When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my mom that she feared I wasn’t able to distinguish fantasy from reality. I don’t think I was ever at that point, but I do know that my imagination was completely out of control and didn’t know what to do with itself at school. At home I could spend hours thinking up soap opera dramas for my Disney action figures to perform, but at school there were few outlets for my hyperactive imagination and so I had to create them for myself. When we were asked to write ten sentences demonstrating the uses of vocabulary words, I strung them together to create a complete story. When instructed to write an essay on why we shouldn’t do drugs, I wrote a play. When other kids played soccer at recess, I sat in the grass and imagined that we were all toys belonging to a giant who controlled our every move.
In third grade, my school started offering an after-school activity program, and drama was one of the options. I’d always loved acting in class plays, so I signed up. The end product of the program was going to be a staged version of Rumplestiltskin, and the director decided to cast the lead female role by having us guess numbers between one and twenty. I guessed the correct number (thirteen) and excitedly began prepping for the role. When my big moment on stage came and I stood there histrionically wailing after Rumplestiltskin threatened to take my baby, listening to the audience’s laughter, I realized that my imagination now had a place to go.
As I continued performing throughout middle and high school, I felt a palpable sense of relief at having a safe place to go where my creativity was not only accepted, but encouraged and nurtured. I went to a standard public high school, but we were one of the few fortunate schools to actually have theater classes available as part of our regular schedule as well as an after-school program. Theater became a place to escape the cliques of girls in my class who only wanted to talk about nail polish and introduced me to other kids who loved and needed art just as much as I did. While in elementary school theater expanded my already active imagination, in high school it taught me about commitment, responsibility and passion. (You don’t give up hours to rehearsal every evening and weekend when you’re 16 unless you really, really love what you’re doing.) More importantly, though, it taught me about myself. While exploring different characters in a myriad of plays with a team of other students, I began to discover who I was and where I fit into the world.
Of the core group of theater students in my high school, nearly all of us have gone on to have careers in the arts. We are theater artists, TV producers, filmmakers, stand up comics and musicians. I can’t imagine that any of us would have found our passions as easily or held onto them as firmly had we not been exposed to the arts at such a crucial and formative age.
Since my graduation, theater classes at my high school have been cut back, but they still exist. There is a new generation of students finding their voice through the arts and getting ready to declare themselves theater, music and humanities majors. It’s hard for me to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t been introduced to theater when I was. Would I have followed an entirely different career path? Would my crazy imagination just have died out at some point? I’m glad I never had to find out the answers to these questions, and hope that one day arts education will become so standard that no other students will, either.
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YPT Program Assistant