For several years in the late seventies, I taught at Nova Academy in San Francisco’s Sunset district. The school had been founded by Merriam LaNova to educate high school age dancers attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Ballet. There the regimen was strict and old-fashioned. Lanova had, after all, danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her style was icy and stern. Her husband, though a cellist with the symphony, looked like a mobster. Leonide Massine came by on occasion to view my classes, and the Kronos Quartet sometimes practiced in an unused studio.
The school maintained the façade of an elite preparatory school. The principal always wore a three-piece suit. The older classrooms were decorated as though they were part of some old manor, landed by accident above an urban storefront. One featured a hunting mural on one wall, another had a huge fake fireplace, a third had a ceiling of painted panels that belonged in an Italian basilica.
The fact was, though, that, along with the dedicated dancers, Nova Academy, like other private schools, found itself accepting many students for a variety of reasons it would prefer not to admit. Some parents wanted their children in an all-white environment; other young scholars had encountered unpleasant disciplinary proceedings their parents were willing to pay to escape. Several foreign students had enrolled in preparation to applying to American universities. The dancers were, in fact, all but invisible in a larger crowd including drifter, misfits, and troublemakers.
This reality sometimes clashed with the high art pretensions of the dance world. Among the distinguished visitors was Kyra Nijinska, Vaslav’s daughter. Once a dancer with the Ballet Russe, she now painted mystic canvases, but now and then she would come to Nova to conduct a Flamenco class. I could hear the heavy heels stomping above my room. Her manners were odd, and, to the more vulgar students, exceedingly comical. If she perceived a mocking look, she would rise up in indignation and declare, “Do you know who I am? I am the daughter of the Grrreat Nijinsky!” Before long, the students, innocent of any idea of her father’s work (or her own) were greeting each other with this line, suitably exaggerated.
For some reason, the school seemed to define itself with reactionary tradition. Apart from the anti-Bolshevik feeling of the Russian émigré tradition, propaganda magazines from apartheid South Africa were among the few journals scattered about the office waiting area. The emphasis was, as the principle Michael Badenhausen reminded the students at morning assembly, self-discipline and hard work. But, alas, by mid-morning, the pink-faced principal was three sheets to the wind, sometimes literally lying on his office floor, passed out. If a parent came to consult him, the staff would have to think on their feet. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the bush of Upper Volta (as it was then called), and that experience was probably enough to explain his alcoholism, but it was not his only peccadillo. Once a well-built young friend of his appeared at the school, wearing skin-tight jeans with a chain belt and a motorcycle jacket with no shirt. Madam could hardly have approved, but for reasons best known to the two of them, she tolerated his behavior with maternal protectiveness.
Our pay was little more than welfare, less if one includes food stamps -- $325 a month when I began, then increased to $375. In the middle of my second year of service at Nova, I began to organize. I called the local teachers’ unions who, I must say, showed little solidarity. I set out to do it myself. “They can’t fire you,” I told my coworkers, “You’re protected by state and federal labor law.” Threatening a mid-year strike, we received Lanova’s signature on an agreement giving us $425 a month and a certain position for the coming year. Then, when the term ended in the spring, the entire faculty was fired. (Doubtless individuals the administration trusted who showed proper contrition might be allowed back.) I picketed the graduation exercises in my suit and then put down my sign to enter the hall and take my seat to applaud the graduates. I filed a complaint against the school with the California Labor Commission. It was the least I could do after leading my fellow-workers down a path that proved more dangerous than I had known.
After months had passed, I received notice of a hearing before an administrative judge. When I entered, the school’s attorney was just saying to the judge, “It’s frivolous, really,” and the judge, in an old-boy manner, responded with resignation, “Well, we must give him his day, anyway.” While I presented what seemed to me undeniable facts, their scurrilous lawyer proceeded to tell outlandish lies: that I was fired because of my obdurate gum-chewing, that Lanova would not have signed the agreement had I not been raising a fist over her in a menacing way. I was at the time young enough to be genuinely surprised at my adversary’s complete dishonesty. Needless to say, the hearing was decided against me, and, as it happened, about that time I received an offer to teach school in the Nigerian bush. Perhaps if I had prevailed over my San Francisco employer, I would never have seen the palace of the Oba of Benin nor would I have drunk palm wine from a calabash with a dozen drowned bees afloat. Doubtless, the time had come to move on.