Wow. I love this on so many levels. First of all anytime a big, awkward guy sings and succeeds is going to have my vote for obvious reasons. Second, they sound good and I love the audience reaction and the underdog angle. But most of all, the kindness and love she shows him, and the loyalty he shows her in return--wow!!!! This is so great. Made my day. I hope it makes yours as well.
My boss, who is one of the wisest educators and administrators I know, often say that the two most important components of his job are to hire the right faculty and accept the right students. If he does those things right, everything else seems to run itself.
That's true in theatre. An old directing cliche says that if you pick the right play and cast it correctly, the play will direct itself and there is a lot of truth to that.
Choosing the right play is critical. Not all plays can be performed equally well by every cast. Choosing the right play will be the first step in making sure the kids have a successful--therefore enjoyable--experience because with the right play, they will be able to flourish and shine.
I never, ever pre-cast. It's impossible to do it correctly. Over the years, I've noticed that the people I would have predicted would get specific roles almost never do. Once, my daughter pushed me into writing down my predictions for which students would get which roles. I wrote them down and hid them. After the casting was done, we looked at my list. I believe I was wrong in all but one instance. One of the most common things I hear after a performance is, "So-and-so was so good! I never would have guessed s/he could have done that!" Exactly. That's why we have auditions and call-backs. It helps eliminate the guesswork and gives everyone an equal shot. And so, I never pre-cast. Not even in my head. It's a waste of time.
That being said, I have to consider the students I have. I can't pick a play with a lyric soprano leading lady if my most experienced students are altos. I can't do a play with two singing male leads if I have only one guy with a super strong voice.
I also have to consider the personality and experience level of the students I know will do the play. A large group of students has a personality as distinct and unique as each individual. Some are fun, some are serious, some are quirky, some are emotional, and so on.
We did Fiddler on the Roof one year with a group of students who were fairly deep and were able to understand the emotional currents in the play. This year, we did Aladdin with a more fun-loving crowd. Both plays were successful, but neither would have worked as well with the other group of students.
Another critical factor is experience. We all love the stories of the chorus girl who gets her big break, steps into the leading role and shines. It's a lovely story, but it rarely happens--and there's a reason for that. It takes years and years to develop the confidence to do that. It takes years and years for the voice to mature to the point where it's safe to have a child even try that. While everyone thinks they would like a lead, putting an inexperienced child in a huge lead is actually quite cruel. It puts a tremendous amount of emotional, psychological, and cognitive pressure on them and might even do some physical damage to their voice.
You would never send a high school athlete in to start in the NFL. It would destroy him and everyone would see the coach as a villain for letting it happen. Most people don't realize that it's the same thing in a theatrical context. One has to be more than just dramatic or like to doing plays to bear the enormous responsibility of carrying a show. Talented, trained, confident, and emotionally resilient enough to make some very big risks. I think this is one thing that perhaps most parents don't fully appreciate and understand, and that's fine. If you've never done it, it's difficult to understand. So, I try to explain it as often as I can.
There is also work ethic. Our school pays a lot of money to do these plays and parents work like sweatshop slaves to do costumes and sets. We can't take a risk on messing the whole thing up by casting a flake or fair-weather performer in the lead only to have him/her decide they don't really want to put in the time and effort. Before I cast a child in a lead, I need to know s/he is capable. Talented. Focused. Dedicated. Emotionally steady. And, a hard worker. It takes years to build those skills up. It's why most often, leads in middle school productions are 8th graders with some 7th grade exceptions. It's the same in high school and college.
Finally, I always try to pick a play that will push the students a bit--meet them where they are, but require them to stretch themselves. Having a play with lots of fun parts in a plus, and also some parts for kids who may act quite well but aren't the strongest singers is another thing I look for.
Here are my givens this year: I have a fairly large group. It could be anywhere from 25 to 50 or more. So, I need a play with a large ensemble, one that can be huge or small as needed.
I have an unusually high number of boys, many of whom are both talented and seasoned performers that I know I can count on because of past performances. A number of them are also good comedians. This is usually one of my weakest areas. This year it is my strongest and I want to take advantage of that. It may not happen again for a few years.
The bulk of my girls are talented, but skew a bit younger and don't have quite so much experience in the aggregate. A large number of them can sing and act, but I have fewer that have been tested in performing terms. Among them, I also have some with strong comedic abilities--something that is actually quite rare. For the most part, they are altos or mezzo-sopranos. I need a play that will provide some good growing roles for the younger ones and some good opportunities for those who are more experienced, that will not require a high soprano, and that will make use of their comic ability. A number of girls are also very good dancers.
I have spent the last two months thinking in almost every spare minute about which play to do with my students. I have spent time thinking about literally every individual student who is signed up or likely to do the play. Thinking about their talents and strengths, as well as their weaknesses and where they need to grow. I've thought about their individual strengths and weaknesses as well as their collective strengths and weaknesses. I've thought about the most experienced as well as the newest in terms of trying to build the bench, so to speak. I've thought about our larger school community and what kind of play they might enjoy seeing.
There were several plays I wanted to do. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one I've wanted to do for a long time. The Pirates of Penzance is another. I also considered Guys and Dolls, which is a lot of fun and has some great parts.
Each of those shows is great, but none of them completely fit what I have. Joseph has one lead and that's about it. There are not really any female leads to speak of. When I have a lot of talented boys, it seemed like kind of a waste. It is likely that I will have years again where I have very few boys. This would be better to save for a year I have fewer kids, or a year I have maybe one super talented boy, and two strong female singers, but not a lot of other male participants. I might do it as an all-school musical in the winter because I need a huge ensemble play to accomodate 130 kids and Joseph can be done small or large scale. And, it doesn't really fit what I need for the girls.Finally, the personality just doesn't seem to match my kids, although it's close.
I have loved Pirates since I was a boy and wanted to do it for years. But you need a coloratura soprano. And there aren't many leading or featured female roles, although there is a great female ensemble and several great roles for non-singers. Vocally, it's kind of a tough one for kids to do, although I was going to have the keys lowered, though. I came very close to doing this one. In fact, I settled on it several times. But at the end of the day, it didn't feel like quite the right fit for this group. I didn't see them getting or enjoying the humor collectively. I think we could have done it well. I don't think it was the right one, though, and I don't think it would have been wonderful.
Guys and Dolls was another one I almost did. Lots of great roles--2 male and 2 female leads plus some featured roles that are a lot of fun. Highlights the male talent but still have some fun things for the girls as well. This was perfect in some ways. It hit the talent and experience level pretty well and they would have got the humor. Downside--a lot of dancing for the boys. Lots and lots of it. This takes a lot of work since they generally have no or little experience. Hello Dolly had a lot of it and it was great--but time consuming and stressful. Not sure about that. Also, Dolly had HUGE, wonderful sets, but they took a lot of time and work. Not sure we're up to another huge set show again so soon, and Guys and Dolls would be one. Still, all that can be overcome.
Biggest problem though: really antiquated notions about gender relationships and marriage. It's a fun show, but has some really dated things. I feel a big responsibility to be careful what I pick. These students are in a formative phase in terms of how they view themselves and relationships. There is a humorous cynicism about relationships in G&D that can work in high school and adult productions. Frankly, I didn't want to go there with my young students. We may do this sometime--there are not an infinite supply of good shows out there--but not this year. And not without lots of careful thinking and contextualizing.
None of these shows felt right to me and I've learned to trust my gut. I spent a lot of time over spring break listening to shows and thinking and thinking. I listened to My Fair Lady one day. And had an intuition. This is it, I thought.
Then I went through and started looking at the talent profiles. Leading lady could be a soprano or mezzo. Good, strong male and female roles for singers and non-singers (Higgins and Doolittle can sing or speak-sing. Mrs. Higgins does not sing. Col. Pickering only sings a little. One really strong male singer for the romantic lead). Big, flexible ensemble with really fun songs--cockneys in "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" and "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?" and upper class English aristocracy in "Ascot Gavotte" and the Embassy Ball, so lots of range. Also, lots of songs for the ensemble. I always feel bad when they are in only one or two songs. This has five or six, plus some good opportunities for good dancers.
Most of our kids at school who do the play also want to do sports. This would allow the vast majority to play a sport and make it easy to rehearse with the few who didn't. A logistical plus.
Most of all, it seems to fit. I don't know why exactly, can't define it. But I know this play (I've known it since I was a little boy. My grandpa loved it). I played Prof. Higgins years ago, so I really know this play. And I know this group of kids. I feel like someone who is dying to introduce two friends who have never met--but am sure will get along well. This is widely acknowledged as one of the best musicals ever written, and I relish introducing my students to good work like that and having them become familiar with a cultural icon.
I also love the thematic elements. There is a lot middle school kids will understand. Teacher student dynamics. Male, female relationships--romantic and platonic. The fear of being made a fool of in front of everyone. Being in the wrong group and trying to get in the right one. Being yourself--but being the best you can. I look forward to some really great talks with my classes about these themes next year.
It's a hard play. I'm taking some real risks, for sure. It will stretch everyone, from the leads to the ensemble. It's not going to be easy to pull of. It's not as big scenically as Dolly, but it's not small. I'd love to do a show with one small set and costumes are jeans and t-shirts. That's not this show. There are lots of costumes. At least they are Edwardian, so they won't be all that hard to find, make and tweak. But, it's not about me and the grown ups. It's about the kids. What show will give them the best chance to learn, grow, and succeed?
There's a line from a song in the play I love. "I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things I've never done before..."
To me, that is one of the purposes of middle school theatre--to give them wings and help them do things they (and everyone else around them) never thought they could do!
Backliner: Cathy sees things that are invisible to everyone else. Her new stepbrother's bizarre behavior. A ghostly little boy. An abandoned house in the woods. But she doesn't see how they're all connected. And what she doesn't see might just kill her.
I read a lot. I read for fun, I read when I'm editing people's manuscripts. I read and review books for other authors. So I'm not exactly new at this game. But I just read one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time. Does that sound hyperbolic? I assure you, it's not. Dispirited by Luisa Perkins is an eerie and elegant story of courage, sacrifice, and redemption. To me, that is the book's core or spirit. Its body or physical form is a ghost story with some truly harrowing moments as well as some romance.
Before I read Dispirited, Luisa warned me that it's a bit dark, and I should pass that on. This is Young Adult, not Middle Grade, fiction and there are some young adults and even adult adults for whom it might be too dark. There is no sex, although the villian views porn (although it's not described in detail). There is some violence. It's not gory or gratuitous, but it could disturb some readers. And it's just as creepy as can be. But I say that in a good way--scary in the sort of fun and satisfying way that a good ghost story can be.
There is a villain in this story and he is evil. Very evil and he does evil things, and tries to do more. There was one part where he nearly hurts an innocent character (but is thwarted) that I found disturbing and had to skim over. And there are other parts that were quite sad and poignant. More than once, this daddy had teary eyes. If you are sensitive, you should approach this with some care.
That being said, it's a book with rare potency and I enjoyed it.
One of the joys of this book is that it works on many levels. A creepy ghost story. A romance. An adventure. Luisa is a polymath who knows a lot about many things and she draws freely on her wide ranging knowledge in writing. References to fairy tales, Impressionist art, Jane Austen and French grammar flow effortlessly through the narrative.
I was intrigued by the moral universe of the story. Without ever being preachy or didactic, Luisa manages to deliver an effective meditation on the balance between body and soul, flesh and spirit. She aptly manages to point out exactly why things like drugs or porn can be bad for us. But this is not heavy-handed or obtrusive. She also deals well with important themes like courage, love, and redemption.
Most of all, Luisa is simply a wonderful writer. She writes in elegant, lyrical prose, full of rich descriptions and sensory images--sights and smells and sounds and textures that will seem real and vivid. Every page contains at least one real gem--sometimes more.
If you would like to visit Luisa, you may go to her blog.
If you would like order Dispirited, you may do so here.
Luisa's next project is a novelization of the web-based series, The Book of Jer3miah, which will be published in October by Shadow Mountain.
Luisa was kind enough to answer some of my questions (I edited a few things for length and clarity) about her work.
Braden: What were some of the experiences, people, places, beliefs, etc. that inspired you as you worked on this? I sensed that there was a very strong connection you had to the places in your story. It seemed more than something conjured up from your imagination.
Luisa: You have good instincts. Most of the places in the book are indeed based on real sites within a mile or so of our house. I live in the Hudson Highlands of New York, and they are breathtakingly beautiful and rich in history. The Native Americans, the Dutch, and then the English who lived here all had legends about this area. I see stories in every old stone wall, every crag, every ancient oak tree. I have many more stories I plan to set in Kashkawan (my fictionalization of the Hudson Highlands).
Braden: At least since Socrates and Plato, there has been disagreement about just how much evil and darkness an artist should show in order to portray an accurate depiction. How do you address this balance as a writer?
Luisa: There is opposition in all things, and fiction should reflect that. Brigham Young said, "It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading [the scriptures]. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences." I think a safe and efficient way to study evil and its consequences is by writing and reading fiction. How do I draw the line? I always pray before and after I write.There's some pretty dark stuff in Dispirited, but I found it necessary to add urgency to my protagonist's quest. I don't think a story is compelling if there is no darkness in it. Real life is full of evil and its consequences. Stories can portray it honestly without being gratuitous or graphic. (The Bible is plenty gruesome. Have you ever read Genesis 19? Sheesh.)
Braden: The language is exquisite and every page contains a gem or more of description. What was your process? How long did you revise?
Luisa: You are very kind; thank you. I actually write very quickly--but sometimes a long time will go by between drafts. That was the case with this book. My process is both very visual and very emotional. I envision the scene I want to write, then I describe what I see and hear and feel. When I'm writing a romantic scene, I get a little twitterpated. When it's a suspenseful scene, my heart pounds and my breathing quickens. And when I write the sad parts, I cry and cry. It can be exhausting, but very fulfilling. When I revise, I look for balance. For example, if a scene needs more dread, sometimes I'll re-read a book that excels at evoking dread in me as a reader, and I'll dissect it: how much dialogue and blocking and exposition are in the scene, and how do they alternate? What kind of words are used? Then I'll go back to my own scene and try to imitate that balance.
Braden: You have a large family. Tell us about your writing journey and when and how you find time?
Luisa: I've been writing since I was very small. My first novel came out 18 years ago, when our oldest child was three months old. After that, I took some time to finish my Bachelor's Degree through BYU's Independent Study program. I graduated in 1999, when our third child was a few months old. Once I finished school, I planned to jump right back into fiction writing--but I ended up putting it on hold for about six years. I wrote song lyrics and essays during that break, but no long-form fiction. In the meantime, we had two more children. Finally, when our fifth was about two, I realized my life was never going to get LESS busy, and I started writing novels again. I'm so glad I did. I feel like I'm a better wife and mother when I am exercising my creativity. I have more in my "bucket" to give. Now we have six children, and the youngest is about to turn four. I write when the older kids are in school. My little one plays or reads or naps while I'm on the computer; she's very accommodating.
I've been experimenting with a new approach to guiding and coaching adolescents through difficult times lately. I've had some success with it and I wanted to pass it on in case it is helpful to anyone else.
When someone hurts our feelings, makes us angry, or so on, our human reaction is to focus on our feelings. We go over and over the incident in our mind, probably to our friends, and focus on what someone did to us.
Most adolescents, and many adults I think, instinctively focus first on how they feel ("But that's not fair!" "You hurt my feelings!" and so on). They then focus on the actions of others. ("But she did it first!" "He was mean to me!").
Recently I was in several situations where I felt another person (or people) totally misunderstood me. It is frustrating, it made me mad, it hurt my feelings, it made me sad--you name it. I had the whole range of emotions.
This is very natural and very human.
It is also ultimately unhelpful and accomplishes nothing at all.
I realized something. I had many emotions, but comparatively few choices. I also realized I could vent and rage against the unfairness of the world and all I could not control--or I could focus on my choices.
A lot of adults do this for sure (myself included although I'm working on it) but I think adolescents, who often experience things in very vivid, heightened emotional terms are particularly prone to this. I am convinced that much of what we do and feel is actually habit--and that those habits can be formed (and changed) with effort. So, I'm trying to help my students and children develop this habit early. Lately, here's what I've done. When one of the adolescents in my charge comes to me, upset, angry, or hurt, I listen. And then I express empathy. And then I say: "What are your choices here?"They usually restate why they're upset. I express empathy again and say, "Yes, I understand that. But what are you going to do? What are your choices here?"It sometimes takes a few rounds of this, but eventually, they all come around to focusing on what their choices are and not on what someone else did to them. There is something incredibly empowering about making choices--acting, as opposed to being acted upon. As as a side note, it's also interesting to me how once the student is thinking consciously about their choices, they almost always make the right choice. I think that many times, it's obvious what the right thing is--when we consider it dispassionately. It's when we act in the heat of the moment that we make mistakes.
I normally don't like to give writing advice because there are a lot of people who have been writing much longer and better than I. I'd rather stick to things I know, like snarky thoughts about camping, old-fashioned musicals, or discussing the strange but lovable creatures we call middle school students.
But I've had some major writer's block lately and it has me thinking about how to deal with it. I know that a fair number of aspiring authors read this blog, so I'm going to pass on what's helped me. Not in the spirit of pontificating, but just in case it helps anyone.
Because of the way my life is structured, I don't usually write everyday. It's just not feasible. Instead, I write in long patches on weekends or holidays, or during little league practices and that sort of thing.
I also write intuitively. That is, I don't have an outline. It just doesn't work for me. I wish it did and I've tried. I write more through a process akin to dramatic improv. There are clear terms and parameters, but within those parameters things happen in a wonderful, spontaneous way. I imagine I write this way because I was a theatre person long before I was an author.
This is all well and go0d--but it means that I'm extra susceptible to writer's block. If I have one gap all week to write and nothing comes--that's bad. And if that inspiration doesn't strike character-wise, then I'm stuck.
This week has been spring break. I wanted to get several posts done for a blogging gig I have as well as finishing a book I've been working on for a year or so. I have an idea for a new book I want to start, but I have a rule that I have to finish before staring the next one. Otherwise, I have 10 or 15 partially finished novels in my computer. So, I felt some urgency.
Here I was: motive, opportunity, and very rare large blocks of time. My laptop was warmed up, ready to go. And writer's block struck. Here's what I did that helped me.
1. Try something else. I know that a lot of people say the cure for writer's block is to keep writing. But I also think doing something else for a while can have a beneficial effect. I get some of my best ideas when I'm mowing the lawn or weeding. My wife swears that inspiration (not for writing, for other things) strikes her when doing dishes. Doing something that requires you to use different parts of your brain, something active and hands-on is always a big help for me. Exercise is similar.
2. Go back and make sure you didn't make a wrong choice earlier. I suspect this is less relevant for those who outline and write with a clearer plan. But I find that sometimes I have taken a wrong turn with a plot point or character choice. In doing that, I've limited the options or weakened the conflict. I usually find that if I go back, I find something I can tweak or change. That will often unlock the next several chapters very nicely.
3. Edit what you have. Sometimes when I'm really desperate, I'll go back and edit or polish earlier chapters. Besides the value of having a better final product, sometimes something I see will spark something for the point of the story that is stuck. It might be some unintetional foreshadowing, or a line of dialogue I had forgotten about. If nothing else, then I get a jump on the editing and revising that I will inevitably do.
4. Keep writing. Sometimes I know what I write is no good. Sometimes it's almost painful, in fact. But it can be changed and polished and revised later. Getting something on the page means I'm part-way there. I believe it was Madeleine L'Engle who said, "Books are not written. They are rewritten" and that is very true.
5. Do other things you have to do that you won't when you start writing again. This is related to number 1, but it's important so I'm listing it again. Because many writers do tend to get carried away and write for hours at a time when inspiration strikes, I have tried to be conscious of using the down-times more consciously. I try to play games with the kids and engage with my wife so that, when inspiration does come again, I hopefully have filled their buckets a bit before I go and become a hermit again--a hermit who mutters madly over his computer while trying strange expressions and weird voices.
Last fall we did two short productions. I already posted the photos for Disney's Aladdin Jr. (link here) and am finally getting around to posting photos of the other play we did, Into the Woods Jr.
It's sort of a jumble of fairy tales--Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, mixed with the story of a Baker and his wife who want to have a child. It's tied together by a narrator, whom I envisioned as sort of a college professor type.
The design of this show wasn't as flashy as Aladdin--intentionally so. Much darker, more subdued--but also more textured and nuanced. I really loved the way it all turned out. As always, photos are posted with parental permission.
Little Red Riding Hood visits the Baker and his wife, looking for food to take to her grandmother.
The witch from next door visits the Baker and his wife and tells them what they'll need to do to have a child. It will involve her making a potion with the following ingredients: a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, a slipper as pure as gold, and hair as yellow as corn. They go into the woods to find what she needs.
Cinderella in her opening pose.
Cinderella getting her ball gown and slippers from the ghost of her mother.
Jack--taking his cow to market. This cow stole the show. Our brilliant prop makers made it so it was a bobblehead. So cool! They also made a remote control golden hen. Sadly, I don't have a picture of that.
Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf.
Prince Charming and his younger brother. The eldest falls in love with Cinderella, the younger with Rapunzel.
Rapunzel in her tower.
Jack after returning with gold from the giant's castle.
The Baker and his wife celebrate.
Rapunzel and the witch.
Cinderella in her ball attire.
The stepsisters having the slipper tried on
May I repeat some thoughts about adolescent social problems? In fairly direct terms?
I know I've been hammering on this topic for a while, but I see it over and over. As a teacher, it seems so clear to me. As a parent, it's much murkier because it hits emotional buttons that make it hard to respond objectively and rationally. Because of that, I'm going to speak as directly as I can--but I don't mean to sound harsh. Imagine this being said in a soft voice with a gentle, but concerned smile on my face.
I believe that dealing with social problems in middle school occupies nearly as much teacher time as academics (that will vary from school to school--I'm making a generalization). I am convinced it occupies far more parent time and energy than academics and I KNOW it occupies vastly more student energy and thought than academics.
In some cases there may be a genuine good guy vs. bad guy situation where a pack of mean bullies victimizes another child. I know that happens, but I really believe that these cases are in the minority. This post is not about students who are being legitimately bullied. At the same time, I believe most parents generally assume that this is what is happening when their kids encounter social problems.
However, barring very solid evidence to the contrary, I suggest that parents should assume that their child's social problems are not caused by other people, at least not fully.
Let me give you an example. I am well acquainted with a young man who loved marching band, chess, Star Wars and legos. Especially marching band. He expressed frustration with the fact that none of the other boys in his peer group at church would talk to him about marching band. All that they wanted to talk about was football.
He had a few choices at this point. A) Insist that he was going to be himself no matter what and keep trying to interest the other boys in marching band B) Change totally and give up what he loved. C) Rant and rave at the fundamental unfairness of the universe. Or, D) retain his own interests, but learn enough about football to carry on a conversation.
As we explored the various options, he wisely decided to try option D. He started to watch football--something he had no interest in. He asked questions. He memorized stats. He learned player names.
Something miraculous happened. At first, he had to pretend, to feign interest and his interactions were awkward. But the more he persisted, he developed the ability to really chat about football. He found that he enjoyed football. And, his conversational skills improved as well. He still loved marching band. That didn't change. But he gained a new hobby, better social skills, and a more comfortable social situation. That will benefit him for the rest of his life.
I feel like our pop culture has created this romantic image of the underdog and the outcast. We have popular notions of mean jocks or venemous cheerleaders tormenting helpless but sweet nerds. Again, I'm not saying that never happens. But as with most Hollywood legends, there is more complexity in reality.
If your child has social problems, consider that your child might have some responsibility for the situation. I'm sorry, I know that sounds harsh. I don't mean it to be. But we often assume, by default, that our children are right and good and virtuous and the others are at fault.
I've been watching adolescents now, for over 25 years in different contexts and I really believe that most social problems are not good-guy-vs-bad-guy-situations.
Consider this: your child might not have very good social skills. There's no shame in that! It's not an insult. In fact, it's very normal. Most of us aren't born with good social skills and have to learn them. That's part of what adolescence is about. But if your child is struggling, this is the first place to start. Help your child assess and monitor their social skills. If needed, you can get some professional help. Ask the teachers what they see. Watch them carefully in social settings. Helping your child learn to be self-aware and analytical is painful. And one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was that they saw me as being an incomplete, immature, unfinished work in progress who needed to be taught, pushed, moulded, and motivated. They gave me feedback. They told me when I did things badly. My dad saw some pretty lacking social skills and he worked with me on it. I didn't like it at the time. At all.
Now, I'm deeply grateful. To be honest, I'm still pretty uncomfortable in social situations. I don't think I have a lot of social grace and ease. But my dad's coaching and criticism improved it and helped me get better at least.
I have learned that the "popular" kids are usually popular for a reason. Everyone likes them because they have good social skills. There might be some other factors, but I've noticed, repeatedly, that the kids who are most generally popular are usually that way because they have learned how to interact well with others and have social currency--things to talk about and discuss.
If your child is being excluded, consider carefully why that's the case. Do they dress or talk or act vastly different from everyone else? That's their choice, by the way. If someone wants to be a very obviously unique soul, there's nothing wrong with that. But you can't choose to be an individualist and then complain that you don't fit into the crowd. They might need to learn some sports stats or listen to some contemporary singers.
Or they may choose not to. That's fine, too. But realize that social status has a price. You have to pay that price if you want the status. If you don't want to pay the price, that's fine. But you can't complain at the outcome.
I have seen so many children over the years who make no effort at all to get to know their peers, to understand their interests or reach out in any way. In fact, it becomes an almost perverse point of pride--they are almost defiantly different and detached. But then their parents complain about "cliques" or talk about how no one reaches out and so on.
This drives me crazy--it is fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. If your child is left out, a natural parenting response is to comfort them by saying that everyone else is wrong and doesn't see what a treasure they are. That's a lovely thought. It's also totally unhelpful in terms of changing the situation for your child.
It is fundamentally against the order of the universe to insist that you can be and do whatever you wish while simultaneously insisting that everyone else around you responds in exactly the way you wish.
I'm not saying that kids have to give up who they are and just blend in with the crowd. That's not going to work. But I am saying that they may need to learn a second language as it were--like the boy in the example above learned about football. Like learning a language, they will be awkward and hesitant at first. They will make mistakes. But if they persist, they will eventually become bilingual. This will not hurt them, nor will it mar the integrity of who they are.
And let's be honest. Adolescents aren't done yet and shouldn't be seen as finished products. They're, well, adolescent. Juvenile. Even the best of them are incomplete. I get a bit annoyed when I hear parents talk about their adolescents as if they are special, amazing, fully-developed humans worthy of emulation and celebration. They're not. They're immature. They need many more years of development, growth, and experience. They are caterpillars. Some are very charming caterpillars. But to see them as being complete is to rob them of the chance to become butterflies.
At some point, your child will have to learn to adjust to a college roommate. A boss. Co-workers. A spouse. In-laws. And so on. Helping them now learn to assess what they can do better and focusing on their choices and their actions will be so much more healthy and helpful for them in the long run than grumbling about cliques and exclusion. To do otherwise is to condemn the child to a lifetime of social frustration.
There is much truth in this cartoon. The only thing that is not true is that a sissy fight will not break out. It will be like a caged-death match that will make the universe shudder.
Yesterday was Pi Day, which meant that there was much frivolity and feasting in the math rooms of schools. For one day, they set aside their theorems and formulae and variables and celebrated the annual occurrence of March 14th. I note with some dismay that this is a fairly recent thing. When I was a kid there was no celebration in math classes for any reason.
Today, is a holiday for those of us who are more literary and less quantitative: the Ides of March. The Ides of March are the time when Julius Caesar was killed, made famous in Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar, when the soothsayer warns Caesar to, "Beware the Ides of March!" I still remember my 10th grade English teacher standing in front of the class in a creaky, spooky voice, wagging his finger and intoning that line. Today, at schools, our halls are dotted with 6th graders in Roman garb, celebrating this holiday at the behest of their history teacher--who is currently teaching them about Ancient Rome.
So, why should anyone care about these two days beside a handful of math and history/English teachers, and their students who get a slice of pie or the chance to wear a toga for a few points of extra credit?
There is much that is wrong in our educational system and the larger culture, and many people have commented on these things. But one of the things that worries me is that we are reducing education to competency with some specific benchmarks. We are becoming increasingly specialized in discrete areas and fields. The idea of a rich, generalized, far-ranging education is almost as quaint and old-fashioned as a horse and buggy. Simply put, I think we know a lot more about much less than we used to.
And that is a shame.
Historically, an education did not merely suit one to get a job--it fitted one to live a better, richer, more interesting life. An educated person was someone who know about a lot of different things--both the value of Pi as well as what the Ides of March were and how they were important.
I'll admit that I don't gain any tangible, concrete benefit from seeing kids in togas and knowing immediately, "Oh, that's right, it's the Ides of March today!" Unless you are a mathematician, the value of Pi probably isn't a big part of your life and there is no practical benefit to knowing why the math teacher brought slices of pie yesterday.
But there is a wonderful feeling in knowing something and knowing you know it. There is a huge value--beyond measure, really--in having some fluency with the basics of different fields. Even if you don't use math every day in your job. Even if what Shakespeare wrote is irrelevant to what you do for a living. That use to be self-evident.
To the extent that we don't know these things, I argue that we are a little poorer in our souls and minds, and that our lives are just a bit emptier.
My grandfather did not go to college. I don't know that he even finished high school, I think he had an 8th grade education. He was a farm boy from Willard, UT who fought in WWII and then delivered Wonder Bread for the next 30 years. But he could recite the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. He could do math and appreciated different styles of music and he read for fun. As I think of the books I saw in his armchair over the years, I realize that he read a wide ranging selection of books, from classics to popular fiction to detailed, complex doctrinal and historical works. He had the kind of broad, general knowledge that some call cultural literacy. He enjoyed these things in spite of his lack of formal education.
I think that is because he grew up in a time when the culture was different. When learning was valued, when it was self-evident that self-improvement meant learning and reading good and great thoughts. When the classics in all disciplines were taught--and when society expected children to learn what people in the past thought was important or meaningful.
The reasons we have strayed from that dynamic are many and complex. Changes in family structure, different ideological movements, changing requirements for the workforce and so on. Some are things that have just happened, some are things that are done to ourselves. Some are the consequence of important advances and changes, the results of genuine progress, while some are the side effect of larger social problems that have no simple solution.
But whatever the cause, my argument is that it will be a real loss if, in the next generation, only history and theatre majors know what the Ides of March are. If only math majors celebrate Pi day, it's equally sad. Not the end of the world, perhaps, but it means that the culture is just a little more impoverished, a little more fragmented.
I'm happy to teach in a school that still provides a rigorous general education, but I fear that my school is in the minority. To be fair, we ask a great deal of schools these days and they are picking up the slack for more and more family and social problems. It is impossible to do all that we ask them to do and the fact that anything at all gets done is, quite frankly, a miracle.
My plea is that we not take the richness of Western Civilization for granted. It is a rich, wonderful, and messy celebration of thousands of years, an amalgam of arts and letters, of numbers and sciences. I wish we'd all branch out a little and read or watch or listen to something different. That we do a math problem or read a play--whatever we don't normally do. That we celebrate Pi Day with food and fun and then reflect on the themes of destiny and choice, freedom and consequences, virtue and corruption, and tyranny and liberty on the Ides of March. That we don't give in easily and surrender to the powerful cultural forces that would further decouple an education from it's traditional breadth and scope and turn it simply into a job training program. That we teach our children about the things we learned and not let everything disappear into the Cloud, to be accessed by a Google search for an occasional paper.
If the next generation doesn't know stuff--whether or not it helps them on a test or in their job--then we lose our civilization. We lose our inheritance. We lose part of what makes life rich and interesting. And that would be literally throwing away our birthright for a bowl of porridge--and would be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.
Well, today I hit sort of a landmark in my own mind. I hung up the 16th framed play poster in my office (after each play, I get the two lobby posters framed. One goes in the theatre, one goes in my office). Each year, when I hang the last poster up, it sort of signals to me that the theatrical season is over. It's very similar to writing "The End" at the conclusion of manuscript.
I suspect that if I were a farmer it would be a similar feeling to putting the crop up in the barn.
At any rate, I hung the poster up today for Hello Dolly and I realized I have now done 16 plays at my school. Two a year for the last eight years. That's the longest I've ever worked anywhere, so that makes me feel good. I like to have roots, like to be in places for the long-term.
But there's a lot more. I tend to measure my life in plays, not in years. I can't tell you the year I got my doctorate, but I can tell you that it was between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Beauty and the Beast. I know my last child was born a day after auditions for Seussical, although I rushed home from the Jungle Book cast party for a false alarm. I got my first book contract after The Music Man but before auditions for Cats. And so on.
My students often ask which play was my favorite. I am honest when I tell them I can't choose just one. Like my children, I love them all, but for different reasons. Some of them were artistically fulfilling. Others were lots of fun. Some had amazing performances. Some had incredible costumes. Or sets. Some were difficult, but rewarding. Some were growing experiences--either artistically or personally. Some were both.
I can no more pick a favorite play than I can pick a favorite child. Or student. They are all infinitely dear to me. As I look around my now-covered office walls, I remember the plays, the songs, the costumes--but I remember the students. I remember watching them grow from timid 6th graders to 8th grade performers. I remember them trying their first play and falling in love with it. Or, realizing it wasn't there thing and finding another path as they grew.
The first group of 8th graders I encountered here are now almost done with college. In a few more plays, I imagine one or two will be married. In several more plays, I will probably start hearing about children. By the time the posters have gone around the wall again, I might even be directing the children of some of those students in their first steps on a stage.
I'm at a difficult point in the year now as I realize that the 8th graders are leaving soon. That always makes me sad in a way I can't quite articulate. I'm proud of them. Happy for them. Excited for their new opportunities. But I will miss them. Keenly. I take comfort in the fact that knowing that there will be new students next year. New plays. New adventures and new growth. In the meantime, I have happy memories. And lots of posters.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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