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63 APRIL 2004
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from the soapbox

To be or not to be: Arts programs pave the way

Karen vanderVen

We hear the notion of “the rest of the story” as pioneered by the famous broadcaster Paul Harvey, and about “the moral of the story”. So here is a story with both “the rest” and a “moral”. An actress strode on stage and announced that she would give a soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. Then she began. I was in the audience. My mouth dropped open and I sat transfixed. She had the dramatic inflection of a Helen Hayes, the enunciation of an Oxford professor, and the bodily grace of a Martha Graham as she accentuated her spoken lines with decisive gestures. Her voice reverberated from the back of the theatre. When with a flourish she finished there was a miniscule moment of stunned silence before the audience applauded. Talent. Discipline. Presence. This young woman had them all.

Now, the rest of the story:

Short and round, this 13-year-old eighth grader appeared an unlikely Juliet. Her leather mini-skirt, tight high boots and closely fitting T-shirt may have been de rigeur for a high school freshman but not for a romantic historical figure. It would have been easier to imagine her sprawled at the back of a classroom, chewing a wad of gum and checking her watch to see how soon class would be over and she could hang out on a street corner.

However, she had been prepared by a community-based arts program for inner city children and youth. She had been prepared by it for entrance into a city wide Shakespeare solioquy contest and tonight some of participants were giving a performance.

The moral of the story:

Certainly it could be “don’t judge a book by its cover”. I am taught this over and over as I encounter various youth whose gum chewing, cell phone chatting, tattoos, and rock-band emblazoned t-shirts definitely hide the interesting, caring and talented young people that lurk behind these markers of today’s youth culture. But that’s not the real point of this month’s Soapbox.

What this incident underscored for me again is the immense power of an organized sequence of challenging and creative activities conducted by supportive and committed adults for enabling youth to discover their talents and set a different, undoubtedly more positive trajectory for their lives.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about activities and how important they are.

But what I haven’t stressed as much is the importance of rigor, formality and serious content. Youth want adults to teach and guide, and at times even to criticize them if it leads them towards greater knowledge and skills. Their self-esteem is not destroyed. Rather it is built as they discover new capacities, increase their self-regulatory ability and have their horizons extended.

To be or not to be? There is no doubt that arts programs and the activities they offer help youth “be” – the best that they can.

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