Last year we worked on a device drama about bullying. We developed a survey, interviewed people, looked at national stories and most importantly, examined our own beliefs and stereotypes. It was an emotional and exhillarating journey that culminated in the award-winning (hopefully soon to be published) piece, "Shadows," now shown to well over 3000 people over the course of a year.
Well, a new year has begun and so has a new journey.
This year, we decided to tackle self esteem. This seems to me to be a much more complex journey in many ways. Self esteem is such a personal issue. How willing would any of us be to open up honestly about this? Would our words contradict our self affirmations? Would the vulnerability be too much, especially for the teenagers? We started out the first week with creating our survey -- thirteen questions that probed people's sense of self - including their personal appearance, their place in a diverse community, their intelligence/strengths/weaknesses, and an interesting question -- if they were someone else, would they be friends with themselves? Those surveys hit the general school population next week via the English teachers. I don't know if we'll get the same kind of honesty and response we did last year with the bullying questions. I think it is much harder to look deeply at yourself and try to ascertain how you view "you" versus how someone else views "you" and who impacts your self esteem the most.
The second week, we looked at our own impressions. This proved to be tougher from the start than the journey last year. We started by creating adjectives to describe our colleagues. Words like "creative," "diverse," "talented," "funny," intelligent," "determined" and "unique" all came out in this discussion. Then we moved to words to describe ourselves. The words were similar but markedly different. "Unique" became "weird," "diverse" became "crazy," "short" appeared, along with "musically inclined" (instead of talented). The students then chose one word for themselves and another for a colleague. They stuck post-its on themselves and each other's backs. And then we talked. And talked. Some students who were labeled "talented" by others didn't feel talented in comparison with their siblings or colleagues. One beautifully articulate young woman stated that she shouldn't have "intelligent" as a label (someone else gave her that). She then went on to talk about how she wasn't influenced by others in her life as to her dreams or her self esteem. She was her own driving force. She was going to go into the airforce and be an artist. It didn't matter that she wasn't smart or a genius like her mother. She wasn't going to be a teacher and follow in her mom's footsteps. We were all struck by how this intelligent, beautiful, articulate young woman didn't think she was smart. So we questioned that assumption. She said she knew she wasn't smart because her test scores showed her so. So I asked the students, "How many of you believe that test scores are an intelligence indicator?" No one raised their hand. But I was struck at how impacted we all were at these outside assessors in our lives... and how much they impact our self worth - whether it be tests or evaluations or critic's reviews or peer's perceptions of our work.
As the students departed for the day, they reflected on the difficulty of the journey we had chosen. I, too, was struck by how emotional the session had become. I wonder as we go forward; how do I keep these young people safe and still explore this issue in a deep and meaningful way? Can we take this journey and not make it personal? And I think, most importantly, how can we use this as an opportunity to lift and affirm these young people's self view?
It is going to be a precarious year.