I certainly got a large dose of reality splashed in my face today.… This journey is going to be quite difficult if this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Those prophetic words were texted to me by one of my high school students in the fall of 2010. We had just started the process of working on our first devised drama, a look at bullying in our school district. We didn’t know it would be the year that the bullying issue would become national news. That suicides would make headlines from Texas to our own backyard here in New Jersey. That kids would be killing themselves out of desperation from the bullying and isolation they felt. That President Obama would decide to make it a federal initiative to fight with federal and state laws. That the nation would start prosecuting young people as “criminals” for bullying others. We just wanted to look at an important issue in our school and try to make a difference.
My students were excited. They felt empowered. They were going to create change. They were going to use their art to make people think and feel and listen. They were going to impact their little corner of the world. And then…we started the journey. And real life is never as clean or as easy as we hope. Not for my students, not for me, not the teachers in our school who watched as our district went through a transformative experience…together.
Based in central New Jersey, our high school is extremely diverse, often laughingly referred to as the United Nations because of our wide diversification in religion, race, politics, economic backgrounds, and pre–high school educational opportunities. We’re challenged meeting the needs of a student population that ranges from middle class suburbia teen to fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, with many students living in the projects dealing with little or no family support, parents serving time, and some parents barely older than their children. On the flip side of this equation, we have extremely traditional ethnic and religious families, with the gender and race expectations that walk hand in hand with this upbringing. And, of course, in the middle, the kids who are Middle America, many mixed races, many different religions and beliefs and economic levels. Put all these young people together, add hormones, and stir—this is our school. It creates segregation as well as opportunities for integration. It creates racism and opportunities to discuss race in a unique environment. It creates a true melting pot of religious diversity and all the stereotypes that accompany them—and all the problems, violence, and fear that are proliferated by media, politicians, and peers.
And here we are. A population of twenty-four hundred high school students, some honor roll, some repeating ninth grade for the third time. Yet our school has been honored as a “model school of excellence in the arts.” The arts! In central New Jersey, during an economic recession, in a district fighting to keep its AYP scores up, the arts continue to thrive. So this brought up some intriguing questions. How do we use the arts to help our kids be better students? How do we use the arts to bridge the gap between religions? How do we use the arts to combat racism? How do we use the arts to tackle the ongoing and seemingly unbreakable problem of bullying?
Faced with these questions, I approached my superintendent with a simple premise: The arts can do more. Our high school can do more. We can build an applied theatre program to foster health and self-esteem, and build a better community for all of our students. And he agreed to take the leap of faith. This book is my attempt to help other teachers and districts take this journey as well. It is daunting, it is tiring, and it is the most exhilarating ride you will ever experience.