Teacher of the year defines passion for stage

And the winner is — James DeBastiani.
The Indian River School District (IRSD) makes the tough call every year — which of 14 candidates (one from each school) will be crowned Teacher of the Year for the entire district.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: James DeBastiani takes a moment in his office to talk about the award.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
James DeBastiani takes a moment in his office to talk about the award.

This year, Southern Delaware School of the Arts’ (SDSA’s) DeBastiani swept top honors — in dramatic fashion. Well, he’s a drama teacher, anyway.

Actually, DeBastiani said he was somewhat unclear as to how the IRSD had determined that he deserved the top spot.

“When I applied for the job, I thought, ‘Well, who better than me? I have all this interest in the kids,’ — but the more time I spent in education, the more I realized my situation wasn’t unique,” he recalled. “Teachers, as a rule, like what they do.

“I like my students, I enjoy working with my students — there’s nothing unique in that,” he said. “I work hard, I do this, I do that — there’s nothing unique in that.”

“I don’t know — maybe if you’d asked me before they gave me this, I might have been pompous enough to give you an answer,” he laughed. “Or to think that I had the answer. But I really don’t.”

Originally from the Pittsburgh area, DeBastiani earned his bachelor’s degree in English (speech/drama minor) at Alderson-Broddus College (W.Va.).
He met his wife-to-be, Barbara, at that time (she was studying to become a nurse), and they married after graduation. They moved to Delaware, and DeBastiani taught school for a few years. “I realized, at that time, it wasn’t for me — I wasn’t ready yet,” he said.

He helped found the Possum Point Players theatre troop around that time (1973), and started his own woodworking business. (He went back to school for his master’s degree in theatre during that period as well.)

DeBastiani said he never really had much of an opportunity to use the classical theatrical training — although he did eventually add the Possum Juniors component to the original acting troupe, especially for students grades six through 12.

Other than that, he toured the craft shows with his woodworking wares for 15 years all told, and also worked at the Stockley Center (care for residents with mental retardation and mental health issues) for 11 years on and off.

DeBastiani described that experience as an important one. “After about a week, I went through a two-week time period of feeling sorry for everybody,” he said. “After that, I said to myself, ‘You’re not doing them a bit of good, and you’re not doing yourself a bit of good.’ So, I got off of that, and I’m glad I did.

“I learned a lot at Stockley Center,” DeBastiani reflected. “I learned from them what I couldn’t learn in school.

“I could apply all the teaching skills I’d learned, and there was definitely progress being made,” he explained. “Some of them were completely immobilized — but even within their static bodies, there were eyes that sparkled with life, if you could see that.”

Throughout both careers, DeBastiani continued his involvement with the players, and ran a few workshops at the high school as well — eventually, he started to get the teaching bug again.

“When the position at the SDSA opened up, I thought it would be a good opportunity,” DeBastiani pointed out. “I jumped at the chance.”

He became the first-ever drama teacher at the brand new SDSA, in 1998.

At that time, his classroom consisted of a few rows of benches and a bit of set scenery he’d borrowed from the Possum Point Players’ “Hansel and Gretel” production.

Seven years later, the room still looks like a work in progress, as if the creative minds passing through have never slowed down enough to bother with spit and polish.

There is an actual backstage area now, though, and a side stage, amphitheatre seating around the main stage, lighting and, all around the room, frames filled with photos from past productions. DeBastiani pointed out the original cast from the class of 1998, but there were plenty of enthusiastic faces in each collection.

“One thing I’ve said since coming here – I’ve had more than my fair share of the perks that come with the job,” he said. “It wouldn’t be worth teaching without the kids — they bring me a lot of joy, and I do thank them for giving me the opportunity to share this part of their lives with them.”

Acting skills aside, DeBastiani said he always tried to keep a focus on literary development. For the younger classes, that meant looking at story structure — details and the order in which they appeared.

“Those are big items on the state tests — that’s not why I’m doing it, but it certainly lends itself to that,” he said.

And, they learn some storytelling skills. Sometimes DeBastiani uses familiar stories, and said it was interesting to see what basics everyone remembered, and what additional details individuals picked up on.

“Or I’ll read a story that I’m certain none of them have ever heard before, and then I’ll ask them to re-create it,” DeBastiani said. “Each group will perform it according to the information that stayed with that group.

“And it’s really interesting when they start noticing that they like something — and not because someone was acting goofy on stage,” he added.

The older students work in character study and development. “That’s a start for them, as far as engaging in higher thinking skills,” DeBastiani said. “And they start doing some script work — a lot of the things we do require knowledge in other areas.”

For instance, students needed to be familiar with the Nazi Holocaust to work with the “Anne Frank and Me” script. The play’s about a modern teenager who denies the catastrophe ever happened — and doesn’t care if it did anyway — but who then has a dual-reality encounter with Anne Frank.

(SDSA’s English department runs a class covering the Holocaust, so the activities complement one another, DeBastiani noted.)

“They do get into some serious business,” he said, remembering a collection of nine short plays students had performed a couple weeks earlier.

He’d given them about 25 to choose from, and they made their selections after reviewing the scripts for a few weeks.

For instance, he said there was a short about a father and daughter, and their conversation about his separation from her mother, and why the daughter is staying at an aunt’s house because of that.

Or “Still Life,” about a female artist and her beau, who’s “fallen in love with her creative process,” as DeBastiani put it.

“Every day, he comes in and encourages her, and every day, she berates him,” he explained. “It’s very, very powerful in the relationship — not a physical relationship, but the emotional bond,” he said.

Despite their tender years, DeBastiani said his students knew how this kind of material might affect their audiences.

“I suspect they know full well the implications of what they’re saying,” he pointed out. “And to watch their performance, in their portrayal of it, you couldn’t believe any less.”