Parkland Schools substitute teacher Joey Weisler has been reading Shakespeare's tragedies lately as part of his long distance learning graduate coursework. In recent weeks, he's read Richard III, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, among others. “Every week we're analyzing a story where every person has died,” he says.
Weisler's semester began on February 12. Two days later, as he played the theme music from Charlie Brown's Be My Valentine TV special in the background of the sixth grade classroom at Westglades Middle School where he was substituting, a parent volunteer ran into the room to tell him and his students of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They turned off the music and lights and huddled in a corner as updates about the rising casualty numbers trickled in on phones.
He says he can't read Shakespeare's tragedies without triggering some thought about the events of that day. Westglades is the feeder middle school for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Weisler's alma mater and a school where he works as a substitute frequently. He's known some of the students who perished at Douglas since they were in middle school at Westglades.
"I was completely catatonic for about, I'm going to say, four days," Weisler says of the aftermath of the shooting.
In the midst of assignment deadlines for his masters program, he set out to write his own play about the shooting at Douglas, titled Valentine's Day Massacre. Weisler lead a cold-read of his script last night as part of the Miami chapter of Naked Angels' Tuesdays at 9 series, which invites writers to workshop their works-in-progress with other writers, actors, and creators every week in collaboration with FilmGate Miami, Florida’s largest collective of actors and filmmakers.
Weisler says the lines in his play are all taken from real life. The first scene recounts the lesson he taught his eighth grade class on February 13, the day before the shooting. The lesson, titled "The Marvelous Me," asked students to recognize the loving and kind qualities in themselves and think about how they might pass those along as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School next year. As part of the lesson, he shared personal stories about how badly he was bullied in middle and high school. Weisler says other students hit and spat on him when he was a student.
The message of the lesson resonates in the aftermath of the shooting. Some corners of the Internet have responded to student walkouts with the "Walk Up, Not Out" slogan, which encourages students to approach isolated or troubled students as a possible deterrent to future tragedies. Critics have called the message a form of victim blaming.
Weisler says that his anti-bullying lesson emotionally affected students even before the shooting took place. "It's all about introspection," he says. "I had kids that were tapping into their inner selves. I had some kids that were crying because they realized they really don't understand who they [are]."
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Weisler takes pride in planning impactful lessons like these. He says teachers trust him to bring in his own lessons when he fills in for them on days they are absent. Back in October, while substituting in a Spanish class at Stoneman Douglas, he was enjoying the work of his students so much that he took out his phone to film a brief part of the lesson. "Color the bear's eyes verde," he can be heard saying in the video, as a young girl in the second row flashes a vibrant smile behind her classmate, her long ponytail swinging as she waves to the camera.
The young, smiling girl in the clip is Gina Montalto. She was one of the 17 people killed at Douglas just four months after the video was taken. "She was my Sargent at Arms," remembers Weisler. "Such an angel. So sweet. She came in and said, 'Let me take your attendance. Let me do this, let me do that. Let me do everything.'" Weisler found the video of Montalto on his phone just a week ago. “I completely forgot I had it,” he says.
In the weeks after the shooting, Stoneman Douglas has not allowed substitute teachers into the building, favoring the presence of social workers instead. But Weisler says he's humbled and grateful that Douglas has made an exception for him and he's been allowed to return to the school.
"Going there is literally going back to be with my family," he says.