Each month during our 25th anniversary season, YPT will share a thoughtful reflection from a member of our YPT community. If you’d like to share how a single moment with YPT affected you as a former student, teaching artist, actor, staff member, supporter, volunteer, or as any other capacity you have been a part of YPT, please contact Teshonne Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Fatima Quander and I’ve been involved with YPT since 2005 as an actor for countless classrooms, New Play Festivals, tours, and staged readings. I’ve also worked as a YPT teaching artist in many classrooms and have served as a mentor/dramaturg for students whose plays were chosen for the New Play Festival.
Despite a myriad of explosively fun experiences performing on a YPT stage (or cafeteria or classroom or multipurpose space), what truly stands out to me was a moment during my time teaching in an afterschool YPT program in a DC public school. This one particular class happened to be all African-American 3rd-grade boys and, on this particular day, we were discussing what the traits of an antagonist were. In this discussion, I asked the boys to share some examples of antagonists from fairytales, books and movies and was thrilled by their enthusiastic responses of “Joker,” “Voldemort” and “The Big Bad Wolf.” To me, their spirited responses of who they thought the “bad guy” was was the perfect fodder for the day’s playwriting lesson and I was happy to know that the boys were able to envision specific examples of the type of character we were exploring that day. During all the hubbub, I remember one boy shouting above all others that he himself was an antagonist. At that moment, I felt everything in my mind go quiet and I was truly confused as to why this 9-year-old boy felt himself to be “the bad guy.” While some of the other boys laughed at this one student’s perceived overshare, I looked at him and could see on his face that he genuinely felt that he was giving a good and honest answer. My heart sank. I quickly collected myself and asked him directly why he thought he was “the bad guy.” He went on to explain the reasoning behind this belief: that his mom and teachers call him “bad,” that he goes to the principal’s office often, that he’s bigger than the other kids, that people think he’s older than he is and get mad at him when he can’t do things, that he gets mad at himself when he can’t do things, and that sometimes, he does the wrong thing—even when he knows its wrong.
The rest of the boys grew quiet but my mind was now running a mile a minute. I was flooded by thoughts like: this kid is only 9, how do I address this appropriately; do the other boys feel this too; I don’t want a little Black boy to feel that he’s “the bad guy;” we have to talk about this and many more thoughts that I can’t even remember at this time. So I took a deep breath, put a pause in our discussion of playwriting and said: “Just because we sometimes make bad decisions, doesn’t mean we’re bad people.” After that, my lively classroom of 3rd-grade boys—who had just been arguing the prowess of Joker over Two-Face—quickly turned into a thoughtful share circle where some of the boys shared moments where they did the wrong thing but then shared a moment where they did the right thing. Later in class, the boys were given some time to write an antagonist monologue and I remember being captivated by the reflection expressed in their writing; how most of the “bad guys” now had considerate and understandable explanations as to why they became “bad” and that, for the most part, all they wanted was a friend. It was a heavy day but a really good one too. I got to see firsthand how creative writing enabled these boys to connect, process and reconstruct. And it was so beautiful to see these 8 and 9-year-olds take the time to lift one of their own up when he really needed it.
For me, this is why YPT is so extraordinary. That day’s playwriting exercise enabled those boys to safely articulate “grown-up” feelings and gave them a much needed safe space to share and grow through writing.