section 5 Cohort with our Week One teacher, Matt Higbee, on the far right.|
To say that my first week of class was inspiring is an understatement. I came here to laugh a lot, and I have done enough laughing to last me the next four weeks, though I certainly hope I laugh a lot more while I'm here. I am also learning and gaining exposure to improv styles and structures constantly - with our student IDs we can attend most of the shows for free, and there are shows happening 6-8 times every night. In my section alone, I have a classmate who has interned for the Stephen Colbert Late Show, a classmate who has studied at the Upright Citizen's Brigade, a classmate who performed in theatrical simulations of the American Girl franchise stories, a classmate who has done commercials in Oklahoma City, several classmates who are from countries abroad including Poland, Germany, Switzerland, England, and the Netherlands, and a classmate who is from Pakistan and learning everything he can about improv to bring back to his students.
I am learning that improv is not just comedy but can influence social change and how we think about the world. This past weekend, the monologist for an Armando, IO improviser and Second City actress Shantira Jackson, told the audience that she felt more freedom to be honest in telling her stories through improvising onstage than she did when she worked for an actual news broadcasting company. And that, for me, was profound. Last night, I watched "Whirled News Tonight: LATE EDITION" at IO, a format where the improvisers invite you to tweet current news stories up until seconds before the show's opening, and they will put together a long-form show based on the articles and themes that pop up. This notion of talking about and portraying our current events in such an uncompromised way makes sense. It's inspiring, and most importantly, it's important.