RSS Teacher of the Year Alex Reynolds is a stage scholar
CHINA GROVE — Spend any amount of time with Alex Reynolds and before long — well, before long, you're gonna need a nap.
That's only if you're a grown-up. If you're a young person, it's all good, because his students love him, whether they're playing seemingly silly games or acting or singing or dancing on stage.
Alex, 30, drama teacher at Carson High School, is Rowan County's Teacher of the Year. He'll find out in January whether he'll advance to the regional level. His wife, Kelly, 28, also a teacher at Carson, kinda thinks he's a shoo-in.
“Don't say that!” he says, with mock exasperation. “You'll jinx me!”
But his boundless energy could very well carry him to honors as state teacher of the year. Whoops, jinxing again.
Surely, you think, he can't be “on” like this all the time, teaching three drama classes during the day and helping to care for his two boys at night. Yeah, wife Kelly says, he pretty much is — thanks to lots of coffee and Diet Mountain Dew, Alex adds.
His students thrive on such energy. He flips on the lights as they're finishing up watching a movie one recent Friday afternoon, then corrals them into a circle in the middle of the room. Gee whiz, the room's full! Can he really have this many students in class? Fifty-nine, for those of you keeping count at home. Alex admits he's a sucker and doesn't want any student to feel left out if they want to take his class.
There are no desks, no chairs in his classroom, only a stage in one corner and the rest of the space covered by a huge area rug that looks like a remnant from a movie theater. Turns out it was what was left over from a custom order for some guy's basement in Asheville. Alex's mom spotted the carpet for him and he bought it, sight unseen, for cheap.
The students jump to their feet and start clapping in rhythm. Alex immediately goes into teacher mode, his voice booming through the room.
“This is a focus game and a reflex game,” he says. Kitty Got a Corner? is actually an exercise that teaches students to exit the stage quickly. This comes in handy when Alex directs the spring musicals, which always feature gargantuan casts.
In this game, there's no talking allowed. Only the person who's “It” can ask, “Kitty Got a Corner?” to which the student replies, “No, go see my neighbor.” In the meantime, other students are attempting to switch places behind the person who's “It.” There's lots of running and jockeying for position. As they say onstage, hilarity ensues.
Throughout the classroom — it's really a series of rooms — there are props from previous shows: the sign from Truvy's beauty shop (“Steel Magnolias”), a giant stained-glass window with a rose in the center (“Beauty and the Beast”), stained-glass windows (“Footloose”) and any number of old sofas and chairs. There's even a kid asleep on one. Not sure what's going on here, but there's no time to find out.
As the game continues, Alex points out, “Do you notice you're getting quicker?”
He stops to grab some Kleenex and wipe his sweaty face. A few more minutes pass, then Alex asks the students to sit down on the floor so they can talk.
“I know this class,” he says. “You cannot resist the urge to run. I know one of you will want to run, so I was staying in the middle. On stage, you know what you want, and you have to learn to get it. You guys are risk-takers.”
It's good to push limits, he says. For example, if you're given the assignment of making a cell in biology class, don't just write it up and put it in a three-ring binder. Bake it and use icing to decorate all the parts.
Since it's a Friday during the holiday season, Alex makes a public service announcement on safe driving.
“Be safe, would you, for me?” he says, and the teens nod. “Thank you. I don't wanna see your name on a wall somewhere. Pack it up, pack it in, you've got five minutes before class is over!”
As the students are grabbing bookbags, freshman Jake Shue walks up.
“Mr. Reynolds is freakin' awesome,” he says. “He's my favorite teacher. His class is very creative. It's not a classroom environment. He interacts with us. I plan on taking drama every semester.”
“Somebody needs to tape him,” says sophomore Robyn James, who goes by “RJ.” “I would watch it over and over.”
Robyn met his teacher at a film camp sponsored by Piedmont Players Theatre.
“He's a great teacher,” Robyn says. “He's funny, and he knows how to connect with all the kids. He's wonderful.”
“Alex Reynolds is a dynamic, innovative, passionate educator,” adds Carson Principal Kelly Withers. “He is able to see the potential in all children and find ways to bring it out and showcase their talents.
His energy level is contagious and he gives tirelessly of himself to push our program beyond all expectations for success. I often wonder how he will top his last performance — but he always does.”
The kids gone, Alex perches on the lip of the stage for a few minutes, swinging his feet.
“They offered to cap my classes at 40 students,” he says, “but I'm a sucker. I give everybody a go, you know?”
The Montgomery County native attended college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It gives his wife great pleasure to say she graduated in four years while he took five. This is his sixth year teaching at Carson.
“I've sent three students to college to be theater teachers,” he says with pride. He's worked with three student teachers as well. One of those is Bristol Glass, who started at Carson in August and finished on Dec. 6.
She learned an “overwhelming amount,” she says. She's on her way to be the theater arts teacher at Northern Guilford High School.
“I've definitely learned the importance of students first,” she says, which is the school's mission statement. “Clearly, Alex is doing a brilliant job. Matching his energy is hard. I've learned the importance of reaching outside your department. Alex goes out of his way to make friends.”
And yes, if you're wondering, Alex was an arts kid.
“I sang before I spoke,” he says. He thought about being a chorus teacher, but alas, his hands are too small to reach octaves on the keyboard. Music's loss is drama's gain.
In high school, he had the lead in “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” At the time, he was thinking of teaching math. But on the way to rehearsal one day, he'd just taken a calculus test, and realized he didn't love math the way he loved theater.
Alex's mom has been a huge influence in his life. Alex's dad worked construction for years and now works at Lowe's. Because Alex's older brother is mentally handicapped, he was homeschooled his first eight years of school.
“I grew up loving learning,” he says. “My mom was doing things in the '80s that new teachers are doing now.”
All without a college degree. “She just wanted what was best for us. She gave her life to make sure we got what we needed. She made me want to get up and go to school.”
That's what Alex tries to do for his students.
He started public school in eighth grade, for two reasons: math got pretty tough, and his mom got multiple sclerosis.
Because his mom wanted to make sure Alex had enough social opportunities after being homeschooled, he played four sports, and he was in Kiwanis Club and 4-H.
As a result, he says, “I'm that guy who always has to be involved in something. I like to live busy.”
Part of living busy is putting on two plays each fall, and one “big musical” each spring.
“Last year, we had something like 16 public performances,” Alex says.
And by big, we mean BIG. The musicals feature 80 to 100 students, and have included “Beauty and the Beast,” “Seussical,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Footloose,” “9 to 5” and “Annie” for spring 2014.
Which is OK with Kelly, because that's when she starts preparing her AP European History students for the annual AP exam. When asked to describe Alex as a teacher, Kelly instead launches into a make-believe rundown of his prison record. A sense of humor runs deep in this family.
Kidding aside, Kelly says, “Alex makes an effort to connect with every kid individually, and make sure every child is successful.”
At home, Kelly says, “We do a good job of time sharing. It's important for us that one of us is with our children.”
Their boys are Easton, 3, and Nicholas, 5, who has Down syndrome.
They found out about their older child's disability when Kelly was 20 weeks pregnant. They could have chosen to end the pregnancy at that point.
“We were married and we had jobs,” Alex says. “He was gonna be our kid no matter what, and we were gonna love him no matter what.”
“I was already attached,” Kelly says.
Nicholas is in a regular classroom at China Grove Elementary School, and is making new friends, which thrills his parents.
The Carson campus is a place, Alex says, that supports special-needs children. Even though his older brother, Ian, is a special-needs adult, he totally gets comedy. When he thinks something is funny, his boisterous laughter fills the entire Carson auditorium. Ian attends every production, and is a great confidence booster for the students on stage.
Alex keeps his students in line on stage and off.
“You have to walk in one part military commander and one part clown,” he says. He remembers one class in particular that didn't buy into the no desks-no chairs set-up. One day, they came in to find rows of desks, with worksheets on each one. They did worksheets for three days.
Alex says, “And then, man! You have never seen a better class! It was as if the Berlin Wall had fallen down!”
There's always something going on in his classroom. There's a lot of group work and a lot of games. That kind of energy works for the kids, he says.
And he's thrilled to be a drama teacher representing a school where the arts really matter.
Between talking about school and taking care of the boys, Alex and Kelly are hard pressed to come up with any hobbies. Kelly spends her summer reading plays for Alex; she also loves historical novels — what else.
Alex says he won't lie, he loves young adult literature: Percy Jackson, Twilight, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series, included. He knows the kids in these books, because he lives with them every day.
When Alex and Kelly aren't having movie night with their own children, they'll sometimes head out to Casa Grande for dinner with a group of friends.
Who just happen to be teachers ...
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.