THE BLOG
06/27/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2011

'Guys and Dolls' in the South Bronx: Learning to See the (Real) Value of Arts Education

A few days ago I got an email that changed everything.

It's been a full month--and a seemingly endless succession of graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, awards ceremonies and fundraising benefits--since the kids I teach in the South Bronx put on our school's annual spring musical, the 1950's classic, Guys and Dolls. This year's rehearsal process served up an especially overwhelming array of challenges and behind-the-scenes mayhem, all intensified by the parallel unfolding of my second pregnancy. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our 100-day countdown to opening night.)

"So, after all of that dramatic build-up..." you might be wondering, "how did the actual show go? (And why has it taken you so damn long to write about it?)"

Well, if you had asked me last week, before the email arrived, I might have heaved an exhausted sigh and launched into what, in the end, would've amounted to a sob story.

For starters, I would've told you that due to insane scheduling conflicts, our opening night performance was the first time we'd ever had the whole cast together, so it ran more like a dress rehearsal than an actual show, with huge chunks of missed dialogue, brutally slow pacing, and countless costume and prop malfunctions.

I'd have gone on to tell you that the following night's performance, despite big improvements in overall energy, was still plagued by major problems, not the least of which was a case of vocal strain so intense for one of our male leads that by the second act he could barely talk, let alone sing.

And then I would have hit you with the real zinger and told you that fifteen minutes before the sold-out crowd came in on closing night--after the vocally-challenged male lead had been given a cortisone shot in the neck by the only voice specialist in Manhattan willing to treat a young man from the South Bronx with no insurance on a last-minute, walk-in basis, and I was finally letting out a sigh of relief, thinking we were poised to redeem ourselves by putting on the show of our lives--the lighting designer raced up to me breathless and panicked to tell me that the dimmer rack had blown out and that 85% of the lights were now not working at all, after which I might have told you that when I emerged from the utility closet two minutes later (following a brief but violent explosion of all the built-up tears I'd managed to hold at bay over the preceding four months) I found that the leader of our set crew had transformed a hastily-assembled army of crew kids into an impromptu lighting team who would now have to operate the dimmer rack manually from backstage, each one of them sticking a finger into one of the switches and pressing down hard to recreate some semblance of the original lighting design for each scene, which, though it didn't yield foolproof results--(halfway through Act II the lights started flickering because Shakeel's hands went into muscle spasms and he couldn't keep pressure on his switch)--nevertheless got us through the show.

At this point, I would have confessed to you that by the time the kids took their bows on closing night, jumping and dancing and beaming with pride, all I wanted to do was go home and fall down.

I would have acknowledged that although I put on a brave face over the next few weeks while the students happily reminisced about their accomplishments, I was still internally obsessing over everything that had gone wrong.

In the end, I would have admitted that for the longest time, even the simple act of sitting down to write this blog post felt so physically overwhelming to me that for weeks I haven't been able to force myself to chronicle what--despite objective signs of positive outcomes and reminders from supportive friends and family that this work is about process not product--still felt to me like a disappointment.

2011-06-26-GND2.jpg But if you asked me right now, at this moment, I would have a very different answer for you... all because of a simple email from our photographer that finally allowed me to pull back and catch a glimpse of what we had created from an objective outsider's perspective.

The change happened immediately, as soon as I opened the email and clicked the link to the gallery of photos. 2011-06-26-GND11.jpg I moved through the images, my heart started racing, and click after click, I felt the weight and exhaustion of the last six months loosen their grip and spiral off me, leaving a fresh new feeling of excitement in their place.

I clicked faster, image after image, amazed at the force of this unexpected perspective-shift, flooded with waves of satisfaction and pride...2011-06-26-adelaide.jpg

Because, yes, there may have been lighting problems...

Click.

2011-06-26-sky.jpg And yes, there was the cortisone shot, and the crazy scheduling...

Click. Click.

Not to mention one of our male leads being expelled from school just over a month before opening night because of an illegal act he committed on a school-sponsored trip...

The kids crying after being kicked out of the show due to failing grades...

2011-06-26-GuysDollsselects2624.jpgThe late nights agonizing over whether my decision to give the actor playing Sky another chance had motivated a struggling student to get his grades up and graduate, or taught a slick kid to game the system...

Click. Click. Click.

Yes, there were actors who missed rehearsals because they got jumped in the park...

Because they had to visit family members in prison...

Because their mothers had to work and no one else could look after their siblings...

Because two of their friends were shot and killed at a party on a Saturday night...

Click. 2011-06-26-GND7.jpg

All of these things are true.

And yet...

Looking at these photographs...

Those truths receded and made room for me to step back, really see at what we accomplished, and remember why we started this program in the first place.

2011-06-26-GND4.jpg When I look at these pictures...

I see integrity.

I see determination.

Most of all, I see joy.

2011-06-26-GND8.jpg And last Friday afternoon, after I showed the kids a full slideshow of photographs at our end-of-year wrap-up celebration, I was forced to widen my perspective even further. I found myself surrounded by a roomful of engaged, inspired young people who, even after a long and draining year, were chomping at the bit to get started on summer programming, research shows for next year, and step into leadership roles when I go on maternity leave in the fall.

2011-06-26-GND12.jpg Listening to them speak about what they had learned from putting on the show, I got a fresh outlook on a process whose value--I can now see clearly--undeniably transcends all of the frustration, heartbreak and exhaustion it may have entailed.

Thomas Sosa, an 11th grader who before this year had never been in a play before, summed it up well.

"I think the biggest thing I learned this year is that faith in your work goes a really long way," he said, "especially when there are major challenges you have to overcome to get to that end product."

Amen, Thomas Sosa.

After a year that tested my faith as an educator in countless ways, I'm beyond grateful to be wrapping up the year on that note... and to be working at a school that supports creative education.

*
As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school's administration.

Special thanks to my dear friend, photographer/videographer extraordinaire, Alejandro Duran (all photo credits). www.alejandroduran.com