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June 23, 2022

How was the school year? A local high-school history teacher looks back | Celebrating Pride in the rurals | NWFF honoree Deborah Richards reflects on her new film exploring homelessness | Media Sommelier: Is ambient music just productivity wallpaper?

ON MAY 31, just five days after the school year ended, Clark County School District announced a 16-percent raise for new teachers and a bonus for current teachers. It’s meant as a life preserver for the 16,000-plus people educating the district’s more than 300,000 students after a rough couple of years. It's a sweet deal for new teachers, but for veterans like Matthew Aberman, it will take more than money to compensate for the ordeals brought on by the pandemic and social unrest that followed. After another year as an 11th-grade Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History teacher at Coronado High School, Aberman is grateful to have a couple months off. He shared with Desert Companion the difficulties of staying focused on his students while dealing with grade reforms, staff shortages, and the other challenges CCSD teachers have had to face.

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How was this school year compared to the previous year?
For all of us, it was challenging. A lot of teachers that I know have said that they thought that this was the most difficult school year of their career. Personally, I would disagree with that. … I would say that it was the second most difficult year of my career. I believe that the 2020-2021 school year, the one that was completely online, was very unfulfilling in every conceivable way. As difficult as this year was, at least I got to know my students and knew what they looked like. I personally found this year to be much better than last year.  

What was your biggest challenge this year?
The number one challenge that I faced was trying to keep students accountable, fighting student apathy, and getting students to engage. The vast majority of my students had not actually been in a physical classroom until August 2021, and for them, coming back to a traditional classroom environment was very challenging. A lot of students did readjust fairly efficiently and really admirably, but there were a lot of students who just fell through the cracks and never really quite got back to being maybe what they'd been when they were freshmen.  

The district implemented grade reforms, such as the ability to retake exams and allow students to pass with a minimum F. How did these measures affect your classroom?
Being phased in all at once, the measures destroyed student accountability. In my classroom, with these reforms, tests are now 75 percent of the grade. … Still, you have to do the homework and the assignments. It may seem very basic and busy work, but that's how you prepare yourself for the test. However, some of my students wouldn't do the work and study. They would bomb the test, and they would expect to be able to retake the test. Some students would take advantage of this. … Students would also think, "All I have to do is turn one assignment in, and I'll get a D, and I'll pass.”

How do you think your students did this year? 
I haven't gotten my students’ AP exam scores yet. That's really the end game — for them to pass the exam that can save them thousands of dollars in college tuition. When I see the AP exam scores, it'll be much easier for me to see how they did this year. I’ll see what I did that worked and what more I could do to help them. The test they got this year was challenging, so I think scores will go down, but they won’t be as low as they were in the previous year. I know most of my students did fantastically. They really persevered, and I'm proud of them.

The district has not implemented an official policy to address Critical Race Theory. How do you address it — if you do?
My curriculum is established by the College Board, and if I don't teach my students what they're expected to know to pass that exam, then I'm not doing right by the students. In trying to prepare the students for this exam in May, every year, one of the most basic questions that shows up is: What about the non-white people? The College Board asks that question and they expect students to know. If you're not teaching about injustice and oppressed minorities, then you're not giving an honest version of American history. History is not G-rated.  

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Has Coronado dealt with major school violence this year? 
To my knowledge, no. We have a bit of a problem with drugs at Coronado, and there has been for a long time. However, we have not had nearly the problems that other schools have had. I've never had a fight break out in my room.

With violence in classrooms around the district — particularly in response to a student assault on a teacher at Eldorado High School — there's been talk of a new emergency alert safety system to keep schools safe. Is this system enough?
I think the district is doing what they think they need to do. We have drills ... we have emergency soft lockdown and hard lockdown drills. The emergency alert system consists of a button on your phone that calls emergency staff. I don't know if that would have prevented what happened to the teacher at Eldorado, because how are you going to get to the phone when you've been knocked out and pinned down? ... Personally, I don't feel unsafe on campus any more than any other teacher feels unsafe on a daily basis at their school anywhere in the country.

Nevada is ranked No. 2 nationally in the teacher shortage. Most of the shortages are in middle school and high school specialty subjects, like history. CCSD recently raised teachers’ salaries and offered retention bonuses for this coming school year. Do you think that will be enough to keep teachers from leaving the profession?
No, I don't. I think what the district did was intended to hire new teachers, because so many teachers are leaving the profession. When the message went around that new teachers were going to be starting at $7,000 more, there was a lot of resentment by veteran teachers who said, "Wait a minute ... you mean a new teacher now is going to start at the same salary that it took me 10 years to get?" There's a lot of anger about that.   

I have three colleagues who’ve left the profession just this year. One of them took a pay cut to do it. Another one left to get a $10,000 raise. It's very difficult to convince somebody to continue in a job where they don't feel valued, where they're not being compensated financially for the work they're doing and hardships they're dealing with, and where decisions are being made, administrative or executive level decisions, that make it difficult to keep kids accountable and do your job.   

What are you looking forward to in the next school year?
I'm looking forward to, again, being able to see my students' faces. After a whole year when a lot of my students never turned their cameras on, and I knew nothing about them, I'll never take that for granted again. It's just fun when you actually get a chance to be in a physical in-person environment with intelligent young people. I'm looking forward to getting to know a whole new batch of kids and learning from the mistakes that I made the last year or two. And ... just trying to give my students an authentic learning experience.  

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CHRIS BOHANNON, administrator of the Facebook group LGBT of Pahrump, NV, has called Pahrump home for 17 years. Over that time, he’s seen numerous LGBTQ events come and go in his town — some quietly, some not so much. He remembers years ago when “a group of people went and threw their player cards at casino staff in opposition” to a Pride event planned at a local resort. Bohannon recently joined up with longtime friend Jim McCoy, engagement and events manager at the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, to put on the second annual Pahrump PROUD event June 26 at the Pahrump Nugget. The daylong “meet and greet” for the LGBTQ community will feature games, live entertainment, vendor booths, and more. We spoke to McCoy about the challenges and nuances of bringing Pride events to rural communities.

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How did the idea for Pahrump PROUD come about?
Pahrump PROUD was an idea that was spawned between myself and my husband and some really good friends we have in Pahrump. We've had an older couple in Pahrump that we've been friends with for at least the last 12 years. So when I took the position at the LGBTQ Center (of Southern Nevada) as the engagement and events manager, I said, let's just do something simple. So we really threw the Pahrump PROUD together within three weeks. It’s a simple little community event, and I take pride in it because it was my little baby. It’s not the first LGBTQIA+ event that’s ever happened in Pahrump, but it’s the first of its kind, being that it's a community event. It's kind of like a small open house.

What other queer events have been happening in Pahrump?
The Pride event I attended (about 10 years ago) was at a hotel in Pahrump, and it was a bingo night Friday, and a Saturday night pool party. We were in a bingo hall mixing their regular bingo with Pride bingo. So we had regular bingo and with it was the mixture of both audiences, the queer audience and the regular bingo audience, and it was a hoot. Now mind you, there were a few who sat there quietly and accepting and just nodding their heads. You could tell they didn't want to be bothered. But over 80 percent of the crowd was just wound up and loving everything about bingo. I think for a lot of people out there, it was their first experience with the queer community.

What’s your connection to Pahrump?
I love Pahrump. I think it is a gorgeous, incredible, very spiritual place. We have a lot of friends who live out there in the area. There is a queer community, and the Center is “of Southern Nevada,” so it's great outreach. A lot of people think, “Oh, the Center’s in Las Vegas.” No, we are in Southern Nevada.

Have you faced any opposition or resistance to having this Pride event?
There were a few bullies who would get onto the Facebook groups and make a few comments last year, but we had no experience of that this year. The event is on a Sunday, so the hotel is a little mellow. Last year, while we were setting up, we had people popping their heads in and asking what was happening, and people seemed really interested.

How have you considered attendee safety while planning Pahrump PROUD?
One of the things about doing any queer event in Pahrump — and in today's world it's a fear in doing any event anywhere anymore, especially in our community — is safety. One of the first things that was brought up when we discussed having a picnic last year is if we do it outside in a park, there’s the threat of something happening. I've been to events around the country where there are protesters and things get a little rough. We didn't want to deal with that because we don't have the capacity to deal with that or hire additional security. Security sometimes inhibits people from going in and being a part of an event, so we felt it would be best for all of us to do it in a hotel where there's already built-in security.

The marketing for this year's prime crowd really emphasizes that it's a family-friendly, community event. Is there a particular reason for that?
My friends from Pahrump have called it, and I say this lovingly, “the closet for Las Vegas.” There are a lot of individuals who live their true self and authentic self in Pahrump, but they're still very, very secluded, and they’re very private.

It’s kind of night and day with Las Vegas. Las Vegas is very loud and out there, and Pahrump is still very reserved and very conservative. My mind was blown by the individuals who walked through the door last year, who said this was the very first Pride event that they’ve ever attended in their life — individuals in their 50s, midlife. I don't want it to ever get to the point where it’s so overwhelming that the individuals who don't partake in the party scene won't attend.

Pahrump PROUD takes place 11a-4p at the Pahrump Nugget. For more information, visit thecenterlv.org.

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AFTER TWO YEARS of virtual editions, the Nevada Women’s Film Festival returns to an in-person event this week, with four days of screenings that showcase female filmmakers and women’s stories. Now in its eighth year, NWFFest is one of the longest-running film festivals in Nevada, and this year’s programming reflects the festival’s growing prestige. Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young will be on hand to receive the Vanguard Award and screen her HBO Max documentary Nuclear Family. The official selections encompass more than 50 short films and seven features, including local filmmaker Landon Dyksterhouse’s documentary Warrior Spirit, about MMA fighter Nicco Montano.

This year’s Nevada Woman Filmmaker of the Year award will be presented to Deborah Richards, along with the first public screening of her debut feature film, Move Me No Mountain, a drama about a grieving woman who leaves her life behind to live on the streets of Las Vegas. Richards is a longtime Las Vegas filmmaker whose short films have played in numerous local festivals, including NWFFest. She spoke to Fifth Street about the process of making her film and the honor of being this year’s award recipient.

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What first drew you to filmmaking?
I think maybe the Muppets in the mid-’70s. I was obsessed with the Muppets, and I would try to make my own Muppets as a kid. And of course Star Wars blew my mind, as it did so many people. I actually had a book of The Muppet Movie. I would obsess over the details of the sets and the miniature things. Then I got a video camera in like 1980 and started with model kits, making spaceships and making them land on bits of foam with talcum powder. I grew up in Bahrain in the Middle East, and we had very different copyright laws. So the way we would watch media in the ’70s in Bahrain was you’d go to the video store, and you’d get 30 or 40 or 50 videos in a milk crate, take them home, take them back the next month. At a really young age, I just had a gazillion films at hand that I would watch. And it was Bahrain, which is very similar to Vegas, so as a kid, it’s too hot to go and play outside, so I’d stay inside and watch mov

ies all day.

What was the inspiration for Move Me No Mountain?
No idea. I woke up one morning in February last year and I had the protagonist, the title, and the basic premise of the movie in my head. I’m like a creative supernova. I can’t help it. I can just be creative on tap in many different mediums and formats. I always have been. I can just turn it off and turn it on at will. My whole life I’ve often wondered, will this creativity ever run out? One day will I turn the tap on and nothing comes out? But it just always does.

Had you been planning to make your first feature film, or did that spring from this particular idea?
It was kind of a few things. I went to CSN back in 2014, and I got four (student) Emmys while I was at CSN in the film program. I thought, okay, this is launching my film career. So I dropped out of school, expecting the doors of Hollywood to open, and they didn’t. I spent the next few years really grinding it out, learning my craft as a freelancer, and getting better and better as a filmmaker. I was always telling people, “Yeah, I’m a film director,” because I made nine shorts, I directed 100 TV commercials, I have four Emmys, I got bunches of awards. And I was like, I feel like a bit of a fool, because I’m telling people I’m a film director, but I actually haven’t directed a feature film. So in 2020, I was just like, next year I’ve just got to make it happen. Whatever it takes.

What was your strategy for raising money for this film?
I did it the traditional way. I hit the streets and talked to people and asked people. It was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was excruciating and painful and difficult. I was at various stages of this process with like 200 people for months. It was brutal. Ultimately worse than those were industry professionals calling me up and telling me why I shouldn’t do this and why it wouldn’t work. It was really disheartening. I cried a lot, and I stressed a lot, but I kept pushing through it and got it done.

What kind of research did you do?
Because the core subject matter of this movie is dealing with the unsheltered and the problem of homelessness in modern America, I wanted to treat the subject matter with authenticity and dignity. My producer Patrick Wirtz and I, we contacted Las Vegas Rescue Mission, and they were all about the project. They very graciously arranged for interviews that we did with half a dozen people who used to be unsheltered, who are now homed. Similarly, Shine a Light Foundation also took me down into the tunnels in Las Vegas. It was from interviewing those people at the shelter that a lot of the micro-stories in the movie came from, their experiences. I’m really glad that we got to do that, because it added a real layer of authenticity.

How was the experience of shooting in the underground tunnels?
Terrifying. It was all kinds of problematic. For starters, you can’t get a permit to shoot down there, because it’s a storm drain, so it could flood at any second. So first up, we’re shooting guerilla-style. Next up, when you’re down there, nothing that relies on Bluetooth or wi-fi works. Things like cameras talking to remote monitors and stuff like that. There were technical problems. And then there’s just logistical problems. If I need to use the restroom, it’s a long walk out and then a car ride to the store and then back.

We picked tunnels on the outskirts of town, where when we scouted they were uninhabited, or lightly inhabited. When we went to shoot, there was one particular day where, at the other end of the tunnel, there was an inhabitant who very clearly did not want us there and was screaming abuse at us from the darkness, and hitting a metal pipe against a metal something. We were terrified. He lit a fire to try and smoke us out, and the Henderson Fire Department had to come down and flood the tunnel. We had to get all our gear out. We would have to do the takes in between him shouting at us. We would kind of time it for when he was out of breath, and then I’d be like, “Action!”

What do you hope audiences take away from watching this film?
I’d like to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless in America. I hope when people watch it, not only are they entertained — I hope that they see Vegas in a new light. Because no movie has ever shown Vegas like this movie. Compared to like Ocean’s Eleven and Casino, in our movie we use every bit of the buffalo — the mountains, the desert, Summerlin, downtown, up in the high rises and CityCenter, under the tunnels, under Caesars. So I’m excited for people to see that, just as a long-term resident, a proud resident of Vegas.

Of course I want them to take away the reality of homelessness. The reality is that homeless people are homeless for a whole multitude of reasons. It’s not always just drugs and alcohol. It’s everything from mental instability, to the main character in our movie, she’s actually voluntarily going homeless because she’s punishing herself as a penance for what she’s done in the past. And we met people like that during our research.

What does it mean to you to get this award from the Nevada Women’s Film Festival?
It’s incredibly humbling. It’s very rewarding. I’ve been freelancing for 10 years, 15 years as an editor. I’ve been doing shorts over the years, and I’ve had shorts in festivals. Honestly, it just came so from left field. Never in a million years would I have guessed that they would bestow this honor on me. It’s very, very nice. To go through this process of making movies and choosing this career path, and always being dedicated to the art and craft—I’ve had to make so many personal sacrifices. I’ve had to go without so much, whether it be self-care or even at times food, because I put that money toward the next camera or the props, or whatever I was doing. I’ve always had to make massive sacrifices for the sake of my art. I’m not entirely sure why I do it. I’m just driven to do it. Any kind of recognition is always a real sense of relief that someone’s seen what I’m doing.

What are you working on next?
It’s crazy, because we’re already deep in pre-production, and we start production in a couple weeks. Stanley Kubrick once said, “You don’t choose your movies; your movies choose you.” And it’s so true. I always said I would never do a documentary, and then this opportunity fell in my lap to do a documentary, and it was just such a great opportunity that I couldn’t possibly look the other way. The movie is called The Shaken and the Stirred, and it’s the story of flair bartending. Vegas is the capital of flair bartending in the world, and I used to be a flair bartender a very long time ago, and I’ve still got deep roots in that community. And we’re in development of the movie after that as well. It’s called My Own Private Nazi, and it’s a thriller set in Utah in 1981. I’ve always said that I'm an auteur in training. I don’t think I’ve done the same genre twice.

Nevada Women’s Film Festival. June 23-26, MEET Las Vegas, 233 S. 4th St. $10 per screening, $30 passes. nwffest.com

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1. I listen to ambient music in several different settings. Sometimes I just want to zero in on something cerebral and wordless, and sometimes I want synthesizers to steadily loop and hum while I sneak five minutes of Zen before work. And it’s the latter context that’s caused an interesting dichotomy in the music world.

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Andy Cush recently examined ambient music’s popularity with meditation and self-care playlists on streaming services, and the tumult it’s caused in the ambient artist community. To wit: enter English ambient artist 36’s tweet last year about the Venn Diagram overlap between the type of music he makes and meditation: Ambient music as a meditation aid is a "massive trope of the ambient scene (and totally benign in every sense) but god damn do I hate being associated with it in any way. I try very, very hard to keep my music as far away from all that bollocks as much as possible.

Cush reveals both the mainstream success of an otherwise niche genre full of relatively unknown artists and the latest peril of letting streaming companies become too powerful. Spotify-curated playlists are on one hand resulting in a payday for otherwise low-earning ambient artists (and their labels), and on the other, casting ambient music to the background of our lives. Brian Eno, who gave this music the ambient name and made some of its most pioneering works, famously said it didn’t matter how you heard the music. But tell that to artists like 36 who would prefer listeners attentively hear the fruits of their creative labor rather than have it score an all-night coding session or, worse, a sunrise mindfulness session. I am not going to tell you in what way you should consume ambient music; I defer to Eno here. But what I do hope is that you read Cush’s well-researched and evenhanded story, keep open your Spotify nearby, and as you go, sample the artists he references or quotes. And if you’re going to stream the streaming service’s well-promoted Deep Focus playlist, make sure to drag and drop your favorite inclusions in a new personal playlist — or better yet, validate your new fandom by purchasing their music on Bandcamp.

2. Onto another interest of mine: surfing, and one of the best writers on the subject, William Finnegan. His memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life won a Pulitzer in 2016, and The New Yorker would be wise to republish in book form his recent profile of surfer Kai Lenny. Athlete longreads that don’t focus on championships or controversies can be a hard sell, especially when the sport isn’t ESPN appointment viewing, but the best of such profiles give remarkable insight into the drive of athletes. In the case of Lenny, famous both within the sport and on Instagram for boarding down horrifyingly massive waves, his compulsion is driven by pure obsession, elation, competitiveness, impressing the folks with big wallets (be it sponsors or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) and a wholesome passion for the water. On the latter point: Lenny really enjoys carving up the ocean anyway he can; he also enjoys windsurfing, foil boarding — that’s when the board hovers above the water thanks to an attached, underwater hydrofoil — and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), all typically dismissed by surfing traditionalists. But Kenny is not focused on the institutions and customs of the sport. He’s not even fazed when an illness prevents him from taking advantage of a wild-card berth at a World Championship Tour contest in Oahu. He is forging his own path, both on each 50-foot wave he braves and through the world of surfing itself, becoming a renaissance man in a sport that needs one.

3. Let’s get this out of the way first: Cheryl Klein was a colleague of mine in the mid-1990s when both of us wrote for and edited UCLA’s Daily Bruin newspaper. I haven’t seen her in about 15 years, but she’s been busy in Los Angeles writing professionally and raising a family — one she and her partner want to grow. However, adopting a child in this country is inexplicably one of the most rigorous and heartbreaking endeavors one can go through, and Cheryl’s mettle has been tested countless times over the last decade or so. (She documents her initial trials with entering motherhood in her upcoming book, Crybaby.) In the cleverly titled Mutha Magazine essay, “ We Met a Mom in Reno Just to Text and Cry,” Cheryl continues documenting her ongoing saga in trying to adopt a second child, this time pinning her hopes on a mother up north whose circumstances seemingly change by the day, and those updates are typically delivered via text message. Will the mother rescind her promise to give Cheryl her baby? Or will technicalities in the adoption process send the baby right into the foster care system? The masterstroke in Cheryl’s storytelling is how she parallels her umpteenth attempt at open adoption with her adventures playing a puzzle game called Red’s Kingdom, alternatingly scoring and running into obstacles on both her phone and in real life. I didn’t know Cheryl was a gamer; it’s likely more the case that the game keeps her sane through this utterly vexing process. At this point, no one would begrudge her a cheat code.

4. You could feel the collective buttclench of local media gobblers once the Washington Post’s haters’ guide to Las Vegas hit social media. Oh, won’t this be a barrel full of bullet holes and fish-shaped Vegas cliches, I thought upon reading the headline. And who did the Post fly over to scowl at us? Typically, it’s someone who acts like they drew the short end of the travel-writing stick, but in this case, it’s Amanda Finnegan (likely no relation to William), who discloses right up front that she’s a former resident and a frequent visitor. Oh. She also admits high up that she’s not here to cast her lot with the cultural and social effetes who crotch-kick Las Vegas any chance they get. Instead, she sings the praises of an imperfect city that has many things going for it, and very few of them are found on a Strip gift shop postcard — or on the Strip, period. Finnegan’s picks for what makes our city cooler than its detractors would suggest culls from the freshest of offerings, touting new spots like The English Hotel downtown; Las Vegas’ latest immersive attraction, Particle Ink; and East Fremont’s cozy performance venue, Cheapshot. Not exactly news to us locals, but it does feel refreshing to read an East Coast article on Las Vegas that wasn’t a hit job. Will it make our city’s critics reconsider their dismissals and disdain? Judging by the rough comment section for Finnegan’s story, probably not. As the graphic T-shirt reads: haters gonna hate. Mike Prevatt

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Photos and art: Matthew Aberman: Lourdes Trimidal; Deborah Richards and film poster: Courtesy Nevada Women's Film Festival; Pahrump PROUD: Courtesy The Center

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