It’s a rainy Monday night. A bland multipurpose room transforms into a bohemian paradise. Pillows and blankets are strewn across the floor. Soft lights dangle from the walls and windows. The theatre’s backstage is ransacked, its contents scattered about the room – mismatched furniture, wavering candlesticks, writerly busts, an ancient globe. Students bustle at the coffee table, making hot chocolate concoctions and pawing at pastries. Music pulses in the background and students gather with excited energy, finding cozy nooks from which to survey the coming spectacle. It’s our middle school’s inaugural coffee house, hosted by my 8th grade Creative Writing Class, and we’d be lying if we didn’t say the night began with a touch of uncertainty: would poetry prevail against the pressures of homework or the lure of a living room couch? But here we are, in a room packed with eager teenagers, some giggling blithely, some clutching their printed papers nervously in their hands. After our initial introductions, our first reader comes up to the mic, confident, her voice coming alive, “What I am is not what you are…” All are silent. It’s not the usual wrestling for focus in a chaotic classroom. The space is filled with a palpable respect for each brave performer, for the beauty and vulnerability present in each offering. She’s followed by a rendition of Wicked’s “Popular”, an original guitar composition, a reading of Robert Frost, a hilarious stand-up ode to John Mulaney, and the list goes on. All are touched by the energy of this creative sanctuary, a space over which these students feel ownership and belonging, a space where voices probe, and praise, and forge themselves into being. This, I think. This is why I teach.
This will be my fourth year teaching English and Theatre to middle schoolers, and I continue to seek opportunities for students to take creative risks, question and explore their ideas, and feel the joy of collaboration and engagement in a community. As a member of an independent school, I have the autonomy to design and reevaluate curriculum able to tackle the issues of our time. Will we lose our humanity in the face of fear? Thank you, Lord of the Flies. What about the hypocrisy ingrained in a society that so freely judges its global counterparts yet remains blind to its own endemic prejudice? Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. My new favorite, Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, inhabits the voice of a young, beautifully introspective Arab-American heroine in order to question the cycles of violence that plague our world. Reliving these questions with young students is a constant breath of fresh air – or sometimes a storm of dissension and debate that provides its own sense of vitality. In any case, I’m constantly reminded of the essence of this art – that ability, as Atticus Finch so admirably puts it, to “climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.” For what is literature or theatre, but a way to inhabit and portray perspectives outside of our own limited world view? Therefore I will continue to encourage students to read, to meet people and listen to their stories, to take the mic and read lines of their own imagination. For indeed, through performance – of theatre, of poetry – students make themselves vulnerable. But it is in this very act that they open themselves up to compassion and to understanding of themselves and others.
Sara Jameson lives in Baltimore, Maryland and spends her days teaching English and Theatre at Harford Day School. She grew up in the mountains of Virginia and developed a wild and wistful imagination that led her to pursue English and the Arts at Middlebury College in Vermont. She then went on to work in the Education Department of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, receiving training in arts integration and facilitating workshops for students and teachers on Shakespeare’s world, language, and performance in schools throughout the metropolitan area. After two years in the nation’s capital, Sara was then given the chance to pursue her life-long dream of living in England. She went on to pursue her Masters at the University of Oxford, where she studied Romantic and Victorian literature and composed a dissertation on the relationship between women and music. Sara then went on to her current adventures in Maryland, teaching at the middle school level and conducting writing workshops with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.