Lessons from Middle School Theatre

“I don’t know why it’s so much easier to be a character than it is to be myself.” A middle schooler told me once, early in the rehearsal process for our winter play. “It’s easier to know how to be when it’s written out for you.” She decided.

I was (and still am) a lot like this kid. Uncertain about who I am, what I’m supposed to be doing, and anxious about it. Especially as a thirteen-year-old, I wanted a script for my life and a character list. I wanted to be told who I was going to be and who would be important for me to pay attention to.

I could never really imagine working with kids, much less teaching them. Especially not middle schoolers with their reputation for bad attitudes, raging hormones, and complex personal dramas. But after unexpectedly quitting my job last May, I found myself in a chilly air-conditioned room making the case that I could be good at teaching middle schoolers drama. I sat at a table with the principal, assistant principal, director of the drama program, and another person who wanted the job. I pitched myself as best I could, but with no real experience with kids of any age, no degree in teaching, or a Master’s in theatre, all things my fellow interviewee had, I was sure I hadn’t gotten the job. I rolled down the windows in my car, drove past the sparkling Willamette, and ate buttery croissants to try to feel better. As it turns out, they liked me for more than my resume. They especially liked how excited I got about doing a Disney musical and the questions I asked. I got the job.

As a kid, all the adults I knew were divided into two categories that sometimes overlapped: teachers and parents. Adults with other professions seemed far and few between, not to mention dull and cranky. I never saw myself as a teacher because everyone else was one. I wanted a different, more obviously exciting life for myself but I had no script for it might be.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to get up in front of people and say, “This is me.” The director gently told a kid who got particularly flustered after her audition for the fall play. After a full year of coming out to friends, family, and colleagues about being nonbinary over the last year, I could empathize. I had never been bullied in school or teased. I was quiet, had a few good friends, and was overlooked by the upper echelons of students. When it was my turn to stand in front of the kids and tell them who I was, I braced myself for the cruelty I had avoided back then. Surely I’d have to face it now, I figured. I half expected them to not listen to a thing I said after that, to make jokes, and maybe more realistically, that they’d tell their parents I’m trans and I’d get run out of town.

If the kids did have a problem with me being nonbinary, it never got back to me. In fact, many of them were very diligent about correcting themselves and each other about my pronouns. Once, two kids- male and female- were having a competition to see who could get the most hugs from teachers, “but only boys can hug boys and girls can hug girls so it won’t be weird,” they explained to me before working it out amongst themselves that they could both hug me. And then there was another kid who, with rainbows drawn all over her arms for LGBT+ pride, told me “I just really want to respect you and it’s my biggest pet peeve when people don’t respect each other. So I want to make sure I get your pronouns right.”

Middle schoolers are this strange combination of adult and child, more so than high schoolers I think. They are just starting to figure out their own thoughts and feelings on things and there is so much awkwardness in that process. They don’t yet know how to ask certain questions or how to rank tasks in order of importance. They wear sweatshirts over floor length floral dresses, crave hugs but will just as readily give you an eye roll. They can’t stop talking to each other but won’t answer a direct question from a teacher. They want to fit in and they want to stand out. It’s not always easy but interacting with them is always very real. It drives me up a wall sometimes, but I love how genuine their process it. And I like thinking I am helping them become more of themselves.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that at least three times a week I worry that I’ve fucked up a kid. I didn’t listen as well as I could have, I was too strict, too lenient, too tired, too yell-y. I even swore in front of one of them once. The director, it turns out, has had that same fear often as well. We worriedly exhaled after one particularly hard rehearsal and tried to consider what we were doing right. We were teaching them boldness, we realized. How to publicly be yourself and feel secure enough to take risks. Often, it felt like we were really making good on that. We were giving them a safe place to be, now, in middle school but also later on in high school and maybe beyond that. I didn’t want life to be hard for them, but I also knew that it already was and that drama was often the best part of their day. If there’s one thing I take a lot of comfort in, is that theatre attracts good people. They’ll always have this hobby and this larger community to turn to if they find themselves upset or alone.

Our first show in December felt like a mess on opening night. I can’t remember much except for running around backstage, sweating, and having the director tell me that “the first one is usually like this and then they figure it out.” The perfectionist in me was blind to all of the things we had done well that first night, how far each individual kid had come. Instead, I focused on having two more nights to “get it right”. In the end, we did. We got closer and closer to what I deemed “perfect” but they were still kids. There were still going to be late entrances and interpersonal drama to deal with. It wasn’t going to be like the professional shows I’d worked on. I had to let go of the image of perfection I was white knuckling. I taught what I could about life and about the craft, what mattered most was if the kids were having fun. Slowly, I redefined success as if they remembered two-thirds of the technical stuff I wanted, laughed every day, and were mostly nerve free. This became enough and eventually, it became everything.

Our second show, a spring musical, was much more demanding and brought out a lot of the same doubts I had about how I was doing that the first show did. Our first performance went the same way that our first winter show did. But my perspective remained altered. The kids were so nervous and repeatedly came off stage asking me how they did. It didn’t matter that they messed up a line, went out early or went out late. I reiterated to them that it wasn’t about perfection, it was about fun, doing your best, sharing a good story. To my surprise, I wasn’t masking being disappointed or upset, I meant it. When they saw that, they had more fun and just as the last show had gone, this one got better and better each night too.

This time, when the director gave her final pre-show talk, she acknowledged how hard middle school is and how much we appreciated them being here. She praised them for another job well done and reminded them how wonderful they are. Her final words encouraged them to not forget that as they go into eighth grade and ninth grade. A few kids started crying and I couldn’t pretend to keep it together either. All of us felt weird about ourselves and scared about the future. We all wanted to have a script going forward, and for three months, this was it. But we also showed each other that we could do it. We could make a good thing by being our best selves, and we didn’t have to write any part of our stories alone.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s