Bittersweet success for Okolona teacher

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – When Chelsea Petty needed inspiration, she got it from two sources.
The first burst came from Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” and the second came from her students at Okolona High School.
“I wrote it for them, for the kids,” the 26-year-old Petty said. “They said, ‘No one in these plays talks like us. Nobody acts like us.’ In my play, Scrooge is a rapper named Jamz. They loved it.”
She started work on the play about a year ago and wrote with her students in mind.
“In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Scrooge has a nephew. In ‘Jamz’s Christmas Carol,’ he has a cousin, because everybody has a cousin around here,” she said. “His cousin is a preacher who wants Jamz to spend his money for good.”
Tyson Eddie, 14, worked around his football and basketball schedules to play the title role.
“The way the character was made, he was made for me,” Eddie said. “It was fun working with the kids I didn’t know very good. It was good to meet them.”
Taniasia Johnson, 14, played the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“I loved it. I had to do cartwheels,” she said. “I had to drag Jamz out of bed and got to arguing. It was funny, but it was kind of hard to do the flips in that dress.”
The kids at Okolona High School weren’t the only ones impressed. Petty submitted “Jamz’s Christmas Carol” to a writing contest sponsored by Pioneer Drama Services in Colorado.
“They didn’t put it into the contest,” Petty said. “They wrote back and said they wanted to publish it.”
With help from Charles Dickens and her students, Petty is a published playwright. She’ll get 50 percent of the royalties whenever someone produces it.
“It’s a very reputable company. I’ve bought plays from them to use with my students,” Petty said. “I’m surprised they chose my play. I don’t feel worthy.”

Tough timing
The news from Pioneer Drama Services comes at a bittersweet time. Along with other positions at OHS, Petty’s has been eliminated.
“R.I.F.,” she said. “Reduction in force.”
With Petty leaving, it’s unclear when Eddie, Johnson and the rest of the artistically inclined students at Okolona will step onto another stage.
Petty was an English teacher who put on plays in her spare time. She funded the shows out of her own pocket and used furniture from her home as set pieces.
In her hands, a piece of leftover fabric found in a Dumpster became a curtain with help from a few safety pins. Her backstage crew was trained to work “stage lights” by flipping switches on a breaker box.
“I don’t have a family or kids at home. We’re just talking about time, so I could do it. I’m afraid they won’t do drama next year, and that’s sad because they’re really talented kids,” Petty said. “Some of them could be actors. They could be reporters on TV. Some of them are great politicians. They can talk you into anything.”

Moving on
Petty took down her bulletin board last week. As she cleared out her room, students visited to say good-bye.
“I thought we were going to do a lot more plays with her,” Eddie said. “I thought we were going to have three or four more plays to do.”
Pioneer Drama Services will send her 10 copies of “Jamz’s Christmas Carol.” She’ll keep one, and give several out to family and friends.
“I’ll probably put a copy in the school library,” she said. “Since I dedicated it to the students of Okolona High School, they should have a copy here.”
She has résumés out and a couple of job leads.
“God will figure it out,” she said. “I figure he’s got something planned for me.”
Maybe her next batch of students will turn out to be as inspiring as her kids at Okolona.
But the transition won’t be easy.
“I thought I was an Okolona teacher. I’m having something of an identity crisis,” she said. “I’m sorry my time here is done. I’m going to miss them.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.