The Circle Game

“This world is too big for me to be trapped here” was one of the lines in the Circle Game, a student written play based upon the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. Students at the Performing and Fine Arts High School (PFA), one of six high schools on our campus were the authors and performers of this tremendous play.

I was in the drama club for a time in high school. I participated in light hearted shows and musicals designed to entertain. We laughed as we performed The Mouse That Roared , and sang our hearts out during The Sound of Music . We attempted to write our own musical based on the Poe story, The Masque of the Red Death,because…well I have no idea why we chose a horror story about a plague to frame a musical. Whatever the reason, the product was, if I may be generous, very weak.

So when I think high school drama, I think escapism. But that’s not what The Circle Game is. Instead, our students shined a light on their own experiences as Hispanic youth going to school and growing up in the inner city. In a thirty-five minute performance, the students addressed stereotypes and reality, and offered the viewer insight into their own experiences and identity.

Here’s a little bit of what these high school dramatists offered the audience:

In the school classroom scene, a disconnected white teacher focused on only one student, who the instructor believed cared about learning, while essentially ignoring the rest of the class. The teacher also tells the audience he’s glad Victor, one of his students, was arrested because life is all about choices and the student chose poorly.

A boyfriend physically abuses his girlfriend. When her friend tries to tell her she deserves better, the victim tells her friend, “I’m never going to college, I’m never going to get out of here. Who’s going to protect me? I need protection.”

One character tells the audience about being followed in a store because he’s Latino, and of being with his mother while being stopped by police and searched just in case they stole from a store. He remarked, “Society pretends we don’t even exist anyway. So I made a choice to use their fear against them, so I could feel strong”, and then he joins a local gang.

A mother returning home from a minimum wage job, exhausted, trying to talk to her son, and with fear in her voice asking “Are you going to end up like your father…dead?”

A senior girl receiving her acceptance letter to Brown University, without a scholarship, and believing she cannot go.

A gang member believing the only way to help the people he loves is by stealing money to pay the rent so his family isn’t evicted.

“I love my mom, but I can’t end up like her. I’m going to make something of myself. This world is too big for me to be stuck here.”

The play ends with a character potentially continuing the cycle of poverty when she learns she’s pregnant. And a gang member, who also happens to be a son, and a friend and a boyfriend, dies in a senseless act.

In the end, an actor looked out at the audience and asked if we, the audience, were putting them, the characters into our circle.

My eyes filled up at the end, in part because of the content, but mostly because the entire auditorium erupted with applause. All five hundred students in the audience cheered, and stood up to give the actors a standing ovation. For thirty-five minutes, we witnessed raw honesty; and the audience knew it. This play spoke to our kids, because it was an honest look at all of their lives. Every character represented someone in that audience. And it certainly wasn’t escapism, because so many of our students don’t feel like they can escape their lives.

It made me so happy to see a play that reflected our students’ experiences and it made me so sad to see our students’ experiences reflected in this play. The short scene in the classroom was painful to watch because the students were showing us what they feel in our classrooms. It was difficult to watch student beliefs about teacher instructional practices and lack of connection with students, acted out on stage.

I hear lots of talk from adults about kids who don’t care, and who are disengaged. But I also see teachers reading novels that they love, but that don’t speak to our students. I talk to frustrated teachers upset because so many students miss their first period class. But I also see older siblings dropping off younger siblings at school because parents are working the night shift and aren’t home or awake at drop-off time. I see angry boys fight, and I see the same young men cradle their mother, sister, or grandmother in the most tender moments.

We each have our own perspective on why students are or are not learning or engaged. But the students clearly have their own ideas too. And I think that’s easy to forget sometimes. It was heartbreaking to watch students tell us about what shapes who they are in this play. But it was so uplifting and wonderful to hear the strength in their voices as they told their stories.

That line, “this world is too big for me to be trapped here” reminded me of the book A Hope in the Unseen. I’ve written about it before in my contribution to blogs for educational reform. In the book, Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal writer, discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t”, or “we won’t”, or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen.” (Suskind, 1998). He retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).”

All our kids, those up on stage and those in the audience come to school each daily filled with that hope. Sometimes they wear it on their sleeves. Those that do are easy to reach and connect with in the classroom. But most do not. Their hope is hidden deep within them, and sometimes they’ve forgotten how to find it. It’s hidden beneath the fear and anger and frustration of feeling like life is happening to them and around them, instead of for them. Hope is hard to find in many of our students. But it was there for everyone to see up on that stage on Friday. Despite our students’ shared experiences of poverty and feeling forgotten and uncared for by society, they dream of a better day, of choices and of opportunity.

As the students cheered, I thought about how brave the kids were to write and perform this play. I often think about the courage it takes to teach and lead in inner-city schools, but I forget sometimes about the courage it takes to come to school every day, when a hope for something better seems out of reach. Our kids have courage, and strength, and dignity, and hope. It’s our responsibility to connect with them and turn that hope into action and results. I am so proud to work with and for our students, but we have so much more to learn to ensure we do better and are better as leaders and teachers on behalf of our students.

CC Images:

Let’s start the show by David

Performance by Dark Botxy

Magdalina Sara Jungck, as a School Teacher by Wisconsin Historical Images

ParentsPstcrd_060910.jpg by Carolyn_Sewell

Reflection. By Colin Wu

…Hope… by ĐāżŦ {bad contact, no biscuit}

This is cross-posted over at Growing Good Schools

One Comment

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Eric. What a powerful example of how we need to pay attention to what students have to say. They have so much to teach us. We have so much to learn.

    March 29, 2011

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