Happy-Sad New Year: an Inspired Teacher presents a play about what we can learn from being blue

January 13, 2016

(Photos courtesy of Nicole McGill)

This piece was written by Nicole McGill, a Science Secondary Educator and Drama-in-Education Curriculum Specialist at Hart Middle School, a DC Public School in Southeast DC. Nicole is a 2015 Teacher Leader in SCALE: Science Curriculum Advancement through Literacy Enhancement, an Inspired Teaching and DCPS partnership. Nicole is also a theater director and playwright, and her new play Life After Death: Stories of those who Survived Grief creates a safe space for people to share things that matter, but aren’t often talked about. Life After Death will be performed this Saturday, January 16th. 

I have so much to look forward to in 2016.

My seventh grade students and I are studying life sciences and the human body, and my students are really getting into it! My kids no longer ask me for bathroom breaks; they ask for “urethra” breaks. Some of my girls are grilling cafeteria staff about whether school lunch meat is cooked in a way that’s healthy for the human digestive tract. One of my students is starting to go with her grandma to dialysis appointments to help be her medical recorder and health care advocate.

At the same time, my theater company – Cola McGill Productions, Inc., a non-profit theater for social change – is getting off the ground. And this spring, my wonderful husband and I are expecting our first child.

But someone I love won’t be with me to celebrate all of this — my brother Jaye. I lost Lawrence Jaye Johnson Jr. in 2012.

Jaye was the only boy in my family of five kids, and he was right in the middle. He had to deal with four know-it-all sisters. As the boy in the middle, he helped hold things together in the family. His role was the big brother, the peacemaker, the protector, the funny guy, and the example of how we women should be treated by men. He was the one who tried to get family to stop fighting and to realize what is truly important. When the fight was over, he would make everyone laugh about it all.


Jaye, shown here with Nicole (right) and two of their sisters.

My new play, called Life After Death: Stories of those who Survived Grief comes out of my experience losing Jaye. It’s a play about grief and how we handle grief, but the play does this with some comic touches. I couldn’t create a play inspired by Jaye without making people laugh.

For example, one of the skits in the play (which features nine actors playing different roles in different skits) is about how, when you tell people you’ve lost a family member, they suddenly want to come over to your place with chicken. Fried chicken. Baked chicken. Grandma’s special chicken. Chicken soup! Why chicken? It gets to where your entire kitchen is taken over. (At one point, we’re going to invite people from the audience to vote for their favorite dish!)

Other skits deal with the more challenging parts of handling grief. Grief, loss, and sadness are things we are not good at talking about, and we often don’t have the words to comfort ourselves or other people. When I tell people about losing my brother, they often clam up or try to put a positive shine on the situation, saying things like “Soon you’ll feel yourself again” or “time heals.”

I want to create a safe space where we can build a truer language about grief, loss, heartache, joy, gratitude, and the messiness of losing loved ones. My play Life After Death is one way to help do that. It’s my way of being a changemaker in the community as well as a changemaker in the classroom.

I know that when I lost Jaye, it was hard for me to explain what it felt like. Losing Jaye was like losing the glue of our family. It was like someone came in and ripped out the center piece of our family puzzle, and then we were all trying to figure out how we fit back together and which piece went where.

I grieved deeply when I first lost my brother, and I am still grieving—but in a different way. In the first years after my brother died, grief was like that crazy relative (we all have one!) who barged into my home uninvited, made a total mess of things, and refused to leave. Now, grief still shows up at my home at all different times, but he comes in more quietly and gently, and he actually helps me out; he helps me get rid of the clutter and make space for the most important things. Grief reminds me that time with loved ones is precious. He reminds me to check on loved ones, use time wisely, care for myself, and make room for new life adventures.

I would love for people to walk away from my play thinking about how to use their time more wisely, whether it is to take time for others or to take time for themselves.

You can’t be everything to everyone if you are not whole for you.

Tickets for Mrs. McGill’s play Life After Death are available here


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