Early in my career I was teaching in a segregated special needs classroom. For certain subjects my students were integrated into their regular grade classroom and during that time I was given the opportunity to teach a wide variety of subjects at various grade levels.
Grade four science, social and math, grade one gym and art, and junior high art and drama. Drama was taught in the basement of the school and was timetabled at the same time as french and so I had over forty students in some of the classes and the drama clubs I ran had up to eighty students one year. I had never really been allowed to explore fine arts much as a kid so it was so powerful to witness the transformative power of the arts. The most profound example was Ryan. It still get choked up twenty some years later when I think about him.
Ryan was a kid that no body wanted in their classes. Rough, somewhat mean and worst of all apathetic. He didn't care about anything. I will take attention issues, impulsivity, learning disorders of any kind, anything, over apathy. That is is the hardest thing to overcome. Ryan was apathetic. He was rarely in school and when he was he did very little. He ended up in my drama class. At first it was hard, the best days were when he wasn't there. However the group nature of drama made it challenging to figure out what to do with him when he came back. But he started to show up. More and more, almost to the point of regularity. He would skip all his other classes and show up to drama. I am not sure why, it was not that he really did anything. I think he simply enjoyed the entertainment. He laughed and started to give suggestions. Eventually he started to get involved, as much as involved could look for him at the time. In the spring, as the drama teacher I was asked to coordinate something for the open house. The goal being to advertise and bring in more students. I called a meeting of any grade 9 students that were interested in doing something for the open house. To my surprise and horror, Ryan came. My first thought I realized was not, no way, but what the heck am I going to do with him? I was so happy he showed up but clueless as to what he could do. So I did what I do now when I don't know what to do. I asked him, "What do you want to do?"
I did not realize but somehow through the drama students, Ryan, had developed quite a reputation for rapping. I guess he was considered very good at it. The others that showed up to put something together knew this and calmed my unspoken fears by not only praising his ability but coming up with an idea that would fit a rap into it. I had no choice but to agree. My next thought was, how am I going to sell this to the principal. The kids were excited though, so i rode their wave. They decided to take a popular song and rewrite the words. They added lyrics all about the virtues of the school and how awesome it was. I was thoroughly impressed as it was way beyond my ability as a non musician. They added a space in the song where Ryan got to break into a rap. I had to set some parameters in that I had to be able to see all the lyrics and approve them before we would commit to the idea. I was nervous and a big part of me was already trying to figure out what was going to happen when I told him he couldn't be in it. I didn't need to do that. I was blown away. The rap was really good. I don't know whether he had help or not, but he had aspects of the school in it that I had no idea he was even aware of. There was one line that touched me in particular. It was something about teachers who care that let you be who you are. I realized that is what I was doing. I was letting Ryan be who he was, but I was also allowing others to celebrate who he was as well. The principal was not very excited about the idea of giving Ryan a microphone in front of 150 grade 6 students. He almost flatly refused. I begged and pleaded and he finally trusted me. I was so grateful and I now understand the magnitude of that trust.
I was so nervous. During rehearsal to an empty gym he messed up and swore right into the mic. Barely breathing and dripping sweat, I told him that wasn't allowed to do that. He apologized and tried again. That was huge. He didn't flip out and leave blaming others for his mistake. He just apologized and tried again.
Then the students came. Ryan was nervous, I was probably more nervous. The principal looked like he was near to a heart attack. They were amazing.
The students that were singing performed it like the popular bands of the day. The 'hot' one sat on the stage crooning to the audience while the others carefully executed choreographed dance moves. The students loved it. Then Ryan jumped in and started his rap right on cue. The kids went crazy, they clapped and cheered so hard when it was done, it was deafening. Ryan felt like a rock star and I let go of the breath I didn't know I was holding.
It was a lesson to me on empowerment that I will never forget. I don't know what ever happened to Ryan but I know he walked a little taller that day.
The image was taken from google images to represent the Ryan experience.