I'm delivering theater workshops to a middle school I really like. The kids are funny and smart, albeit not totally attentive. The workshops I created are supposed to be a ten day residency where we put on a musical that the kids write. The "musical" part I leave for a special guest artist to come in and teach them. Why I got hired to teach musical theater I still don't know but I've been doing this job 9 months already and apparently no one has caught on that I don't know Verdi from Wagner.
Here's the lesson plan: I give the students prompts that they themselves have written, and ask them to create a "frozen picture" (a tableau) out of the prompts. We then look at the tableaus as a class, and I make it clear that we're not playing a right/wrong guessing game about original intent, we're looking at it as a piece of art and answering the questions "What do you see? What does it look like? Who are these characters? Who are they to each other? Where are they?" We create a story out of weaving these pictures together - it's story soup. No one person's idea comes out ahead of anyone else's. True collaboration.
I used to have the students demonstrate their frozen picture live, but I've realized that it simply takes too long and it makes the kids' arms hurt if I make them freeze for 8 minutes while I try to get the class to pay attention for long enough to answer questions. So, this time, with this class, I decided to take pictures of their tableaus on my phone and present them in a power point presentation today.
So, I skip to the next slide and a photo comes up with three young women in it. One of the students in the picture exclaims "Turn it off! We can talk about the photo I just don't want to look at it."
"Why not?" I ask. She's hiding her eyes from the sight of herself on the screen at the front of the classroom.
"It's ugly," she says.
"My face. I was tired that day."
I look at the screen. She does, in fact, have a tired expression. I don't see ugly, I see a bored/tired student being made to pose for a dumb picture she didn't realize was going to be on display like this.
"So?" I ask her. "It looks like you made a bold character choice, even if you didn't mean to."
"Just take it down," she protests. "I look ugly."
I think about it for maybe three seconds - I almost let it go. I almost stop talking to this young woman and ignore her protests - I ignore a lot of middle school drama in order to keep class moving. But this time I don't. It becomes one of those Feminist Issues that I don't drop, even in regular conversation with adults. I give these little things attention even when people roll their eyes at me, and sigh, and try to change the topic, because I don't think this is a little thing. I think this is a big thing that needs to be addressed.
I don't try to tell her how pretty she is. Even if I tried, a) she wouldn't believe me, and b) telling an eleven year old that she's pretty just reinforces this focus on the importance of beauty. Instead, what comes out of my mouth is "So what?"
I then soapbox a little bit. I think I said "These pictures aren't about who's prettiest in them. These pictures are about bold character choices. Not every character you see on stage is pretty. And thank goodness! I don't WANT to live up to the standard of a pretty princess. Not all the time. There's an incredible freedom in being allowed to be ugly."
I go back to this girl who is giving me her eye contact, she's listening, but her head is nearly on her desk. "What character is the girl in the photo?" I ask her.
"What could she be? Why is that character's face that way in this moment?"
"I dunno. Maybe she's.... I dunno." This student has ideas but she won't share them - and I know why... her class is filled with incredibly critical middle school students who call each other "ghetto" and "dumb" and "ugly" all the time, and they laugh at each other's expense whenever they share ideas.
"My favorite book," I told her, "is about an ugly princess."
"Well I'm definitely ugly, but I'm not a princess," this student says. I ask her for more information about her character, but she's disengaged now. She has buried her face in her arms on her desk and won't look at me. This is my cue to lay off the kid - if I press further, I might make her cry. (I've definitely made kids cry before.) Time to take the attention off of her, and quickly.
"I'm not calling you ugly. I'm just wondering why you're afraid of being ugly. I LIKE being ugly!" I proceed to crouch, and I snarl, and I make my face as a-symmetrical as it can get. I growl and I hiss and I lope around the room before lunging at a table of this girl's peers - a bunch of girls who haven't spoken up yet today. And this is when I freak the heck out of them.
This is when I move on. I ask someone else who this student's character could be, and a dear sweet boy I love to call on for answers suggests she's the statue of liberty. Awesome. Class continues. I find a moment when everyone's distracted to check in with my ugly princess - I ask her if she's okay, if I embarrassed her too badly. "Nah," she says with a smile. She's fine.
I don't know if anything I do sinks in. I don't think any of these kids are actually interested in theater. This particular class happens around 3:15pm, when they're all hungry and ready to go home. I can barely get them to listen to each other for longer than four seconds let alone come up with ideas for a play. They're bored, they're disinterested, they find me mildly amusing but I'm certainly not the beacon of enlightenment I wish I could be for them. I'm certainly not changing anyone's life.
But maybe - maaaaaybe, in a few more sessions, I can get this girl to play a witch or a frog or a gremlin and she'll let go, just a little bit, of the pressure to feel pretty. Maybe I'll do that just a little bit for more than one girl in this classroom - the twelve year old with the sharp press-on nails that match her sharp attitude comes to mind. Maybe we'll all learn something about fears and how to get over them. We'll see. I've got five more days with them.