I’ve had two experiences recently that have led me to reflect on an important piece that was missing in my education through every grade level. I’ve never been on a sports team, performed in a theatrical or musical program or been part of a staff that produced a publication. These activities all involve an audience beyond the teacher who acts as the sole arbiter of the success of your efforts. I’ve read the research and observed firsthand as a teacher that performance, sports (a kind of performance too) and publications are the experiences that students point to as having the most profound impact on them.
This past Sunday we were able to livestream the performance at Yale of an oratorio called Edensong with music by the Pulitzer prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis and libretto by our son-in-law Peter Cole, whose versatility and creative imagination never ceases to amaze us. Listening to this piece was a transcendent experience with its message of the ongoing destruction of earth’s garden. But what was equally compelling were the performers. The chorus and the large orchestra were composed almost entirely of students, some majoring in a musical specialty and others doing it alongside their focus on computer science or literature and other fields unrelated to music.
Watching the singers and the musicians, I was consumed with a jealousy for the experience they were having of lending their individual talents to producing something far larger than its parts. Although I’m not sure I envy them the hours of rehearsal times behind the finished product, I realize that it’s all that preliminary work that builds to what I imagine to be the gratification of being part of something beautiful achieved by investing oneself totally in its creation.
A few weeks earlier, we accepted an invitation to attend a performance of Matilda, The Musical at Lane Tech High School in Chicago. Noa, the daughter of dear friends, had landed the lead role in a double cast arrangement which had her onstage for Thursday and Saturday, with a second cast performing on Friday and Sunday. Noa is now a sophomore, but I had worked closely with her in her seventh-grade year to prepare her for her bat mitzvah. Like all twelve-year-olds, she was a work in progress, but her intellectual and musical talents were obvious. She was a joy to work with, especially after doing the same preparations with other kids of that age who struggled to chant the Biblical passages on key in ways not grating on the ear.
But that experience did not prepare me for what Noa could do onstage, surrounded by a very large cast. The embryonic talents I had seen a few years earlier were now fully formed. What I love about musicals is that they demand high levels of skill in the whole package of singing, dancing and acting. Noa nailed all of them. There’s no doubt that part of the motivation for a performer in such a vehicle is not to let down all those other people in the troupe who are depending on you to keep that fragile balloon afloat. That’s the essence of the ensemble experience that is shared by the three horsemen of sports, performance and collaborative publication. The reward is in meeting your own and your colleagues’ high expectations and avoiding falling off a high cliff, dragging everyone else with you. The eyes of the audience are watching your every move.
Again, it wasn’t just watching Noa excel in this situation, but sensing the depth of focus of everyone else on that stage, heading toward an intense experience that cannot be matched by all the high grades and elevated test scores in their regular academic work. Everyone was in a zone, as athletes and psychologists like to call it, a place we don’t often get to visit in our daily lives.
That’s the experience which has been missing from my life. Rosellen had it on her high school newspaper staff and in the choruses to which she has lent her voice. The closest I’ve come to anything resembling that depth has come for me long after my school years when I’ve been part of a team of collaborators at work whose efforts built a strong unique program, but these are slow cumulative processes which, gratifying though they may be, don’t produce the same high and the same bonding as the situations I’ve described here.
The high school at which I taught in Houston for seven years drew a complete blank on providing these critical group experiences – no teams, no band or theater programs and no school newspaper or literary magazine. The result was a flatlined experience for the students who collectively suffered the same deprivation that I’ve described for myself. Watching the performances of these past weeks leaves me feeling that robbing students of the opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves is an act of criminal educational neglect.