Friday, May 13, 2011

Dwight Probasco's Side of the Bohemian Rhapsody Story

When I got home from Anchorage Thursday evening, there was a phone message from Wasilla High School principal, Dwight Probasco. I'd written a blog post earlier in the day, based on a Frontiersman story written by K. T. McKee.

I called Dwight, and we talked for about 40 minutes. Here's as much of his side of the story as I think he'd like me to share:

The controversy over whether the Wasilla High School symphonic choir (which is a mix of all the school's choirs) might or might not be able to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, a mildly controversial song, at the 2011 commencement ceremony started months ago. It started with parental complaints about the song's composer and his sexual orientation, rather than over any of the content of the lyrics. Principal Probasco brought the matter to the attention of the choir teacher. The kids in the choir continued to want to sing the song. They continued rehearsing.

The matter came back up last week, when Dwight discovered the song was still on and that it was a very strong preference for the choir's choice of one of their three commencement numbers.

I'm still confused how the lyrics and a change to them got thrown into the mix, but apparently there has been a minor change to the lines:
Mama I just killed a man, Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Dwight didn't know exactly what the changes are, as he was home, without notes on the matter.

An important point that Dwight Probasco raised in our talk was what he calls his record at WHS as an administrator who has done everything possible to create a welcoming atmosphere for LBGTQ kids who had felt less comfortable at other Valley secondary schools. I know that to be a fair assessment, based on many friends who either have worked with Dwight, work with him now, or have had kids there.

And I watched Dwight, from his first day as principal at Wasilla, until May 2007, when I gave up the baton of the Mat-Su College Community Band, an ensemble that had met in the WHS band room every Monday for the 13 years I directed it. The main reason I stepped down from that post was the feeling I got from the increasingly strident fundamentalist and evangelical constituency in the Valley - not so much from within the band itself - that unless one has been born again, one isn't a real person. The pressures on educators and administrators in our school district from these kinds of people is relentless and could wear down any administrator.

In the wake of Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate in 2008, our schools were put under even more pressure by these people, and by locals who were fervent Palin supporters. I know from listening to kids during the fall of 2008, that the bullshit kids who did not support Palin went through was not as bad at WHS as it was at Palmer High School, for instance. There, one of the teachers went so far as to create a Palin shrine in his classroom, and was backed by the administration there when kids and their parents complained about the stifling atmosphere in his class. None of that was reported to be happening at WHS.

I suggested to Dwight that perhaps the best way to get the word out on what the choir is actually doing is to get the kids to sign releases and post them singing Bohemian Rhapsody in their version on Youtube. He seemed reluctant to do that or allow me to do it - I have a Youtube channel. He did invite me to come in and hear them rehearse their commencement material next week, when they practice it at the Menard Sports Center. I hope to do that.

Dwight complained that my picture comparing him to Elton John ("separated at birth?" was the caption) was over the top. I rejected that, advising him to lighten up a bit.

I apologized to him for not attempting to get in touch with him before posting on the song's status, and for blithely taking Frontiersman reporter K. T. McKee's story at face value. He suggested I pose some questions to McKee in answer to questions I asked of Probasco. Right after I got off the phone with Dwight, I e-mailed and called McKee. I called again this morning.

An email from McKee just arrived, which is printed here in full - as per her request:
It's unfortunate Mr. Probasco was not willing to talk to me when I called him about the issue before the story was printed. He referred me to the senior class advisor, Deb Haynes. He told me she had a press release, but when I called her, she didn't seem that knowledgeable about the issue, either, and did not prepare a written statement. I tried to reach the choir teacher, but she never responded to my email or phone messages before the article was written (I still have not heard from her.) My information for the story was based on reliable information from trusted choir members and someone within the school who shared information about emails sent to staff on the issue.

My own feeling about singing the song at a graduation ceremony is that the choir teacher could have chosen a more uplifting, inspirational piece. I believe the entire senior body should have had a chance to vote on what song the choir sings at their ceremony. I remember resenting the fact that a small group of students was allowed to pick songs for prom, etc. when I was in high school in the late '70s, early '80s in Anchorage.

I happen to love the song simply because it is so interesting, but it is pretty heavy and its meaning and intent has been disputed for the past 30 years. However, I'm sure the teacher had to get permission from the administration to use the song at graduation in the first place, so it is curious why the teacher was told otherwise so close to the ceremony. Then, after the issue created an uproar among students, they were given permission to go ahead and do it.

I would love to know what Probasco told you in the 40 minutes you spoke with him. However, unless I speak to him directly, I can only consider the information hearsay. It is no secret that Progressive Alaska has its own political agenda and bias.

If you wish to use my statements here in your blog, feel free. I ask that you do not edit them or use them out of context, however. Also, I do not speak for the Frontiersman. These are my own thoughts and feelings on the issue.

K.T. McKee
Reporter, Frontiersman
I'm not in Probasco's shoes. His claim that his responsibility in creating content for any commencement, is to make it the most satisfying graduation experience for the maximum percentage of kids and parents attending, is compelling on one level. I've never administrated a school, much less a high school that, through its connection with Sarah Palin's past, has become the butt of thousands of jokes.

I pointed out that my own record on music that might get a hostile reception is divergent from what he appears to be doing in this case. Even within the confines of the Wasilla High School band room, our community band rehearsed my own music that mocked then-Rep. Vic Kohring for his views on Alaska Native arts, and on the state's privatized correctional system. And then, when it was ready, not only did we perform it, but Vic introduced a 1996 work whose veiled premise was that he might someday end up in prison. He did - twelve years later. Needless to say, after the performance, both Mat-Su College and Wasilla High School got lots of calls from people who wanted me fired.

I lasted another 11 and 1/2 years.

This is Dwight's last year at Wasilla. He's retiring. I apologized to him for helping raise a disruptive issue so close to a time he will want to cherish. I don't agree with what has been done to this song, though. Many songs sung at high school concerts and ceremonies have lyrics that could easily be termed inappropriate by parents or school district thought police.

Here's the program note to the piece dedicated to Vic, that we prepped at WHS - And He Stilled the Drumming:
This piece is dedicated to State Representative Vic Kohring, who has been working hard to end state funding for the arts, and even harder to foster hostile attitudes toward artists. I imagine a young man involved in the Native drumming renaissance. State funding which assisted his drumming group ends, and it folds. In his disappointment he turns to drugs. He's arrested by one of the police hired by funding taken from the state arts council. He then is sent to one of the privately owned prisons championed by Representative Kohring. As the young man beats a mournful pounding on the thick wall of his cell, the piece ends.


Anonymous said...

How fun. Good for you, Wasilla, way to expand horizons. Why bother to send any of them to college? Don't waste the money. They should all learn trades.
Reminds me of Dillingham. They banned Eric Clapton from school dances. But not Rush, Kansas, Meatloaf, Led Zeppelin. Or The Bee-gees and Elton John. Or Abba.But that was 30 YEARS AGO.
Why? Beats me. Because a parent and its church complained? I wish I got that kind of huge instantaneous response to concerns about bullying and personal safety. Priorities, huh?

Okay, kids, Probasco, we all know you're reading this. Here's what you do. Time for some ABBA. Phil, help these cool kids practice up on a full choir ABBA choice - complete with Priscilla Queen of the Desert costumes.
Don't ASK anyone's permission. This is America. You're in Sarah PalinLand. Didn't Chuck Heath give a completely inappropriate speech last year, anyway? Aren't you all FREE?! More than a few of you are over 18. Some of you have already enlisted. A little moral courage.

Do it. I dare ya.

Anonymous said...

Probasco must be the guy that signed off on giving Bristol Palin an exemption from Matsu School District/State of Alaska graduation requirements.

Make the news with a peaceful effective protest, you guys. You're already in the news anyway. Might as well make it worth it.
If Probasco takes disciplinary action, ACLU would LOVE the case.

Anonymous said...

Good news! Go ahead and be unruly - it doesn't matter! The world is coming to an end the day after graduation! Yay! Free-for-all!
I might just drive out to Wasilla to watch the pre-event activities and shenanigans. Think there's gonna be any looting?

And also, too - time for that warbonnet to go away. Alaska is not Indian Country; a warbonnet is NOT an Alaska Native thing; it's clearly disrespectful. Very 1960s.

My grandson said we should name sports teams for mythical animals and dinosaurs. He likes "the Chimeras." I think Wasilla should be the Unicorns.

Anonymous said...

Regarding May 21st. I'm really in need of a better vehicle. Mine is wonderful and looks nice, but 251,000 miles on it.
So I'm looking for someone who will be leaving the earth on May 21st that would like to earn extra brownie points and give me their late-model Toyota Tundra.

Anonymous said...

interesting how you enjoy making fun of people you disagree with- but when anyone else speaks out against what they consider 'wrong' they are bigoted, self-righteous jerks.
hmmm... not very equitable, are you?
the song was not appropriate for a graduation ceremony- and many parents and family and friends should be insulted by the lyrics. if this song 'defines' this class they need help and we should all be alarmed! the author of the f-man article should have sought more information before publishing an article based on grand-standing ego-centric adolescent sources.

Anonymous said...

I recently read a piece in the Frontiersman that led me to experience two completely different emotions.

My first reaction to the controversy regarding the Wasilla High School choir having a song pulled by Principal Dwight Probasco was one of disbelief. Seems someone had complained to him about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was slated to be performed by the choir at this year’s graduation ceremony. A gay person in a band called “Queen” penned the song, so he arbitrarily told the choir not to sing it at graduation.

After all, what high school administrator in his right mind would want to be perceived by our community as being pro gay? Heck, we all know singing a song like that at a school function could be obnoxious to some, so he acted swiftly and axed the tune.

Seems Mr. Probasco has changed his mind and will now allow “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be sung, albeit with censorship of a stanza instead of the complete death sentence he had previously condemned it to. How nice. Could this change of heart have been caused by his sympathy for the singers, in that they had practiced the song for the entire year and thought it appropriate for the occasion? Maybe he concluded that just because one parent complained didn’t mean the rest of our community was as blatantly homophobic as this person. Or maybe it was because one student stood up and said, “This is a crock of you-know-what and we’re not going to take it.”

That person, Casey Hight, thought the principal’s decision was contemptible and said as much.

“I felt like the school was discriminating for sexual orientation and I felt it was wrong,” she said.

Well, often actions speak louder than words, so she followed up by contacting a Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender advocacy group in Anchorage. It advised her to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. Most of us know of these folks. They’re the people who have “esquire” behind their names and write letters to public school officials regarding students’ civil liberties. If the letters don’t serve to educate, they file lawsuits. Well, that stuff is all yucky, and what principal in his right mind wants to exasperate that kind of mess. It’s apparent Mr. Probasco doesn’t so he, to his benefit, changed his mind about the song being performed.

My second emotion after reading the story was one of gratitude. I want to thank Ms. Hight for having the fortitude to stand up to authority and call out the principal for his first decision. You are to be commended. Furthermore, if Mr. Probasco wishes to become a leader who exemplifies the benefit of acceptance and diversity in his school, he needs to become aware of how his actions can be perceived by the student body.

Bullying isn’t pretty, and when an authority figure uses draconian decisions to placate homophobic members of our community it serves only to help spread animosity and disdain.

I’m glad he changed his mind and hope he has learned from his mistake. It’s way past time we stop demonizing gay people (or the songs they write for that matter).

FrostAK said...

Hopefully the next Wasilla high school principal will have the cahones to stand up to the "Seven Mountains" fanatics, and tell them that if they don't like it, home school. Most of them do anyway...

School is a government function, not a church function.