Teaching Seventeen-Year-Olds

by shewastheyoungamerican

It’s a strange thing, to teach students less than a decade younger than me. There are multitudes in that eight-year difference. For the past four weeks I have been teaching workshops on Verbatim Theatre with Look Left Look Right Theatre Company at the Brit School (It’s sort of like Fame in England. Adele is an alumni).  What I have found most striking about the experience is how old 17 seems to be. It might have something to do with the fact that it’s the Brit School and things like dress codes and calling teachers by Mr. or Ms. don’t exactly apply.

I’ve taught 17-year-olds before. In 2011 I co-directed an after school drama program at Parkway Center City High School in Philadelphia. That was a wholly different school – uniforms, lots of rules, and “bad” kids. Though none of my kids were bad, they were wonderful. Regardless of who they were from 7am – 3pm, they were theatre kids when they stepped into our space. I loved knowing that. I can only hope that the time they spent with us developed who they were and their ambitions in their different worlds.

Then, I think back to when I was 17 – what my life and my high school was like. I was about 30 pounds heavier than I am now and was not-surprisingly mocked and tortured for it by a small group of bullies. But, that wasn’t my whole experience. It’s now a small tinge of pain, knowing how cruel people can be to one another – especially knowing that I now teach people that age and those sorts of things are probably happening to a lot of them.


My best friend Tinuke and me when we were 17. She lives in LA now and is going to be famous.


My high school was also the kind of place where we weren’t allowed to carry purses, book bags, go to our lockers during class, go outside, or get anything from our cars. We had to sign contracts of behavior rules and consequences if we wanted to have an “outsider” as our date to the prom. We had cops and security guards at every corner. We were sent home a few times for guns found in lockers and even a few bomb threats.  And then, of course, we had “the riot.” More than 20 students were arrested in one day due to a massive gang fight. The cops ran out of handcuffs and had to use plastic ties. There were helicopters, for chrissake. That came to define Norristown Area High School for a long, long time.

My personal belief is that if you make a school to be like a prison, then the students are going to act like criminals. I would have soaked up the opportunity to work with a professional theatre company when I was in high school. I wanted to learn. I looked forward to specialized classes because it meant the people who were there wanted to be there – and we wouldn’t lose 30 minutes each period to discipline. I had some incredible teachers, some of which still teach there. Their dedication and un-wavering hope in their students is worth the world. However, the school was a system of punishment. Everything had consequences, and rarely were they good. We received few awards for our achievements. Rather, we were slapped with more rules year after year.  Sadly, NAHS had become so out of control, I think the school had to succumb to that sort of structure.

Yes, there is a responsibility of the parent, a responsibility of the teacher, and a responsibility of the individual to face the challenges of a difficult school. However, I also believe it’s up to the schools and districts to enable environments where students and teachers can breathe.  If you set up the expectation of bad behavior and failure, then the students will meet that. If you have faith in individuals, pay your teachers what they deserve to be paid, reward students for excelling and make failure to be the exception, rather than the rule, then teachers could teach and students could learn. Standardized tests are flawed – giving students numerical values of their worth. And it always comes down to time, and especially money.

So, when I walk through the halls of the Brit School, and hear music ringing out from the studios or pass by black box theatre spaces where young people are learning about Brecht, I just hope they appreciate what they have. These kids have the freedom to be expressive. What I envy the most is that they are treated like individuals, people with unique talents and ambitions. I know my 17-year-old experience was rare, not every school in America is violent or failing.  However, I do know that I was lucky. From a very young age I had teachers who recognized my potential. They went above and beyond the call of duty to nurture creativity and intellectual curiosity.

Sure, I think it’s a little weird that Brit School students get away with cursing and teachers don’t bat an eye at a mini skirt (I’ve been shocked at my own “conservative” reaction to some things) – but I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in a place where and entire school believed that much in its students.  We need to keep challenging young people, as 17 continues to become older and older. The precipice of adulthood is meeting them sooner than I remember it did for me.  And when I see them outside, being with their friends, being 17, I see that they are still just kids – and I have so much more to learn.