In my school days I was never a drama kid, or a team sports kid (aside from one year where I fumbled my way onto the badminton team). Mostly I drifted through high school unnoticed without really feeling connected to anyone in it. I found my ‘people’ much later in life, but it certainly would have been nice to kickstart that feeling of belonging in my high school years.
As this school year winds things up for the summer, we see a year of hard work come to fruition. In the last few weeks our household has taken in a number of school productions from The Addams Family Musical and the Senior Guitar Class coffee house at FSS to The Sound of Music by The Academy among others. Parents, friends, and relatives travelled from near and far to be entertained by budding actors, singers, and players all learning to perform and produce a cultural event from scratch. I was impressed with the talented young people in our community, and grateful that each of the students had a chance to showcase their entertainment skills in spite of our cultural propensity to downplay the importance of these events.
I say ‘in spite of’ because it’s all too easy to discount singing or acting as a frivolity—something fun to do until you find something more substantive presents itself. We give lip service to the importance of the arts, but the way our school system is structured tells a different story: If an art teacher is on leave, they might be replaced by an English teacher covering a couple of art classes. If the music teacher takes parental leave, there may simply be no concert band or jazz band. Meanwhile the students who have the natural talent or desire are not challenged because they may already be beyond the skill of the teacher.
Can you imagine this happening with calculus? Or even volleyball? There always seems to be a qualified teacher for what we misleadingly call ‘core’ subjects, but we forget that music is applied math, that drama is applied social studies, and that art can be a complex visual distillation of the current socio-political climate.
To minimize the arts is to slam the door on a whole group of students who will be our soothsayers and prophets—our entertainers and guides—for the next stretch of our existence. By teaching them to create, we are teaching them how to solve complex problems as well as give us hope, laughter, and words for our times. By not assigning these subjects an equal weight to math and languages, we are short-changing ourselves.
I understand that these are part of a larger societal problem that includes many complex issues, but without urgent action we are propagating an unbalanced set of values by not addressing the problem at the school level. The Addams Family musical at FSS was the first production of its kind at that school in ten years. The lights were in such a poor state that they had to turn the stage lights off and on at the breaker. An ad hoc sound system had to be cobbled together from parts from the Arts Station at the last minute because the school equipment would randomly shut off. In spite of the obstacles, the production was wonderful, but what kind of message does that send to the students? Can you imagine the basketball team heading off to provincials with borrowed shoes and a bus that broke down three times? Our fine arts programs and extra-curriculars need to have at least as much support and emphasis as the sports teams. It should not fall to the passion and energy of a single teacher to ensure that the music, art and drama programs happen each year. A district-wide effort should be made to re-balance these opportunities. To their credit, the FSS production was so well received that plans are underway to fundraise to make sure the equipment is updated, but it will be better maintained when it is used every year.
Most importantly, when you get a peek behind the curtain at some of these productions, you see a whole group of students who have found the community I never had in school. The FSS drama room has become a hub for students who have not felt comfortable in the halls or gyms or academic classrooms of the school. These arts rooms are places of shelter and friendship, of leadership and growth and it’s no exaggeration to say that having a place like that can change (and literally save) the lives of students who would otherwise feel lost and disconnected.
School is for every kid, and it’s time we make sure that every kid finds a way to feel not only accepted but encouraged and challenged in the thing that gives them joy and confidence. Let’s make sure the arts are core subjects, too.