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Stoneman Douglas drama teacher says winning Tony Award was 'like Christmas' for her students

Melody Herzfeld found out she was getting a Tony Award for teaching drama while she was teaching drama.

Just before Mother’s Day, Herzfeld — on the faculty of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the scene of a mass shooting on Valentine’s Day — got the call that she was going to receive the 2018 Excellence in Theatre Education Tony Award.

“A strange number came across my cell phone while I was in class taking attendance,” Herzfeld recalls. “And this voice says, ‘Can you please hold for the Broadway League?’ And I’m thinking, ‘OK, what is this about?’ Then, the president [of the League] got on the phone and introduced herself and yada, yada, yada ‘Tony Award,’ and my jaw just dropped. Everything ended when I heard ‘Tony Award.’ I don’t think I heard another word. And then, it was followed up with an email, thank God, because I wouldn’t have remembered anything.”

Herzfeld will attend the 72nd annual Tony Awards Sunday, June 10, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The ceremony will be broadcast on CBS beginning at 8 p.m. Herzfeld’s award comes with $10,000 for the theater program at Stoneman Douglas and two tickets to the Tonys and the post-show gala.

“Tomorrow, I guess I’ll go to Nordstrom and get a dress,” Herzfeld said on Monday. “That will be very exciting, to feel good for a second. We’ve been wearing our school shirts here like a badge of honor every day. It doesn’t feel right to put on anything else, to be honest.”

Herzfeld has been teaching at Stoneman Douglas since 2003, and has produced more than 50 productions at the school. Her son Richard is a special-education teacher at Stoneman Douglas, and her other son Alec is a senior at Florida Gulf Coast University. Herzfeld and her husband, Richard, own Tanglewood Academy preschool in Pembroke Pines.

Because she has been very busy and because the organizations bestowing the award on her — the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway League and Carnegie Mellon University — asked her to keep the award confidential, she put the whole Tony Award thing on the back burner while she dealt with more pressing matters. Then, on May 31, a press release announcing her award went out.

“I just kind of put it in the back of my mind,” she says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I heard what this woman said to me wrong.’ Maybe it’s just a nomination. Just let it be. Then one day, last Thursday I believe, I was sitting in my class with my students. we were making love flags for Santa Fe and Noblesville [towns in Texas and Indiana, respectively, that recently suffered school shootings]. Peri, one of my kids, was on her phone on Twitter, as kids are prone to do, and she just looked up at me and said, she could hardly get the words out, ‘Mrs. Herzfeld … you … Tony … What is this?’ She hands me her phone, and it’s the [May 31] announcement. They all start crying and then they start texting. Kids came out of the woodwork. It was like Christmas for my kids. Then, they got busy. Two of them are taking phone calls for me. Two are fielding emails. One was answering the phone calls from my desk phone. A few rushed up to the front office to make sure an announcement went out before school let out for the day.”

Herzfeld says the best part was that “it’s like it happened to them. It was magical. It wasn’t about me. It was about their teacher. It really was quite magical.”

Several of the most outspoken young activists for gun control in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting are Herzfeld’s students, including Cameron Kasky, Alex Wind, Alfonso Calderon, Chris Grady, Daniel Williams, John Barnitt and Adam Alhanti. While Herzfeld acknowledges that performing-arts training has helped the students become articulate advocates, she is careful about sharing her beliefs and opinions.

“I have to be a teacher first, pose questions and open the discussion for everybody,” she says. “You can’t sit here and preach to your children. You have to help them explore what they believe in and support it no matter what your beliefs are. I haven’t given an interview until this moment. I just wanted to be here in the room, waiting here for them.”

Another reason Herzfeld hasn’t given any interviews is because on the day of the shooting, while she and her students were hiding from the gunman, she received text messages from reporters.

“They were asking me for an interview in the middle of one of the worst days of my life. I remember they were appealing to me, saying it was my obligation to answer and say that we were safe hiding in this closet,” Herzfeld recalls. “I understand that is journalism and that is their job, but what bothered me was that wasn’t the end of it. They asked me to FaceTime. They were really trying to guilt me into giving information about my children. I said, ‘We’re safe, thank you, and my phone is going to die.’ And they said, ‘Well, you can use someone else’s phone.’ And then, I’m like, ‘I’m done.’ My job was to take care of the kids, not to do an interview.”

The sting of that experienced was lessened by the support she and her students got in March at the Florida State Thespian Festival in Tampa.

“There were, like, 8,000 kids … and every kid was a MSD kid,” Herzfeld says. “Every single kid, they all wore our shirts. They were all MSD strong. These kids, between the ages of 14 to 18, they are banding together.”

It’s a lesson they brought back to Parkland.

“This is their time now,” Herzfeld continues. “Kids today, they don’t really take’ no’ for an answer. We’ve taught them to be persistent. We do that in drama class — be truthful, be honest, tell me what you really think and don’t fake it. The best performances are the honest ones.”

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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