The six people sitting behind me are the students from the Next Actors program, summer theater training for teenagers. They met each other six weeks ago. They had no script, no lyrics, no choreography. What they had was a lot of ideas, a lot of passion, a bunch of talent, and a willingness to collaborate.
Since then, we've explored what's most important to them. THEY built this 45 minute piece for you. They put a lot of themselves into it. They wrote the story. They created their characters. They cast each other. They wrote their lines. They shared their lyrics and poetry. They directed each other in movement and choreography. And most importantly, they supported each other through the entire process.
You're going to get to know them a little through watching their show, but I wanted to give you a small taste of things you don't know, and you wouldn't get to witness just by watching them on stage. Things like...
Their vast knowledge of imaginary universes, including Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Star Trek.
The way they can all talk at once and still everyone is heard.
The way they can cram into a tiny break room and spend half an hour together, listening to music, having absurd arguments, and everyone comes out alive.
How they can voice their opinions without hurting anyone's feelings.
How they can listen to other's opinions without getting their feelings hurt.
How heavily they rely on focus, dedication, fortitude, and resilience, especially when live outside the class is interrupting their work.
They wrote their own community contract the first week. I've taught many classes that put emphasis on creative expression, using your imagination, stepping outside your comfort zone, and indeed these things are important to the Next Actors program. The things this class added this year that surprised me were: "Try your best, even on your off days." And even better, "Know your limits- if you're having an off day, take time to evaluate before bouncing back." They wrote that, not me.
Here's a few more things they wrote. I asked them for essential questions they wanted their show to focus on. They said, "Do you have to be old to be wise?" "Does growing up mean giving up the fight?" "Is oppression always obvious?" "Are you oppressing someone unconsciously?" "Why is change so hard?" "What makes you human?" They answered a few of those questions and brought up more by the time the script was complete, but I'll let you discover those as you enjoy: HUMANS LIKE US, MONSTERS LIKE THEM.
I've read a couple books, gone to a couple meetings. I have a couple years experience of teaching in-school education on top of way more experience at summer camps and after school programs that students actually sign up for and go to outside of their school hours. I've been in many, many, many classrooms.
It is hard.
80% of my class time (at my current after-school program) is dedicated to pretty simple tasks - sit together in a circle, take a deep breath in. Let me try to illuminate how difficult these tasks can be: I get to play with these students after they've been awake since 6:00 AM or earlier, after they've eaten some ridiculously un-nourishing school food, after they've been in a room together studying - and often, getting yelled at by adults - for longer than the average work day. The classroom is the temperature of the weather outside, plus five to ten degrees, so there was a few days in a row where it was 94 degrees... all while we tried to sit together in a circle and take a deep breath in.
On top of the heat and the hunger and the tiredness, there's all sorts of other distractions and challenges. Some of it is normal elementary school stuff, “She said I'm only her fourth best friend," “I like this girl in my class, should I tell her?" or “I don't understand my homework." Some of it is learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, high functioning autism, headaches, stomach aches, band-aids. Some of it is deeper - issues I can't see, things I don't know about, trauma I can't reach. We sit in a circle, and we take a deep breath together. It is difficult.
We work at it. We practice breathing. Every day. Before we get to any kind of brilliantly designed lesson plan I may have on hand, we need to get the fidget spinners put away, our backpacks on the tables to the side of the room, and we need to get our hands off our friends' braids. Some days, that's all we get to. They know I care about them fiercely. They know I know how smart they are because I tell them, every day, “You are so smart." They know I would love to talk to them all day because they are incredible individuals; funny, clever, observant. They also know that I will never yell, I will never get mad, and I will never lose my patience... so they test it. All day, every day. I hate punishing them. They know I hate punishing them. “Punishment" is always phrased as “You have shown me that you are not ready to be in my classroom or help your classmates to focus, so I need you to leave. Go down to the front desk and I'll call you back in ___ minutes." It rarely feels like trouble, it feels like a conversation, which is always an open door to an argument.
Why can't we get class together today, kids?
“You just have to yell at us more."
No. No, that's not the solution.
We work on breathing because they've never been asked to do so. They've been told to shut up, sit down, and stop acting out. They haven't been asked to focus, to take ownership of their feelings and actions. This WHOLE CONCEPT is foreign territory. They do not know the difference between mere obedience and self-realization. And there's no amount of explaining that will help them - the only thing that gets the point across is simplified exercises. Lots and lots of them. Practicing them every day. It took us 3 weeks to work up to a point where we could watch a glitter jar together, in silence, while we count our breaths. When I realized this was a challenge for them, we started by laying on our backs and focusing on a guided relaxation exercise. Then we could lay down in silence. Then we could lay down and listen to a story. Most kids nod off almost immediately, because as soon as you allow their bodies and minds to relax they play catch-up on the restorative sleep they've been lacking. We work on incremental changes towards relaxed, alert, focused readiness. Three weeks, and we are ready to try to play games together as a class... Some days.
Most days it feels like nothing gets done. Most days they can't help but scream at each other. Some days, I have to physically put my body between two smaller bodies, because they've locked arms and are screaming obscenities at each other and someone's pencil is dangerously albeit accidentally very close to someone else's eyeball.
So I asked them to fix it. It took us about a week to write a classroom contract - we're slowly filling a big sheet of paper with words like “Listen." “Normal voice." “Helpful." “Keep your hands to yourself." These are words *they* came up with, not rules I gave them. They are words *they* voted for. The students decide what they want their classroom environment to be. It is slowly... slowly... slowly... working. I'm hearing a lot more “You gotta listen" and a little bit less “SHUT UP already!" They don't notice it's happening, but I do. In-between the seriously rough patches, there are incredible moments.
Two steps forward, one step back. Every day.
And here's where my friends who aren't in my classroom say things like “Wow, you are changing lives." “I don't know where you get the patience." “I couldn't do that." Weirdly hyperbolic compliments mixed in with a pretty low opinion of the young people I chose to spend my time with. Some of those opinions border on outright racism. But that isn't the only reason my heart rate increases and I feel angry every time it's implied that I'm some kind of hero. It feels misplaced and irrational and I don't know how to react to a well-intended comment. I get mad and I get quiet and people get confused.
What I want to say is, “I spend most of my time in my classroom feeling like a glorified babysitter."
What I want to say is, “I'd rather just not talk about my classroom right now."
I want to say “Don't believe Hollywood, this simply isn't as fulfilling and rewarding as The Mighty Ducks, Hardball, or The Dead Poet's Society. This isn't just two hours of story. This is every day."
I want to say “Your praise makes me feel a lot of pressure to save the lives of every kid I meet, like policy and funding and systematic issues are nothing compared to how magical I apparently am."
I want to say “My students know I'm not magical."
I want to say “I am barely a teacher. I do this 4 hours out of my day and it wipes me out entirely. There are people who dedicate their lives to this work. It's like comparing a person on their company's softball team to a major-league baseball player."
I want to say “I consider joining the air force every day because I have a pipe dream that basic training is easier and pays more than this."
I want to say “I didn't learn how to do any of this. All my training and all my experience and I still don't actually know what I'm doing."
I want to say “Actually, it's a problem that I'm teaching. I'm not fully trained for high-poverty, high-trauma students. There's a billion well-meaning white girls just like me, and kids are used to seeing us in their schools doing our best to implement life-changing experience through art, and they are starting to catch on that the whole thing is a load of ineffective, hippie BS. They need food, and sleep, and safety, and marketable skills to survive outside of school. I am not what they need. I seriously question the value of my skill set every time my classroom gets so loud I can't think, which is a lot."
I want to say “Most of the time I do not feel strong enough to do this at all. I spend a lot of time feeling weak, tired, stressed out, hurt, damaged, and crazy."
I want to say that all of my co-workers feel the same way. That we all are wondering if we need to go to some kind of doctor or therapist because we're all tired, depressed, sore, anxious, alcoholic insomniacs. We all think about switching careers and we haven't even been in this one very long.
I want to say that I'm working on finding healthy coping mechanisms for the stress... but I don't want to solicit sympathy.
I want to say that I am worried that I am always 4 minutes away from getting injured at work, because there's no way I wouldn't put my body at risk to keep a young person safe.
I want to say that there is no glory in getting injured at work. There is no pride in burning yourself out.
I want to say that most of the problems our public schools face can be remedied with some well-planned legislature and community engagement that I have absolutely no hope will ever happen. That I feel like a band-aid for some deeply rooted, intrinsic problems in the education system. That I might be doing this job because I feel a responsibility towards my segregated community, and that I often consider throwing up my hands and moving somewhere else to work on a more self-serving career.
I want to say that trying to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline with glitter jars and breathing exercises feels so futile I am almost always on the verge of tears.
I want to say my endurance of screaming kids has nothing to do with how many of them will get shot before they reach twenty years old.
I want to say that compliments do not fuel me, progress does, and I need your help, not your praise.
Grace is an actor and teaching artist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This blog is a record of some of those adventures.