David Marquis ’73 began teaching upon completing his master’s degree at Austin College in 1974. He developed an interdisciplinary American Studies curriculum and more than once butted heads with the administration at his school because of his creative approach to teaching.
In 1976, one of his former students was shot and killed. The trauma led Marquis to write a play about what it means to be a teacher who cares about his students. The result was the one-man show “I Am A Teacher,” which premiered at Austin College in 1977. The story revolved around Ben James, a young, caring, history teacher who managed to impart some knowledge of the importance of history to his students even as he faced the challenges of the politics of the school system and supported his students through a variety of personal crises.
That show went on to tour throughout the country from 1981 to 1989. Marquis performed at the Kennedy Center, in 40 of the 50 states, and in venues from schools to theatres, corporate boardrooms to college campuses, and even in a Congressional hearing room.
Marquis and photographer Robin Sachs wrote the book, I Am a Teacher, featuring photographs and interviews with teachers from every state in the United States. The book, published in 1990 by Simon and Schuster, was a Critic’s Choice in Time magazine and received a five-page spread in Newsweek.
More important to Marquis, however, was the response he received from teachers, who laughed, cried, and identified with the issues of the drama. He continues to receive emails, calls, and comments from people who saw the play years ago and still recall the impact the story had on them.
In the early 1990s, Marquis updated the play, with Ben James then a middle-aged teacher trying to decide whether to remain in teaching or move into a family business position offering far more money. Meanwhile, he deals with an ethical challenge, having been pushed by a supervisor to pass a troubled student though she had not completed the work. Instead, the teacher works one-on-one with the student to help her barely make a passing grade. He decides to remain in the classroom. Part Two of the play ran until 1997.
On September 13, Marquis will launch Part Three, returning to Austin College’s Ida Green Theatre where the play first was performed. Now in his early 60s, Ben James is considering retirement and is assigned a rookie teacher to mentor. He shares 40 years of experiences but realizes how unfulfilled he remains because he believes American education should offer more to its students. His new struggle: to return for one more year of teaching in the traditional public school or form an independent school based on his own philosophy. “What decision will this veteran teacher make?” Marquis wrote in notes for the updated version. “Does he have one good fight left in him? Can he still cut it as a teacher? Can he not only inspire his students but also the young teacher he has been assigned to mentor?”
“This version will get big laughs, but pulls no punches as it deals both with decades of American education and the potential for new schools and new ways of educating,” Marquis said.
Ticket reservation information for the September show will be available on the Austin College website as more details are available.
Teaching is not Marquis’ only theatrical inspiration. He has written six one-person plays in addition to I Am A Teacher, all having been produced throughout the country, and has written three other books. His interests have taken him to El Salvador where he was an election observer, to refugee camps along the border of Pakistan to spend time with Afghan freedom fighters at war with the Soviet Union, to South Africa during the apartheid movement, and to Nicaragua and the Philippines for grassroots economic development work. He also is an environmental and education activist. David, named an Austin College Distinguished Alumnus in 1992, dedicates his work as an author and an activist to his grandchildren, “that I might leave the world a better place for them.”