There is no secret that budgets are tight in public schools these days. One area that is on the chopping block in most school systems is the arts. This is despite multitudes of research showing evidence of increased student engagement and achievement in school when they are provided with some form of artistic outlet. I would like to illustrate this point with a personal story about a student I’ll call Daniel.
Daniel was a student in my 10th grade Geometry class several years ago. His records indicated that he was highly intelligent and horribly underachieving. While his IQ was in the genius range, his academic grades were mostly Cs and Ds. He had a reputation at our school of being a tough kid – a thug of sorts. In most high schools, if a fight breaks out, students gather around to watch and cheer the fighters on. In Daniel’s case, however, students gave him a much wider berth for fear of becoming collateral damage.
I witnessed this first hand one morning in my classroom. We were discussing problems from the previous night’s homework when suddenly Daniel exploded from his seat near the back of the room and began pounding on the young man sitting behind him. While Daniel was perhaps provoked by the young man’s action of poking him in the back of the neck with a pencil, this was not much of a defense for the beating he was delivering the other boy. To Daniel’s credit, he did cease fighting immediately when I stepped up behind him, placed my hand on his shoulder and called him by name, asking him to please stop. Clearly this incident resulted in a suspension from school for Daniel for a few days, and rightly so.
After his return to school, I shared an announcement with all of my classes regarding the local community theater’s plans to stage the show Grease over the summer and to cast it with students from the area high schools. Much to my surprise, on the morning of the auditions, Daniel walked through the door. I admit to being a bit frightened by his presence, knowing how volatile he could be. I was co-directing the show and quickly spoke with the director about him, giving her a bit of advance warning about his behavior in school. We both agreed that he should be allowed to audition, but we would make sure that he understood the expectations for behavior during rehearsals up front.
Daniel approached the registration table and asked what he would need to do for the audition. He was given an information sheet to fill out and was told he would be reading from the script and would need to sing a song. He was also told that if he didn’t have a song prepared, that it would be fine for him to simply sing Happy Birthday. Daniel responded, “Well, I’ll read, but I’m NOT going to sing.” I gave the director one of those “I told you so” looks.
We proceeded into the auditorium to begin the auditions. Student after student took the stage to sing their songs first. When Daniel’s name was called, I took a deep breath, really uncertain how the next few minutes would unfold. He made his way to center stage. The accompanist hadn’t been handed any sheet music, so she began the introduction to Happy Birthday without a word.
To my utter amazement, Daniel began to sing the familiar song in a beautiful baritone voice. There was an unexpected air of confidence in him as he sang. I was speechless. The director simply whispered to me, “Wow.”
We cast the show that weekend and ended up offering Daniel the role of Kenicke – the male lead in the Broadway version of the show. I was still a bit nervous about placing a role that large in his hands, but there was no doubt that he was the best choice for the part.
Shortly after the auditions, we recieved word from the publishers that a tour of Grease would be coming through our area too close to our proposed performance dates and we lost the rights to the show. We quickly rebounded and selected You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown as the replacement show. Since the cast is much smaller that the cast for Grease, we ended up double casting the show and giving each cast two of the four scheduled performances.
When the director and I began discussing where to place the different students in this new show, the question of the best role for Daniel became an issue. He was certainly not a Charlie Brown type. He could easily have portrayed Schroder’s intelligence, but given the beauty of Daniel’s singing voice, we wanted to make certain he had a true highlight moment in the show. We ended up casting him in the role of Linus where he was tasked with a song and dance number, My Blanket and Me.
The summer passed quickly and I watched as Daniel transformed before my very eyes. He was making friends from another local high school, friends that were good students, that made good grades and had plans for college. By the end of the summer, he was a far cry from the thug that had been in my classroom the previous spring.
As school began in the fall, Daniel transferred to the high school where most of the cast attended and ended up excelling academically in his senior year.
For quite a few years after he’d graduated and I had moved away from the area, I wondered what happened to him. I would occasionally to searches for his name on the internet and eventually did locate his name associated with winning an Enterpreneur of the Year award in another state halfway across the country. I took a chance and emailed to see if it was indeed the same boy I had known. It was.
There is no doubt in my mind that Daniel’s experience in theater that summer changed the course of his life. He developed a confidence that he had never shown in school before and he went on to become a successful business owner. I am incredibly proud of the man he’s become.
Daniel is but one student whose life has been altered for the better by exposure to the arts. While his experience wasn’t through the public schools, I have seen others like him in public school band, chorus, theater, dance, and art classes that become better students in many areas because they have the emotional outlet of the arts. We must continue to do everything we can to continue funding the arts in our public schools. I truly believe our future depends on it.