Photo Credit: Fort Meade via Flickr, CCL 2012
I always cry when I tell this story. Then I feel embarrassed because it was 16 years ago and I really should be able to get through it without tears, for goodness sake. But I never make it. Maybe after you read the story you’ll understand why.
As I have shared during my series about working with challenging students, I spent a year early in my career struggling with Kevin: a very challenging student. (Follow the links at the bottom of this post to catch up on the story.)
The helpful professors had come and gone. I was using all of their recommended strategies and things were progressing nicely. Kevin was still my most challenging student, but we had settled into a much healthier rhythm. We had connected. He was working independently for longer periods of time, he was less restless due to the increased movement opportunities I provided, and he was much more engaged in my lessons due to the active student response techniques I was implementing. In fact, Kevin was making enough progress that I was finally feeling good about sending him on to the next grade. However, there was still one lingering issue: Kevin didn’t have friends.
He was getting along better with his peers, but I still noticed that there were no easy interactions between him and the other children. His misbehavior early in the year seemed to have earned him a certain negative stigma; the other kids avoided him. I tried to encourage some friendships but Kevin still struggled with “friendly” behavior. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Spring arrived, and with it a special artist-in-residence opportunity for my class. We were going to spend a week working in a Drama-focused residency. Each day the children would receive a session with our Drama teacher and his guest- a mime who was going to teach the children about physical acting and comedy. There would be a show for the whole school on Friday afternoon showcasing what they had learned.
Things were going quite well, and then on Wednesday Jeff (the drama teacher) approached me and said, “Steve (the mime) wants to use Kevin for a solo role in the show. We’ll need a few extra rehearsals with him before Friday afternoon. Are you OK with that?”
It was a long time ago, but I’m quite sure my jaw dropped to the floor. “Kevin? You mean… KEVIN???”
Jeff nodded, “Steve sees something special in him. It’s OK with me if it’s OK with you.”
I replied with something like, “Sure. It’s your show!” I was not hopeful that this would end well.
Friday afternoon rolled around and we all filed into the cafe-gym-atorium. I had butterflies thinking about Kevin and his “special role.” I knew that he was in the last scene and prayed that he wouldn’t ruin the show.
The 3rd grade classes took the stage and performed some short sketches. They had learned a lot about physical comedy during one week! They were funny and the school applauded. Finally, they all came down to sit in the audience and the curtain opened for the finale.
Kevin was on the stage alone, pushing a janitor’s broom. Steve (the mime) came out from the other side, pushing his own broom. They did the old trick of sweeping until they backed into each other and jumped in shock. Kevin was doing well. He looked a little nervous to me, but he was playing his part. Then Steve turned on a jam-box (remember those?) and hip hop music started playing. He did a little dance step while sweeping and looked at Kevin. Kevin did his own dance step while sweeping and looked at Steve. Steve did a little more dancing and looked back at Kevin. Get it? It was going to be a dance off.
Was it ever. They danced with the brooms. They threw the brooms away and danced by themselves. They went back and forth- throwing down the dance moves until they were both up there looking like Soul Train. It was absolutely hilarious. The whole school was roaring. I laughed until I cried.
The act ended and Steve and Kevin came to the edge of the stage and took a bow. Spontaneously, the entire student body rose to its feet and cheered wildly. For Kevin.
And then I just cried. I am crying now as I type this and remember.
If you could have been there with me and felt the power of that moment, you would cry too. Kevin’s axis shifted that day. I watched it happen as he stood there on that stage and gazed out at 500+ people who were clapping and stomping and cheering him on. I watched it happen when he rejoined our class and his peers clustered around him and asked for his autograph. I watched it happen as I witnessed him receiving real acceptance and approval from his classmates for the first time. His face lit up with true joy and I knew Kevin had received an affirmation he had desperately needed for years.
It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced as a teacher. To see a child’s light ignited like that is a precious gift beyond words.
Kevin moved on to 4th grade, and then 5th. I won’t say everything was easy from that point on; Kevin still had his challenges. He could still be a handful. But he was different. The raw edges were gone. His 4th and 5th grade teachers told me he was doing much better- functioning as a member of the class.
I ran into Kevin several years later. He was with his mom and they were walking past me at the mall. We recognized each other at the same moment and stopped to speak. Kevin was shy but polite. His mom said he was in 8th grade and was doing well in school. I told him I was proud of him. I told him I would never forget him. He smiled and looked down at the ground and his mom shouted a laugh, “I bet you won’t!”
And I never will.
Kevin: Poster Child for the power of the arts. The arts save.
Post Script: Every few weeks I read a new study that links the arts to improved student achievement. It seems that the data is showing that the arts improve academic achievement, test scores, attitudes, attendance, and behavior. They say that the arts are especially powerful for low-income, academically struggling, and/or ESL students. They say that arts-based experiences can even alter the way children see their world and themselves in it.
I love these studies, but I already knew it. I saw it happen to Kevin.
Prior Posts in this Series: