When I was twelve years old I took a test to gain access to one of three pilot high schools in the New York City public school system. I was a catholic school kid, educated by nuns and somehow on a spring day in 1972, I was called down to the principal’s office by Sister Mary Roberts, who informed me that I had gained admission to Stuyvesant High School. I was excited to be freshman in one of New York City’s elite public schools but soon came to realize that my catholic school education did not provide the groundwork for abstract concepts like science and algebra. My parochial education in Science was essentially “God made it, what else do you need to know?” So I found myself as a freshman awash in a sea of alien concepts, mysterious zygotes, signs, cosines; a complete illiteracy regarding algebra and biology. So I went from being the bright light of my class at St. Joseph’s to a completely lost ingrate, a failure, a C- student. Needless to say I did not feel very good about myself. I was lucky, and blessed to find refuge in the one subject I stood a chance with; English. In this class, taught by a man named Thomas Dolan, I was encouraged to participate in a drama club. Before I knew it, and perhaps as a means to a survival of my ego, I immersed myself in theatre. By the end of my freshman year I was performing an improvised bit, making out with myself on roller skates and getting huge laughs in front of an assembled audience of my brainy peers. Whatever shred of talent I had at the time enabled me a way to feel good about myself, it gave me a reason to believe, a reason to hold on, to stay in school.
I don’t have hard statistics but I would venture to guess that at least twenty to thirty percent of students that enter high schools across our country do not possess an inherent proficiency in mathematics or science. Yet a shocking number of those children do not have the same outlet that I had. Hundreds of thousands of children, (if not millions) are as lost as I was, but do not have access to an alternative education in the arts that might provide them with a reason to feel good about themselves, the kind of connection or hope that would keep a young, creative mind stimulated and involved, arts programs that, for some of our children, provide the only reason to get up in the morning and go to school.
About 15 years ago, in the state of California in an effort to balance the state budget a group of troglodyte politicians decided that the way to fiscal responsibility was to severely reduce funding for arts education in our public school system. Throughout the state the first subjects to be cut from curriculum were music, visual arts, and theatre, not to mention physical education. Thankfully, groups like the National Guild for Community Arts Education were there to respond to this startling lack of vision by creating programs that attempted to help maintain public school students access to arts education. Yet as noble an effort as this organization makes it is a Sisyphean challenge to be living in a state that is depriving its children of a basic human right; the right to a fully comprehensive education that acknowledges the encouragement of a child’s creativity as a fundamental necessity in the education of that child.
Our current education policy is not only detrimental to a child’s education; it is a threat to the safety and health of the society at large. My pursuit of my theatrical voice as a freshman and sophomore in high school was the only reason I had any enthusiasm to go to school. Depriving 20 to 30% of our children a passion that may keep them interested in their own education is in essence giving up on those children. It is basically eliminating the sole reason that many of those children may have to stay involved with their education. I have personally seen and met with hundreds of children whose lives have been turned around by art. The 15 and 16 year old poets, from GetLit who through their involvement with this organization have reignited their commitment to their own education. It wasn’t the government that made this happen. It was the passion and belief of an individual, a young mother and actress named Diane Luby Lane that made Get Lit happen. It was her vision and her relentless pursuit of funding for her vision that created an outlet to inspire the kids that the state of California had left behind. I’ve seen young poets from that organization go from alienated youth, to college bound scholarship students. It doesn’t take much. Hold a light out and they will find their way. Organizations such as Get Lit and the National Guild for Community Arts Education are holding an essential light out so that children have an illuminated path away from gangs and the fast track to the prison system that is all too prevalent in the state of California. In the last 20 years we have built 22 prisons in this state and only 2 universities. I have been inside prisons with the Actors’ Gang and our work in the Prison Project and I have seen the tangible result of the backward thinking, failed policy of our politicians. I have seen men and women sucked into a culture of drugs and despair by a society that has failed them. I’ve been appalled to understand from conversations with inmates that our work with them is their first exposure to any kind of creative outlet and that their schooling had no time or attention paid to art, music or theatre. And I have seen how even a brief exposure to a creative outlet within the prison walls has the potential to completely transform a disenfranchised, resentful, former gang member into a creative being with a light in their eyes and a resilient hope in their heart. I have seen how art can transform even the most cynical, and I have been inspired by what I thought would be the impossible. I have seen people who society have thrown aside and given up on become masters of their emotions in an effort to undo the damage that their mistakes have wrought. I have witnessed in our prison project and in our work in the public school system that art can truly transform lives. Art truly has the potential to shift perspective, to fundamentally change the way one approaches their life. Art has the ability to change ones moral compass, to make an individual accept personal responsibility for their actions and to turn hardened cynics into open hearted leaders of men and women.
We have a lot of work to do still. I am sure everyone in this room knows that we can’t fix the problems we have overnight, but I have hope that the tide has shifted in the way our we think about education and it’s connection to the holistic health of the society at large. I have hope that people across the political spectrum now understand that it is not acceptable that we as an advanced nation are incarcerating two million of our people, a rate that is higher than any country per capita in the world. The people of California understand this. We just voted to pass one of the most forward thinking pieces of public policy in recent history, Prop 47. This Proposition will reduce sentencing for non-violent offenders and use the money saved to fund programs that benefit the education and mental health of young people throughout the state.
Although helpful, Prop 47 will not fix all the problems we are facing here in California.
I think everyone in this room knows that the most efficient way to reduce our prison population and motivate students toward a more productive experience in school is by providing a better and more visionary education for our young people. However, until the state gets wise enough and significantly increases the budget for comprehensive arts education in all of its public schools, it will be up to us to bridge the gap, to be creative and relentless in creating programs that make up for the state’s lack of vision. We know fundamentally that the essence of an advanced fair society is held in the concept that we leave no one behind, that every child is deserving of the kind of education that all of us in this room have had the benefit of receiving and that it is our responsibility to make sure that that happens with all of our efforts and resources. I am honored to be acknowledged here today, but in receiving this I am mindful that there is so much good work being done by so many good and generous souls that are not standing at this podium and so I accept this in the name of all of those good people that are working for change. From the elementary school teacher that purchases art supplies from her own salary to give to her students to the good souls that contribute money to support arts programs, to the volunteers that mentor young poets and turn young lives around by their commitment and generosity. The great secret about doing this kind of work, about volunteering your time and your talent to help illuminate the possibilities in a young person’s mind is that the inspiration you receive from these young people might actually be more potent to you than it is for the kids. There is a great life force that exists when you witness a person traveling from darkness to light. I would encourage everyone in this room that has not had that experience to find a way towards volunteering and helping out whether it be in your local public school or in after school programs, or tutoring in a community center or building a set for a school play. There is so much work that needs to be done but the good news is that fundamental change in the way we approach arts education is a totally achievable goal, a goal that has rich benefits for all involved. We are the leaders that will make this happen. We will not let our children’s minds remain uninspired. We will carry on with our vision of a just and equal approach to the education of our children. We will not wait for our leaders to catch up to us. We will not be content with mind numbingly slow, pragmatic solutions to a crisis we understand to be imminent and dangerous. We will make change happen by constant pressure and by relentless advocacy. We will pass our own Proposition that requires mandatory access to arts education in all of our public schools. Someone in this room will write that proposition. Who in this room will advocate for its passage? Who in this room will contribute time and resources to ensure that it passes? Who in this room will vote yes on mandatory access to arts education?
And when the troglodytes do catch up, when our leaders finally understand that arts education is an essential and necessary part of a child’s development, when statewide comprehensive programs are provided in the arts that leave no child behind, let us have the grace and improvisational skills and the open hearted empathy that we have been blessed to learn from our own arts education to applaud our leaders for their vision and forward thinking policy. This will happen. We will achieve this goal. Thank you all for your good efforts, hard work, and commitment to a cause that is essential to our future. Thank you Malissa. Your relentless advocacy and persistence for arts education is an inspiration for me. And thank you National Guild for Community Arts Education for your good work. And thanks to Thomas Dolan, my high school English teacher and all the teachers and volunteers that have had the vision to see the individual within the child as essential and have taken the time to point those kids in a direction that is good for who they are and who they can become rather than crippling them in the expectation of curriculums that are choking them. Soon we will understand, as a society, that holding a light up for one child is not enough, that our civic responsibility is to see to it that every child has the capacity and the confidence to light their own path, and to leave us stunned, inspired and applauding in their wake.