What I Just Learned from High School Students

PlaysIt happens this way …

During the past week, Kathy and I had the pleasure of going to Reynolds High School in Troutdale and to David Douglas High School in Portland to see their latest musicals. Reynolds staged the Broadway version of the Little Mermaid while David Douglas did the same with Holiday Inn.

To say that the music, staging, costumes, singing, dancing, and energy were outstanding would be an understatement. Ever since I taught at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, NJ, a lifetime ago, I knew that high school productions could be on a par with those done by professionals. (Sister Pauline was a brilliant director who called the best out of her casts.)

So it has thrilled me over the last five decades to see talented young people committed to the passion and discipline it takes to perform at such a high level.

Maybe because I have been listening to Brené Brown and her research on shame and vulnerability on You-Tube, I was smacked in the face with a lesson I need to learn from some of the young men and women on stage.

Here’s the backstory: Growing up in the ‘50s, I felt body-shamed for being overweight. Luckily, I went to Catholic schools where uniforms saved me from having to find clothes that could cover some of my heft.

However, one day the principal of my high school called me up on stage in front of an assembly of girls in my freshman class. As I walked across the stage, I heard her say to the group, Now here’s how a chubby girl wears her uniform correctly.

 Get the picture? Shame upon shame.

Now, fast forward to last week: on both high school stages, there were young women as well as young men who would probably be considered overweight. Whether they played lead roles or were in choruses, it was obvious to me that, whatever their size or shape, they didn’t allow body-shame to stop them from singing and dancing their talented hearts out. And talented they were!

There was one young woman in the chorus at David Douglas who so reminded me of me at her age that I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. As she danced with different male partners and appeared in a variety of form-fitting costumes, there was a grace and ease about her that made me tear up.

Of course, I don’t know what her life is like off stage, but throughout her performance on that stage, she exuded a self-confidence that would put shame to shame.

I’ve known people who have felt ashamed because they were too thin, too tall, too short, too whatever.  Maybe we should start a #TooWhatever movement for all of us who don’t feel right about who we are and where we are right now – not merely in terms of body image, but in terms of what we can offer each other and our world.  I’ll be thinking about this in the weeks to come. Shame has lived in my personal space for too long! And, if anyone is interested in heading up this movement, let me know!

PS: I’m just learning about Brené Brown and her extraordinary research on shame and vulnerability via programs on You-Tube. When you have time, take a look. She will change your life!


Breaking with Charity

It happens this way …

UnknownBy some strange You-Tube happenstance, I came across the conversation Tara Westhover, the author of Educated, had with Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 26, 2019.

I had written a blog (“Stunned into Understanding”) about Tara’s moving, yet disturbing book last October so I was eager to see her and hear her voice.

In case you haven’t read Educated yet – and seriously think about doing so – here’s the blurb The Aspen Institute used to introduce the conversation:

Raised by uncompromising survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover survived extreme adversity, from never being allowed to go to school, to suffering serious physical injuries (and a dad that prohibited doctors or hospitals), to being at the mercy of a volatile and often abusive older brother. How did she not only make it through this childhood, but ultimately achieve success at the highest levels? How does she look back on her childhood and her family? What has she learned from her incredible and improbable journey?

Tara is a lovely, self-effacing, authentic, and oh-so-intelligent young woman. She earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge without ever getting a GED. When she entered Brigham Young University at age seventeen, she had never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement. From reading a book on her father’s shelf, she thought that slavery was bad because it was so hard on slave owners. Hence, her need to become “educated”!

Among the many things that struck me about Tara was her empathetic understanding of some of the current divisions our country is experiencing. Since she now lives in New York City but returns from time to time to her home in Idaho, she is amazed how the urban/rural divide is based on distorted misunderstandings each group has about the other.

She used a phrase I had never heard before: the breaking with charity. (I jumped for a pen to write it down so I could research it more.) As Tara mentioned, the phrase goes back to the Salem witch trials.

According to one Google entry,

It refers to the moment when two members of the same group break apart and become different tribes. In Salem, the break occurred when some among a group of young women accused others of being witches. When you break charity, bonds of trust and truth are shattered and everything good thing you have done is affected.

What is broken may be mended but it will never regain its original strength. In truth, it cannot be unbroken. Think about political commentary and the words we throw at each other today.

How many ways have we “broken with charity” these past few years over politics, religion, family, schools, whatever? Rather than throwing words at each other, we’ve forgotten to sharpen our listening skills so we can at least understand the reality others live in and the beliefs they hold on to. It may not be our reality – and we certainly don’t have to embrace those beliefs – but we may become more charitable empathizers in the process.

This is what I’m going to be thinking about this week.

PS: If you listen to the Westhover/Goldberg conversation, don’t miss Tara’s singing at the end. It’s glorious!