A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Last weekend, I bought a ticket to safer schools.
I went to a high school musical.
As I entered the halls of learning, I sensed the vulnerability of students there. Schools are designed as wide-open spaces, without many places to hide. That’s intentional in order to monitor student behavior. Most bathrooms don’t even have doors. I recalled my days as a school district administrator, practicing the lock-out and lock-down drills depending on the imaginary shooter’s location. We initiated those drills shortly after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. Inconceivably, there have been 208 school shootings since then, some of which don’t make the news anymore.
Sitting in the large auditorium with numerous unguarded entrances increased my own sense of vulnerability as I waited for the show to start.
But then, the lights went up, and more than seventy high school students began to sing, dance, play instruments, change scenery. Ten main characters flawlessly delivered thousands of lines and belted out thirty-two songs. With great confidence and poise, they delivered a knock-out performance of All Shook Up, an Elvis-inspired story set in the 1950s, before any of these kids (or their parents, for that matter) were born.
My mouth agape, I watched students do what I could never have done at that tender age. I’d been too self-conscious, my body image too poor to stand in a spotlight on a big stage, much less sing or speak lines that didn’t organically spring from my inhibited personality. I was not willing to risk potential ridicule and reviews. To dance like no one’s watching.
And hundreds of people were watching that night. Family and friends. And strangers like me. I had no reason to attend other than my desire to support a co-curricular program that’s an important training ground for developing confident, articulate, and outspoken young leaders who view the world more inclusively than prior generations.
I learned that about the performing arts by watching media interviews of Parkland, Florida school shooting survivors.
Those trained in the performing arts have the capacity to search deep inside to find the courage to take the stage, to slip into a persona that demands attention, to put their own fear of inadequacy aside for the greater good of the cast and audience. And now, they’re doing it for our entire nation…and receiving death threats. Because passionate, articulate change-agents are a threat to the power brokers. In this case, a threat to the National Rifle Association.
In order to negate the survivors’ clarion call for action, some choose to denigrate the theatrics of the student spokespeople. But I stand in awe of their courage, their resolve, their confidence. Their articulation of the gun violence problem delves deeper into solutions than that of most elected officials.
A director of a Shakespearean theater group for young children recently attended my book reading in Woodstock, N.Y. He pulled me aside afterward to recommend more drama be added to the recounting of our mothers’ stories. He offered a mini-lesson about the power of performance art: “Fascist regimes round up poets, writers, musicians, and actors first because they’re dangerous. They know how to deliver a message in a way that reaches deeply into our psyches. And motivates us to act.”
That’s why guerrilla theater was an effective tool against censorship in the 1960s. The goal of such performances is to explore, provoke, and raise awareness of sociopolitical issues in order to confront cultural hypocrisy. The term was introduced by R.G. Davis who declared, “The job of the artist in politics is to take leaps the politicos never take.” Flash mobs are an example of activist theater popping up in communities today, often issue-oriented. But…even a pelvis-shaking Elvis can make a difference in our perceptions when a morality-tale is embedded.
Parkland students, and students around the country, are now taking leaps our politicians have been afraid to take. “Hey-hey, ho-ho. The NRA has got to go,” our students are chanting.
For those who view fractured mental health as the reason for school violence, there are impressive mental health benefits to performing, stepping outside of oneself to assume another persona. It helps students escape their adolescent realities and engenders compassion for others. In a local newspaper article, the male lead of All Shook Up was quoted as saying, “It’s nice to step away from your outside troubles. Whenever I come here, it’s just weight off my shoulders… no matter how bad a day I’ve had….”
As adoring relatives hugged their student performers in the reception area following the show, I was again struck by their vulnerability. Despite the adult costumes and theatrical make-up, they are kids who stretched themselves and our imaginations. I felt guilty for expecting them to fix what we have not, for assuming responsibility for our failings. Kids should be able to be kids; they shouldn’t have to choose between serving on the prom committee and lobbying their representatives. As Emma Gonzales’ mother noted on 60 Minutes, “Someone said, ‘Please tell Emma we’re behind her.’ But we should have been in front of her…As adults, we should have dealt with this twenty years ago.”
Yes, we should have. So, we must step up now. Following the students’ lead, we must be as bold and outspoken as they are. But we mustn’t try to take over. They’ve made it clear that this is now their fight; adults have failed them.
John Adams wrote to wife Abigail in 1780: I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. As a revolutionary and advocate for a strong federal government, Adams understood the centrality of the arts to preserving our democracy. And to fomenting a rebellion when necessary.
Demand gun control legislation now. But also, be vigilant to ensure that funding for the arts is held sacred in your local school district budget. It’s too often the first thing to go.
Buy your ticket to safer schools today. There’s one playing near you.
Copyright 2018 Patricia A. Nugent.
Patricia A. Nugent is the editor of Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting. She is also the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad. And political essays always get her juices flowing.